Sevier County tourism numbers continue to climb
The economy of Sevier County relies on heavily on tourism and new numbers show the first seven months of 2012 were good ones.
The county even compiled better numbers than rival destinations at a time when the economy isn't known as very healthy.
State officials and business leaders are Sevier County through the end of this week for the Gov. Bill Haslam's conference on tourism.
One aspect of the conference revealed a new tourism study, which shows more people are flocking to Sevier County and spending even more money.
"This is a huge draw for the state of Tennessee. Everything we have in Sevier County makes an impact not only in this region but nationally," said John Whiseant, executive director of the Tennessee Tourism Roundtable.
Steve Morse, a University of Tennessee economist, conducted a recent East Tennessee tourism study for the first seven months of 2012. He said 2012 has been a "wonderful" year for tourism in Sevier County, when compared to other destination spots such as Myrtle Beach, S.C. and Branson, Mo.
The study shows a 10.5 percent increase in hotel room sales in the county from January to July 2012 against the same period in 2011.
Myrtle Beach saw only a 4.5 percent increase. Hotel room sales in Branson decreased 1.1 percent compared to the first seven month period in 2011.
Lodging revenues are up 15 percent, or an $81 million increase from last year.
"It certainly assures that we are on the right trek with our marketing areas and helps us to know we are one of the destinations people will come to. No matter the economy, no matter the gas prices," said Vicki Simms, interim executive director of the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.
County officials claim more aggressive marketing of the area is one reason for an increase in tourism.
Pigeon Forge is home to new attractions, like the Hollywood Wax Museum and Dollywood's Wild Eagle roller coaster.
The study shows ticket sales in amusement parks are up 17 percent, totaling $84 million more in gross sales from last year.
"Because of the investment, we have here in tourism product, that's why our lodging numbers are up for lodging up. Plus we've had an aggressive marketing campaign from the city," said Pigeon Forge Tourism Director Leon Downey.
The Governor's Conference on Tourism kicked off at the Sevierville Event Center Wednesday. The three-day event brings together tourism and government leaders across the state.
"It's so important for the people for the state of Tennessee to recognize how large the tourism industry is, and how it is a strong business. It is dollars and cents," Whiseant said.
Pigeon Forge is expected to get an even bigger boost from the opening of the new $45 LeConte Center in fall 2013.
On Wednesday, the city hosted a ceremony marking the final piece of structural steel to put in place for the new event center.
The National Quartet Convention announced it will hold its annual convention at the LeConte Center. The event is estimated to bring 40,000 people.
"This building is a magnet, an economic engine for the community that allows us to bring bigger groups here that we weren't able to host previously," Downey said.
The study shows that the number of hotel rooms sold from May to June in Knoxville was less than 175,000 each month.
The city's hotel occupancy rate was less than 70 percent for those months. Those figures started above 2011 levels, then slipped below 2011 levels from May and July.
Morse describes Knoxville's tourism as a "slow summer."
"For Sevierville it means a fantastic summer vacation period," Morse said. "Even in the middle of a recession people are looking for family value vacations."
Visit Knoxville President Kim Bumpas said a number of factors, including gas prices, were to blame for weak summer.
As for Sevier County, Morse predicts similar results in 2013 with many repeat visitors.