The coronavirus pandemic has devastated the local tourism industry, but the organization promoting tourism to Williamson County has a plan to revive those businesses.

Visit Franklin is encouraging residents to patronize visitor-facing businesses. The group is also marketing Williamson County to future visitors, especially those within driving distance, as a safe travel destination once the number of COVID-19 cases have fallen.  

A banner on the Visit Franklin website simple reads, “Plan now, come later! We can’t wait to see you in Franklin.”

This week, Visit Franklin created a tourism recovery task force. The group’s goal is to gather information about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the tourism industry and develop a strategy to recover. 

During a virtual event hosted by Williamson Inc. this week, Visit Franklin CEO Ellie Westman Chin said the pandemic has hurt the tourism industry more than anything she has ever seen. 

Williamson County’s hotel occupancy is currently at 14%. Normally, at this time of year it would be closer to 75%.

“I've been in tourism a long time. I've never seen a number like that, not even after the recession and not even after September 11,” Westman Chin said. “Those are pretty big numbers that we are going to have to climb out of.”

Statewide, the numbers are truly brutal. Restaurants sales declined more than $400 million in March, and hotel sales declined by more than $175 million. The Tennessee Department of Revenue expects the numbers for April to be even worse. 

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development reported that nearly 40% of workers in the arts, entertainment and recreation industry and nearly 30% of workers in the accommodation and food services industry have filed for unemployment. 

“Every tourism business that I’m aware of has laid off pretty much their entire staff,” Westman Chin said. 

In 2018, about 1.7 million people visited Williamson County. On average, visitors spent $1.3 million per day in the county. Now, the vast majority of those visitors are gone, and it’s not clear when they’ll come back.

“We know from past experience that tourism usually bounces back really quickly. I would love to see that happen here when it is safe to do so,” Westman Chin said. “We know that (tourism) generates a lot of dollars for our community. What is that balance between getting those visitors back? We don't want to do it too soon because we want our residents to feel safe.”

That’s part of the reason why Visit Franklin’s plan starts with local residents. The group hopes that businesses can build consumer confidence by cleaning frequently, limiting the number of patrons in a building and going above and beyond the guidelines recently published by the state.

The next step will be marketing Williamson County to travelers within driving distance. Westman Chin said she thinks travelers will be hesitant to get on a plane, but will be more comfortable driving somewhere in their own car. She expects visitor numbers to remain low until at least August.  

Still, Westman Chin sees some reason to feel optimistic. Many visitors already travel to Williamson County by car, and many of the county’s attractions are outdoors and uncrowded.

“We're in such a great position because people are looking for adventure. They don't want to be in a confined space with a lot of other people,” she said. “There’s a lot of really positive things that I think are really going to give our visitors confidence to come see us when the timing is right.”

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