Touting tourism in Tennessee

Susan Whittaker “sets stage” for travelers

State Commissioner of Tourism Susan Whittaker speaks to the Blount County Chamber on the importance of tourism and how the state has evolved its message.

Photo by Leslie Karnowski

State Commissioner of Tourism Susan Whittaker speaks to the Blount County Chamber on the importance of tourism and how the state has evolved its message.

Pigeon Forge is just fine being Pigeon Forge, State Commissioner of Tourism Susan Whittaker said.

“Pigeon Forge is very happy to be Pigeon Forge,” she said. “Dolly Parton will tell you how tourism has transformed the community. They did not have agriculture or industry so they used tourism to transform their community,” she said.

Whittaker was in town Oct. 15 to address the Blount County Chamber on the importance of tourism and how the state has evolved its message and how it sends its message in the eight years of the Bredesen Administration.

Whittaker talked about heritage and culture tourist – those who come to an area for its festivals, history, culture and scenic beauty versus amusement parks and related activities. “There’s always tension in the community with developing business that’s good.”

The commissioner referred to Blount County’s efforts to set itself apart by appealing to the heritage and cultural tourist. “It takes a lot of work but it’s worth it and you can take pride in that,” she said. “The heritage traveler will stay longer and spend a little more.”

In 2006, tourists spend $10.6 billion in Tennessee and four years later that figure has grown to $14.4 billion, but Whittaker said as much revenue as is generated by tourism, in the early days of the Bredesen administration, it was still a challenge to convince lawmakers they needed to spend money to sell the state to others.

“We were taking 15 percent budget cuts. My first job was convincing lawmakers this was a good investment,” she said of allocating funds for marketing the state’s tourism industry. “The legislators are inundated with people saying, ‘You need to do this and you need to do that.’”

Once lawmakers understood the importance of marketing the state, Whittaker’s team went to work. “The two attributes that kept coming back were that we own musical heritage and scenic beauty,” she said. “We came up with ‘The Stage is Set for You.’”

Whittaker said the department recruited famous musicians from across the state, including Isaac Hayes and of course, Parton.

This promotion involved Parton riding in a convertible telling viewers all they needed to know about places to visit in Tennessee as images of different destinations and attractions in the state flashed on the screen. As the commercial ends, the camera widened and an image of the late Elvis Presley is seen. “This was extremely popular. It was from the movie ‘Clambake,’” she said.

The commission then asked other celebrities to tell their stories about Tennessee, including Kix Brooks, Michael McDonald and Keith Urban.

“When we asked Keith, he talked about growing up in Australia and how he knew he wanted to go get to Tennessee because that’s where music was made,” Whittaker said.

The commissioner said the social website Facebook also added a new aspect to marketing the state and meant Whittaker had to get a Facebook page established. “Facebook has changed everything,” she said. “It’s the conversation about you that matters, not what you’re telling them. It’s about listening to them.”

Whittaker thanked those gathered at the Chamber for the lunch briefing. “There are so many stories in the state,” she said. “You are all part of tourism.”

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