Leisure travelers and youth sports teams hit the road again last year after largely staying home during the early months of the pandemic in 2020, pushing hotel stays up in County Hamilton at an all-time high in 2021.

After tourism spending in Hamilton County jumped 40% from 2020 to 2021, industry leaders said Tuesday they expect an even better year for tourism this year.

“2021 has been a great year for Chattanooga’s tourism industry,” Barry White, president of Chattanooga Tourism Co., said at the group’s annual meeting at the Chattanooga Trade Center. “On average, more than 15,000 people per night stayed at our hotels last year, and those guests generated the highest total hotel revenue in our history.”

White and other executives said travel spending in Chattanooga is expected to be even higher this year, having already pushed employment in the local hospitality industry in Chattanooga to an all-time high of more than 31,000 people this summer. White said the industry is still looking to hire more workers for the restaurants, hotels and attractions that welcome Chattanooga visitors.

Record spending is propelled by a rebound in family vacation travel and more traveling sports teams coming to town as the COVID-19 virus subsides.

“Families were eager to get out and travel again last year, and what better place to do that than in Chattanooga?” White asked, citing the variety of area attractions. “Mom and dad didn’t want to miss the Sophia softball tournament either, nor did they want to miss the traveling Little League team.”

According to the latest data compiled by the US Travel Association, Hamilton County welcomed more than 15 million visitors who collectively spent approximately $1.5 billion in 2021. On average, this equates to 42,000 visitors spending $4.1 millions of dollars.

The number of travelers coming to Chattanooga could end up being even higher this year. The Tennessee Aquarium, the region’s top tourist destination, returned to its 2019 highs this year — 800,000 visitors expected at the waterfront attraction in 2022, up from 680,000 the previous year.

“We’ve had a great summer and are back to our pre-pandemic highs,” Tennessee Aquarium president Keith Sanford said in an interview Tuesday.

Despite these increases, however, overall tourism spending in Tennessee still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic highs in 2019. That’s because business travel and conventions still haven’t fully recovered. three years ago, White said.

The Tennessee Department of Tourism Development estimates that Tennessee tourists generated $24.2 billion in spending in 2021, or $66 million per day. While still below pre-pandemic levels, growth in visitor spending last year from the depressed 2020 level marked the largest increase in Tennessee history.

Travel to Tennessee generated $1.9 billion in the state and supported 317,000 jobs in the state, making tourism Tennessee’s third-largest employer, according to the US Travel study. The Chattanooga Tourism Co. estimates that taxes paid by tourists coming to Chattanooga help reduce the average tax burden for local residents by $868 per year.

While leisure and sports travel hit record highs in Chattanooga, business travel remains weaker and may not return to previous highs anytime soon. White said a recent survey showed that 20% of business travelers never return and another 5% take a “wait and see” approach to those trips.

Advances in technology and the growing reliance on Zoom and other video calls during the pandemic appear to have permanently replaced some business travel and in-person sales calls. These gatherings are now happening online or on a call rather than in person.

Ongoing COVID-19 concerns and the financial benefits of online conferencing are also reducing the size and number of conventions and business meetings. The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, for example, is holding its annual meeting Wednesday morning online, rather than hosting a luncheon like before the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, White said group and convention businesses accounted for 25% of hotel rooms sold in Hamilton County. Last year, these events accounted for only 10% of hotel bookings.

“So far this year, groups and conventions are trending up, but we and our hotel partners still have a lot of work to do,” White said.

Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or at 423-757-6340. Follow on Twitter at @Dflessner1.

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