Tourism transition: Survey shows that times, they are a changin’

By BOB MAYES
Managing Editor, The Mountain Press

SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. — Dec. 26, 2010 — Laura Hall grew up in Canada, then moved to Florida, married and now has a 9-year-old son.

Rick Laney (right) shoots a segment for the Travel Channel about the Smoky Mountains Region with Aiden Eads and Christine Eads.

When her sister, who also lives in Florida, proposed a family reunion in eastern Tennessee as winter was approaching, Laura and her husband Andy and son Ansley came on board.

“I was hoping for mountains, scenery and snow, and I got mountains, scenery and snow,” said Hall, whose family was visiting the Sevier County from Palatka, near St. Augustine, for the first time. “There was lots of snow, especially when we were coming through the national park.”

The Halls are typical of what the Ackermann public relations firm found when it did an independent survey to find out trends about the Smoky Mountains. Ackermann found that what Bob Dylan first sang about in 1964 rings true: The times, they are a changin’.

What Ackermann, headquartered in Knoxville, didn’t know was how much, and the agency wanted to find out the latest trends on tourism in the Smoky Mountains — one of things Ackermann learned was that a large percentage of visitors surveyed were coming here for the first time.

The year-long survey was conducted from spring 2007 through spring 2008, in an effort to define what “the Smoky Mountains” meant to tourists.

“The typical tourist to the Smoky Mountain region doesn’t know or care where Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, Asheville, Knoxville or Hendersonville start or stop,” senior account executive Rick Laney said.

“If they travel hundreds of miles by car or by air, they want to take in everything that eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina has to offer.”

In recent months, Laney has consulted and worked with Travel Channel, MTV Productions, National Geographic Television and countless regional travel shows.

Ackermann estimates the actual number of annual visitors to Sevier County to be just under 11 million. That figure includes visitors from surrounding counties who may come to Sevier to shop, dine out or go to an attraction or show, and then return to their homes the same day.

Laney said there are two primary reasons the times have been changing in Sevier County — and in the Smoky Mountain region tourism industry.

“Number one, we were seeing a different type of tourist,” he said. “We started doing some surveying just in Sevier County, and what we were finding was that at the newer attractions — not just the ones we represent — nearly half, 41 percent, had never set foot in East Tennessee.

“The second part was that we also saw they were not following the typical seasonal patterns. Part of that change was due to changing school schedules and that we have more to offer people in what used to be the ‘off season.’

“With changing school schedules (more regions going to year-round school systems) and with more year-round attractions being built in the region, we have essentially become a year-round destination.”

Among the revelations from the survey:

–  First-time visitors to East Tennessee at the higher-end ($150 and up per night) resorts/lodging equal 41 percent.

–  First-time visitors to East Tennessee at the newer attractions (less than three years old) equal 38 percent.

–  The new visitors are coming from far more affluent ZIP codes (wealthier suburbs of Atlanta, Indianapolis, Nashville, Charlotte, etc.) than in the past.

–  The new visitors are coming in larger groups (averaging 4.8 visitors per group as opposed to the 3.7 overall in this region).

–  January to March traffic from first-time visitors was very heavy when compared to “traditional” vacation timing patterns.

–  A far higher percentage of first-time visitors flew into the area as opposed to driving in.

–  While recent visitation numbers for November 2010 vs. November 2009 were down (Gatlinburg was down 25 percent), the new attractions had double-digit growth (November 2010 vs. November 2009)

–  The new visitors are staying on average just over one additional day per stay.

Laney said first-time visitors do not match the historical demographic profile either — coming from more affluent communities.

“They are looking for a different experience than what Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Sevierville, and the Smoky Mountain region has offered in the past,” he said. “They do not stay stationary, and many of them are arriving by air.”

In just the last five years, Laney said, what was considered the slow season (January through March), is now booming. Whereas the higher-end resorts commonly averaged 30-40 percent occupancy during the slow season, it is now common to see 90-95 percent.

Laney is regularly asked to speak about tourism in the Smoky Mountains Region throughout the Southeast.

The “new” tourist also fits a different financial profile, Laney said. The survey shows that only 4 percent earn under $25,000 per year, while 32 percent earned $50,000 to $75,000 annually and 35 percent earned more than $75,000 annually.

“While we still see heavy activity from our primary feeder markets such as Nashville, Atlanta, Greenville, etc., we are seeing large increases from more distant cities like Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Dallas, Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia and all parts of Florida,” Laney said. “In the Smoky Mountain region, more than 56 percent of the visitors surveyed were from more than 200 miles (and) nearly 25 percent were from more than 500 miles away.”

Laney said that with the market rapidly changing, businesses that fail to evolve with it will be left behind.

“I see it all as ‘The Smoky Mountain region’ because that’s how our tourists see it,” he said. “They come for the pristine mountains, the wonderful resorts, the premier attractions and to enjoy time with their families.

“In doing so, they go to Townsend, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Knoxville, Sevierville, Asheville, Hendersonville and anywhere else their journeys take them along the back roads of this great area.

“Rarely, if ever, do they stay in one of these areas without venturing out to other destinations.”

Story courtesy of The Mountain Press – read more: The Mountain Press – Tourism transition Survey shows that times they are a changin’