Summer travel by the numbers
Among Florida, Georgia, Middle and West Tennessee travelers:
• 79 percent plan to take a leisure trip of 50 miles or more
• 78 percent plan to travel domestically
• 67 percent plan to take a summer vacation of four days or more
• 52 percent plan to drive to a vacation destination
• 49 percent plan to spend $1,000 or less
Source: AAA Auto Club survey of 616 residents
Today is the official start to Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial start to the summer, inspiring 34.8 million Americans to hit the road for their first vacation of the season.
Nearly 80 percent of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee residents plan to travel 50 miles or more away from home between now and September, according to a AAA Auto Club survey. More than half of them plan to drive.
"That of course always bodes well for Chattanooga. We have over 9 million people within a two-and-a-half hour driving radius of us," said Bob Doak, president and chief executive officer of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Everything really is looking good for us. I think we're well positioned. We're advertising stronger than we ever have."
Tourism is an $800 million industry in Chattanooga with more than 8,000 employees. All indicators point to a high number of travelers to the Scenic City this year.
"We always look at spring break as somewhat of a barometer or a gauge of how we think tourism will be, and we had a very, very strong spring break," Doak said.
Chattanooga advertising and relatively low vacation costs help it compete with areas such as the Gulf Coast, which still benefits from an influx of BP marketing dollars following the 2010 oil spill. A third of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee travelers plan to visit a city destination compared to 39 percent who favor beach getaways, the most popular category.
Chattanooga's low- or no-cost attractions such as the Nightfall concert series and outdoor activities may be a big draw for tourists, 21 percent of whom plan to spend $500 or less on vacation. Half of travelers plan to spend less than $1,000.
Preliminary numbers show a marked increase in Chattanooga tourism between January and March, though not quite to pre-recession levels. The late winter's mild weather inspired enough visits to boost hotel revenues by double digits and attraction revenues by nearly the same amount.
"We're still trying to get back. There's the school of thought whether it's a new normal we have to get used to or whether we'll come back to those levels," said Karen Baker, senior marketing director for Rock City and Ruby Falls. "We've probably still got a year or two before we're maybe back there, but for the beginning of the year we're back to '07 levels."
Hotel occupancy can be difficult to predict, as most tourists book very close to when they plan to travel, said Tom Cupo, president of the Greater Chattanooga Hospitality Association and regional managing director of The Chattanoogan hotel. Unpredictable factors such as weather can have a huge influence on bookings, but Cupo is anticipating a strong summer season.
Whether or not leisure travel is up, area hotels are prepping for a solid summer, thanks to a jump in group travel. Travel was one of the first budgets cut by businesses slimming down during the recession, but Chattanooga hotels are benefiting as that business comes back.
"As far as Chattanooga goes, our group business is very strong for the summer -- the entire summer -- and we haven't seen that for a while," Cupo said. "I'm hearing from everyone, even on a national level, that 2013 is going to be the turn. 2013, and probably a couple years after that, is going to be very strong."