Tourism spending in Williamson County has tanked in 2020 because of coronavirus outbreaks.
On average, visitors spent more than $1.3 million per day in Williamson County. In 2020, that number has dropped to $230,000 because there are far fewer visitors.
Hotel occupancy dropped to a low of about 15% in April, and has recovered slowly. Occupancy hovered in the low to mid 30s for most of the summer and hit 37.5% in April.
Despite the nearly apocalyptic tourism numbers, Visit Franklin, the county’s tourism bureau, has a plan to support businesses in the tourism industry. The goal is to aggressively market Williamson County as a safe and relaxing destination.
In August, the visitors bureau worked with local hospitality industry leaders to create a tourism recovery plan. Visit Franklin CEO Ellie Westman Chin said the plan was drew heavily on the experience of living with the new coronavirus for several months.
"I think the biggest difference between now and back in April and May is that we've been able to track visitor activity during COVID," she said. “Now that we have experience with the spike in July and we can see how visitors responded to that … we know what to expect.”
The visitors bureau learned that potential visitors are less likely to travel when there are large coronavirus outbreaks, such as the spike in cases last July. In other words, tourism numbers aren’t likely to simply improve over time. Instead, they will respond to the severity of the virus.
That means tourism businesses will need lots of support to be successful, and Visit Franklin hopes to offer that support.
In September, the visitors bureau launched its first large marketing campaign since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
"We had pulled all advertising in April and May. Nobody was thinking about traveling," she said. "We started back, a little bit in July, a little bit in August. But come September we went full throttle because this is traditionally a great period of time for us."
The campaign focuses on locations within driving distance, and pitches Williamson County as a safe destination that has implemented practices like mask wearing and social distancing. The plan is to connote that campaign through the end of the year.
Williamson County has had a mask mandate in place almost continuously since July. Westman Chin said that Visit Franklin’s research shows that 82% of travelers want to go to places with safety precautions in place, and that the mask mandate has likely be very good for the tourism industry.
"Travelers, before they go anywhere, they're going on the website and they're looking for this stuff," Westman Chin said. "They're looking to see what our mandates are and things like that. The number one thing people want to see are people wearing masks."
Westman Chin said Visit Franklin is also investing a lot of effort in restarting group tourism, such as conferences and events. Large groups accounted for at least half of the county’s overall tourism in previous years.
In 2020, nearly all of that business — with the notable exception of youth and amateur sports — has essentially evaporated. Some groups have already canceled plans during the first quarter of 2021.
Going forward, Visit Franklin is looking to host regional, rather than national events, making it easier for attendees to drive. The visitors bureau also has a dedicated staff member who talks with planners organizing events in Williamson County about state and local regulations, as well as safety protocols implemented by individual hotels.
"We wanted to make the process so smooth for that planner," Westman Chin said.
Visit Franklin has also developed virtual tools that allow event planners to see the spaces at local hotels. Using the virtual walkthrough tool, planners can measure the size of a room and even test out furniture arrangements.
The advertising push and extra work with event planners should help local tourism businesses, but the outlook will remain bleak until the pandemic is under control. With coronavirus cases surging in Tennessee once again — active cases are up 12% over the two weeks — visitors are likely to pull back like they did in July.
Right now, Westman Chin said she’s celebrating the small wins. Hotel occupancy has improved from its lowest levels last spring. She also said Franklin is positioned to recover faster than some areas because it’s a small town with lots of outdoor activities. And perhaps most importantly, visitors and businesses are learning how to coexist with the virus.
"People are learning how to navigate the virus, how to travel with the virus, how to meet with the virus," she said. "That's good news for all of us, but it's going to take a while for us to get back to 2019 levels."