This story was originally published in the April/May 2013 Issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
“When the convention business is good it helps us all,” says Tom Underwood, the general manager of the Chattanooga Marriott at the Convention Center. He came to Chattanooga in January of 2012 from the Marriott of Richmond, Virginia. Underwood knows hospitality and over the years has learned what it takes to keep people coming back.
Marriott Chattanooga is adjacent to the Chattanooga Trade and Convention Center and whether the booking is for a large corporate group or a sports event, each convention brings something different.
“Corporate groups are more structured, the participants travel frequently and are more independent,” says Underwood. “Sports and fraternal events require a bit more interaction.” A large group can push occupancy in several hotels. It fills restaurants and attractions, sells tickets and increases sales in the shopping districts.
“Our Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) helps convention planners guide their groups toward appropriate activities—they are great to work with,” he adds.
Underwood has worked for Marriott hotels since he was 18, in one capacity or another. When he was in his late twenties, “before kids and house payments,” he worked as a bartender on the 39th floor of the downtown San Francisco Marriott—admittedly a glamorous location. But the recent move to Chattanooga was a good move for his family and he is happy to welcome visitors.
“The Electric Shuttle is a cost-effective way to get to riverfront attractions and safe for visitors,” says Underwood. “They like to get out and enjoy the city and do things together.” The hotel’s event management staff will help coordinate the activities of small groups.
Much of the convention business in Chattanooga is regional and, as with the large semi-annual cheerleader convention, hotel rooms will have multiple occupancy. That boosts visitor numbers to area attractions like the Creative Discovery Museum, the Tennessee Aquarium and other activities along the riverfront and even closer at hand.
“In the summer they go to the Chattanooga Market and with all the new development at Warehouse Row just a short walk away, they can enjoy the shopping and eat at the Public House—all without driving,” says Underwood.
“We’ve seen a steady increase in bookings since 2009 and we continue to grow our room occupancy rate,” says Underwood. “The CVB is always finding new opportunities for us.” Indeed, the CVB continues to cultivate growth in leisure and sports convention travel and has embarked on non-traditional and outdoor genres at both the regional and national levels. Vice President of Sales, Ed Dolliver, came on board in July, 2012 and says the booking pace is good. “We delivered 4,100 more room nights over this time last year,” says Dolliver. “That’s about three percent higher.” Yet, there is no time to rest on the positive numbers.
“Competition is as fierce for convention business as I’ve ever seen it—especially within the state,” says CVB President and CEO, Bob Doak. However, Tennessee has been extremely supportive of tourism, with Governor Haslam recently announcing his intention to boost tourism promotion funding with an additional $8 million increase, after a statewide 12-month series of open forums to hear tourism ideas.
Chattanooga organizations are not slow to create their own opportunities, however. New head of the Chattanooga Sports Committee, Tim Morgan, is currently in the midst of putting together the first Scenic City Invitational Soccer Tournament.
“This is right in our wheelbase,” says Morgan. With input from Redoubt and North River Soccer Associations and the East Ridge and Chattanooga Football Clubs—Morgan believes things are beginning to coalesce.
“Tim took on an effort that has never been pulled off before,” says Doak. “I’m excited about having this CVB team in place, so we can focus on long range plans and nontraditional groups.” The team is rounded out by Dave Santucci, vice president of marketing who is in his second year with the CVB.
“We’ve done major upgrades to the Chattanooga brand,” says Santucci. “Beginning with an Addy-winning national advertising campaign, produced by local agency, the Johnson Group.” A three-minute clip of the campaign is available on the new website and there are arts, music and outdoor versions. “Website traffic is up 50 percent and the CVB Facebook page gets about 150,000 visits, monthly,” adds Santucci.
Corporate meetings are steady, too, with Chattanooga hosting the AT&T annual shareholder’s meeting and the Volkswagen board meetings. The convention center can comfortably accommodate crowds of up to 10,000. Many corporate visitors will stay in the Hamilton Place Mall area due to its proximity to the airport, the Volkswagen complex and dining and shopping venues. New hotels are popping up in that area, with Hilton’s Embassy Suites set to open during the third week of May. General Manager Paul Mezick believes that the weekend market for hotel rooms may be stronger downtown, yet the corporate weekday market may be stronger at Hamilton Place.
“VW and its enormous supplier park has high-profile companies that bring in customers from around the nation,” says Mezick. “Add that to the influx of business customers associated with CBL and the local healthcare facilities and hotel demand rises.” Embassy Suites will also host the first Ruth Chris Steakhouse for Chattanooga, onsite.
The CVB continues to develop the outdoor, literary and music categories with annual meetings of the Southeast Wilderness Medicine Association and the Society of Environmental Journalists coming up. They are also working with a new group called the Chattanooga Music Council, which is bringing Scenic City Roots to town. Dolliver is even cultivating a deal to book a southeastern theater organization from 2015 through 2027. Long range enough?
This fall Chattanooga will host its eighth Head of the Hooch Rowing Regatta on the river, bringing almost $5 million in revenue into the city from an influx of close to 10,000 people.
“It is the largest single-site rowing regatta in the nation and the second largest overall,” says Doug Beville, Lookout Rowing Club president and local Hooch coordinator. “It’s the last big regatta of the year and most teams use it as a championship.” The staggering amount of preparation for the event is taken on by more than 20 volunteer committee managers. It takes extra effort on the part of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, along with some help from Outdoor Chattanooga and the CVB.
“The CVB has been a valuable partner for us every year,” says Beville. “I can always count on them. I can’t say enough about the cooperation it takes to put on this event.” With over 800 linear feet of dock installation, multiple road closures and four different types of government permits to obtain, he isn’t kidding.
Restaurateurs, hoteliers and shopkeepers love it, too. Sally Moses of 212 Market near the riverfront says, “The rowers are intelligent, healthy, outdoor people. It energizes this area so much and it’s great to have them here.”
Underwood gazes out through floor-to-ceiling windows from his Marriott office at the Trade Center entrance. He knows that when a group has a good first experience those participants will be back and everyone will benefit.
“It’s a rising tide,” he says. “That floats all boats.”
Photography by Katie Freeland and courtesy of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitor’s Bureau