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VOL. 36 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 14, 2012

Luring visitors becomes a group effort for Midstate convention, visitors bureaus

By Joe Morris

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Some people come here for the area’s Civil War battlegrounds and other historical sites. Others are on hand for the CMA festival or the country music scene in general. And then there are the tourists who come for fishing tournaments and other outdoor recreation.

But whatever brings them here, chances are it had something to do with a television spot, magazine ad or brochure put together by a convention and visitors bureau (CVB).

In Middle Tennessee, almost every county and urban area is represented by a CVB. These organizations, funded through various combinations of hotel/motel occupancy tax revenue, membership dues, and state and local government support, act as cheerleaders for their cities, counties and the entire region.

Described as “competitively collaborative” by their executives, they work independently to promote their own attractions and as a unit when it’s time to push the entire region.

The area’s CVBs also are tied together through an umbrella organization, the Tennessee Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus, further solidifying their efforts to communicate with and support each other. That’s key, because while tourism is a multimillion-dollar industry in Middle Tennessee, municipal budgets are tight and marketing dollars are harder to come by.

The Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, with a budget of more than $10 million, leads the pack. Charged with promoting events throughout Davidson County, as well as booking meetings and conventions for the existing convention center as well as the new center that’ll be coming online in 2013, the Nashville CVB uses its high profile to benefit Davidson County as well as the entire region, says Butch Spyridon, the organization’s president.

“We are the driver for the area,” Spyridon says. “Visitors don’t know where city limits and county lines are, so the more we portray what the entire area has to offer, the stronger the visitation is.”

For example, Spyridon says, Cheatham County has very few hotel rooms but much to offer in terms of recreation. The Cheatham County CVB has begun positioning itself as “Nashville’s Backyard,” a campaign that works to keep visitors here a day or two longer.

“That gives us some recreational offerings we don’t have, and gives them a destination to play off of,” Spyridon explains. “We both get more dining business, and we get more overnight business.”

Nashville’s CVB also collaborates frequently with its sister organization down south, the Williamson County Convention & Visitors Bureau. The joint efforts there revolve around Civil War and related tourism, and meet the shared goal of keeping visitors in hotel rooms as long as possible.

“We are always in competition at some level, because we’re all looking to bring in meetings and groups,” says Mark Shore, executive director of the Williamson CVB. “In our industry, we call it ‘cooper-tition.’

“But all the suburban counties here have a positive relationship with each other, as well as with Nashville. We all realize that we benefit the entire region when we each do well.”

The Williamson CVB recently became a standalone organization, a move that occurred as the three chambers of commerce in the county are collapsing into a single entity. Others function as a part of a Chamber of Commerce or a municipal economic-development department. But whatever the structure, the mission remains the same, Shores says.

“Our mission is to promote Williamson County, and as a destination marketing organization we work with our hotels and attractions to make sure that we’re promoting all they have to offer,” he says. “We’re fortunate in that we have some extremely smart, talented and educated tourism professionals in our neighboring counties. That makes our job easier, because if one DMO (destination marketing organization) is not doing well, it can make all the ones near it suffer.”

It’s easy to see when having a well-thumbed Rolodex comes in handy. Large-scale sporting events have become a key target for Rutherford County, and its CVB works to capitalize on that.

The county recently hosted 189 soccer teams for the Tennessee Cup, which filled 2,500 hotel rooms – far more than it has within its borders.

“We used every room we had, and then we went to our partners in Wilson, Williamson and Davidson counties,” says Mona Herring, executive director of the Rutherford County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We try to keep lodging local, but when you’ve got something that large, you need help. And when you can have that backup, you can keep bringing large events to your market. That’s extremely beneficial.”

Next up for Rutherford will be a TSSAA cheerleading and dance competition, and the organization is already planning for Bonnaroo 2013.

“That’s in Manchester, but we sell out every hotel room we have,” Herring says. “We’ve learned not to even try to book anything that weekend, so we benefit from something we’re not even involved with.”

The push for regional tourism is steady at the Sumner County Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is a member of the Nashville CVB and works with that group to promote itself as a destination for outdoor activities that range from fishing tournaments to zip lines, as well as a growing agritourism business.

“We benefit from partnerships,” says Barry Young, executive director, who formerly oversaw the state’s welcome-center network. “We have nine historic homes and forts here, so we can team up with historic tours. And by working with other groups as well as on our own, we can continue to demonstrate to our local officials what we do for our county and the region, and how successful we are at bringing in significant tourism revenue.”

Heading north, the efforts in Clarksville and Montgomery County are equally focused, in this case on capturing military friends and family who visit Fort Campbell and connecting them with things to do in the city, county and region.

“We do a lot with group tours and community events so that people can use us as a base of operations,” says Jessica Goldberg, marketing and communications manager for the Clarksville-Montgomery County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“But we also have large-scale youth sporting events here, and then special occasions like our Rivers & Spires Festival, which keep people just in our area.”

The Clarksville CVB also takes advantage of two regional and multistate programs, the Civil War and Screaming Eagle trails. Each brings military-oriented tourists in, and then the CVB can tie them in with other destinations in the area.

“We fall under the economic development department, and so everyone here understands what tourism does for the city, the county and the region,” Goldberg says. “Our local businesses and leaders understand the return on investment that tourism brings to the area.

“The more people come, the longer they stay and the more they spend, the better we all do. We definitely want to bring events to our coverage area, but we know that we have to ‘play nice’ with everyone else too so that we can all succeed.”

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