Prior to COVID, local tourism growing

Brandi Starritt watches the Ethan Vincil Band with daughter, Macie, 2, during Rockin’ the Lot at The Venue at Lenoir City.

Numbers released recently by the Tennessee Department of Tourism suggest Loudon County fared well in 2019.

The county ranked 27th out of 95 counties for tourism economic impact, according to a 2019 Economic Impact of Travel on Tennessee Counties report. The community generated $63.92 million in direct tourism expenditures, produced $12.26 million in payroll, created $1.59 million in local tax revenue and tallied $3.92 million in state tax revenue.

“I think average growth would be about 3 percent — that’s going to be your natural growth of tourists coming in, spending money — and we saw almost a 5 percent increase,” Rachel Harrell, Loudon County Visitors Bureau executive director, said. “We absolutely attribute that to the marketing programs that we had in place and were able to bring in more people and anticipate more money.”

An average day in Loudon County last year generated $175,121.41 in daily expenditures, created $4,354.95 daily in local tax revenues and spawned $10,737.85 in daily state tax revenues, according to the state.

“We’re trying to reach those people that we know want to come here, we know who are maybe on their way to the Smoky Mountains and they want to do outdoor things,” Harrell said. “We use our social platforms and also banner ads on the internet and search engine marketing on Google and things like that.”

Harrell anticipates numbers will be down for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although definitive statistics won’t be available until next year.

“As far as the occupancy rate, we are seeing that continue to grow,” she said. “At our worst I think we were in the 30 percent range as far as being down, so maybe somewhere between 30 and 40 (percent). Seeing our friends around the state and around the region and the country, they were 50 (percent) or more, and so we felt like we were uniquely positioned and we knew being so close to the interstate that we would probably be one of the first places for business to pick back up. That’s proven true because now we’re probably within 5 percent of where we were a year ago. That makes our running 12 months not where we want it to be as compared to last year, but you’re kind of at a point where you’ll take what you can get.”

Current running 12-month occupancy in Loudon County is 49.9 percent, Harrell said.

As the year has progressed, the visitors bureau has slowly started advertising events again after ceasing promotions in mid-March.

“Mostly right now we’re trying to focus on that you can come to Loudon County for a safe visit,” Harrell said. “We have plenty of outdoor activities for people to do, and any indoor things are also taken into the safety precautions. The shell museum, for example, you can have a safe visit there. At the first of COVID we had paused our marketing. We had not wanted to promote Loudon County, and everyone was doing that, it was total pause. But when we started again it was all about how you could travel safely. I think we’ll be doing that for at least the rest of this fiscal year.”

Attractions persevere

The Venue at Lenoir City has been “very much so affected” by COVID-19, but there have been some positives as the year has progressed, Allison Sousa, director, said.

“Fortunately, most of our events that were impacted by COVID have rescheduled to this current fiscal year,” Sousa said. “We’ve had a few cancellations but were able to retain most of them, just the revenue will hit a different budget than it would have originally. ... We anticipate a huge 2021 because so many events have rescheduled and people are so ready to be back to events that we’re getting a lot of inquiries for next year.”

She estimated business was down about 40 percent from this time last year, but she’s optimistic for the future.

“We were fortunate because we were able to start doing events earlier than some of the surrounding counties,” Sousa said. “Now we certainly have very strict COVID procedures in place. We do temp scans on arrivals, we ask the COVID screening questions, we have one entry, one exit, we keep the doors propped open when we can and we are sanitizing high-touch surfaces every 30 minutes. So we’re really going above and beyond where that’s concerned. But even when we did open back up in June, it was limited. We were at 25 percent capacity, self-imposed really at that time, but I think we got up to 50 percent capacity, which is about where we are at right now.

“We’re really still trying to social distance tables, not have food out that’s not individually wrapped or being served by someone with gloves and a mask and sneeze guard. We’re really trying to above and beyond,” she added.

The ongoing approach is to get creative for business.

“We actually have done so much research on events and the future of events,” Sousa said. “We’re doing a public presentation on what future events will look like. One of the very first things we did, and fortunately the city saw the need for this, is we invested about $10,000 into video conference equipment. So we are able to have live events, hybrid events, live hybrid or pure virtual, and we can do that from all three of our rooms inside the ballroom. We are seeing, for example, a lot of staggered starts. Instead of everybody arriving at 8 o’clock for a registration, you may have a group arrive from 8 to 8:30 and then another group arrive from 8:30 to 9.”

Dead Man’s Farm, which brings visitors from across the region, is set to build off what co-owner Sarah Linginfelter believes was a successful 2019.

“Everything is so uncertain it is hard to predict what our attendance will look like,” Linginfelter said. “This year we have added a haunted corn maze. We hope that an outdoor attraction will appeal to those who might have been hesitant to come out.”

She believes more out-of-state customer traffic could happen this year because many haunted attractions are closed elsewhere.

“We’ve eliminated anything in the haunted house that a guest would have to touch,” she said. “We no longer offer the touch option to maintain social distance between our guests and our actors. We have had to reinvent how the actors will safely interact with guests to still provide that terrifying experience we have given them in the past. There have been so many additional expenses. We’ve had to purchase signage, masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies. We’ve also had to purchase costuming masks for all of the actors and rework the theatrical makeup around them.”

Sweetwater Valley Farm hopes to capitalize on a positive 2019 with the opening of a cafe and a continuation of the cheese store despite no tours.

“We put in our robotic milking facility back a couple years ago and our new tour’s going to be completely focused on that,” Mary Lyndal Harrison, farm marketing director, said. “So people will be able to go back and watch the cows being milked with the robot and kind of be a little more interactive, so we’re still working on that. With all the COVID things we kind of got put to a stop a little bit, so we’re hoping by next year we’ll have our tour back up and going.

“I think (the cafe) brought a lot of people in and then a lot of people maybe that were local who were like, ‘Oh hey, they do have cheese.’ Maybe they had forgot and ate at the cafe and the bought cheese,” she added. “The cheese shop and the cafe really fed off each other and I think as we get tours going it’s just going to increase all that.”

While sales data wasn’t available, Harrison anticipates visitor numbers are down substantially in 2020 due to the pandemic.