Tourism turmoil: Tennessee looks to bounce back

Special Reports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – There are a lot of choice words being used to describe the year that has been 2020 – many of them not fit to publish.

It’s a year that began with strong momentum for Tennessee’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry. Turn the calendar back to January and February and tourism was on pace to keep rolling after five years of consecutive growth that brought more than $23 billion dollars in travel expenditures in 2019, according to the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.

Then came March. State and local leaders grappled with the difficult decisions of trying to manage through a rapidly unfolding health emergency. COVID-19 forced the cancellation of major events and the immediate closing of so-called “non-essential” businesses. Sporting events and conventions called off. Museums and music venues shuttered. The businesses built to survive on tourism sent into a tailspin.

“Nashville is taking a beating,” said Rob Mortensen, President and CEO of the Tennessee Hospitality & Tourism Association. His comment to News 2 last week came in response to a new survey released by the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

Chip Rogers, President and CEO of American Hotel and Lodging Association, says two out of three hotels report less than half of their pre-COVID staff back on the job and a little more than half have been able to retain no more than 40-percent of their employees who were working pre-pandemic.

Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame set a record for visitors in 2019, with 1,297,433 guests. It marked the fifth-consecutive year the CMHOF had more than one million visitors. 2020 has been quite different. The facility re-opened to limited visitors on September 10th after a six-month shutdown.

“We want to be a beacon, that place of hope, that symbol that says when the Country Music Hall of Fame is open, we’re ready,” Sharon Brawner, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for the Country Music Hall of Fame told News 2 that day.

Brawner said the impact of the pandemic wasn’t easy, with the museum losing $23 million. She says she had to furlough 101 employees, laying off another 73.

Over in the Great Smoky Mountains, the pandemic continues to have an impact, but businesses and parks are inching forward.

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Dollywood announced in the Spring it would temporarily move into “hibernation mode” due to continued uncertainty over coronavirus. That meant minimal staff working with a 50-percent pay cut. Dollywood reopened in June with restrictions and safety precautions, including temperature checks and social distancing guidelines.

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The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a tourism mecca, continues to have some restrictions in place after beginning its first phase of reopening in May.

News 2 is digging deeper into the impact coronavirus is having on Tennessee’s number two industry and the evolving plans for recovery. See our special reports in every newscast on Thursday, October 1st.

This is a developing story. Stay with News 2 and WKRN.com for updates.

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