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Tourism Dept. Seeks Recurring Advertising Funds

Tourism may be up in Tennessee, but the commissioner in charge of making sure people want to visit the Volunteer State wants the governor to commit $3.5 million to her department’s advertising.

“More and more states are catching onto the fact that tourism is one of those economic engines that you can crank up very quickly and get a return on your investment very quickly,” Commissioner Susan Whitaker explained to Gov. Bill Haslam Tuesday in Knoxville as she presented the Department of Tourist Development’s budget proposal.

In Tennessee, she said, for every dollar the state sinks into advertising, state and local governments see $19 in sales taxes.

According to the U.S. Travel Association’s 2010 Economic Impact Report, Tennessee saw a 6.3 percent increase in tourism across the state last year, adding $14 billion to the state economy compared to $13.3 billion in 2009.

The only thing she’d ask for, she said, is making sure the state permanently renews its advertising budget which last year was paid for with one-time funding.

“We would love to have those dollars put back in,” Whitaker said. She has served her post since 2003.

Haslam said maintaining the advertising funds is on the table.

The administration is seeking to balance a budget thrown out of whack by an up to $400 million imbalance between projected revenues and mandatory increases in areas including education.

“We understand the desire to have the one-time money put back in recurring. Obviously, you understand our struggle to figure out how to have all that work, and we will do that,” the governor said at the conclusion of the budget hearing. “It’s a significant part of our economy.”

If asked to reduce the agency’s $20.5 million budget, Whitaker said she would reduce off-line advertising and services at its call center that handles visitor inquiries and requests for travel guides.

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Bloated Brochure Project at Tourist Development

Bredesen appointee Susan Whitaker is in the hot seat this week, as her Department of Tourist Development comes under criticism for a PR project whose costs grew to four times the original estimate. WSMV Channel 4 dug into invoices at the department and found a bloated project to create promotional brochures.

The ad agency White Thompson, which won the state bid for the brochures, indicated it would cost about $15,000 to develop six brochures, plus about $4,000 for the logo.

But when the I-Team began inspecting the invoices, it found that just a year later, the estimate to finish the brochures had doubled.

The estimate for the brochure a year later jumped to about $40,000 to finish the same brochure.

In the end, it cost $64,000. Add on the printing, and the final total was more than $100,000 in tax dollars to put the brochure in tourist destinations across the state.

We’re guessing the scathing news report was not quite the PR the department, a player in solar farms, had in mind. The TV station found that the department had spent $15,000 on videos praising Whitaker and former Gov. Phil Bredesen.

Whitaker refused to answer questions on camera and “acted as though the I-Team wasn’t there when the I-Team showed up,” the television station reports. Guess this PR fiasco is something not even good bloodlines and working for Dolly herself prepared her for.


Top Agency Bosses Offer Their Visions for Tennessee

In line with Gov. Bill Haslam’s social media-driven communications strategy, the state’s new top decision makers are featured in the administration’s most recent “Governor’s Update” YouTube video

The three-and-a-half-minute video features six of the state’s more than twenty state commissioners, with the top department leaders in Health, Financial Institutions, Children’s Services, Agriculture, Mental Health and Tourism each offering a vision for their agency.

Commissioner Greg Gonzales, who oversees the Department of Financial Institutions, says he wants to build an environment where businesses can be successful, as does Commissioner Julius Johnson of the Department of Agriculture, who said he wants to make the state’s rural and agricultural communities better places to live.

“I believe we can do this by creating incentives for new jobs to be developed in rural areas, to make sure that the agriculture community grows in like-kind with urban businesses and so forth, to develop jobs and to have the same opportunity that the urban areas have,” he said.

Susan Cooper, commissioner of the Department of Health, said she hopes Tennessee can be the healthiest state in the nation while Tourism Commissioner Susan Whitaker wants to make the Volunteer State one of the top five destinations in the country.

Commissioner Kathryn O’Day of Children’s Services stressed the need for the state to reach out to the local community to best address the needs of kids, and Mental Health Commissioner Doug Varney said the state needs to be sensitive and responsive to the people his department serves.

“Many of these people, by the time they get to this point or are looking to services, they’re desperate. They’re dealing with very difficult situations,” he said.

Press Releases

Haslam Forms Statewide Tourism Committee

Press Release from Governor-elect Bill Haslam; Jan. 6, 2011:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Governor-elect Bill Haslam today announced Susan Whitaker will continue as Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.

Haslam also announced the formation of a statewide Tourism Committee. The committee will report back to him by Sept. 1 on how to maximize Tennessee’s potential in tourism by attracting more visitors, creating more effective marketing, coordinating public-private partnerships, handing off customers from attraction to attraction more efficiently and specifically focusing on tourism opportunities in smaller, economically depressed counties.

Tourism in Tennessee generates $13.3 billion in economic impact and employs more than 170,000 Tennesseans. Whitaker was first appointed commissioner in January 2003 and has served in that capacity for the past eight years, overseeing the creation and implementation of state tourism’s many campaigns.

“Tennessee tourism has taken many positive strides during Susan’s tenure as commissioner, and I am delighted to have her stay on as head of the department,” Haslam said.

Whitaker is a Chicago native and a direct descendant of Tennessee’s first governor, John Sevier. She has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Northwestern University, and before serving as commissioner, she was Vice President of Marketing for Dollywood.

“I’ve been excited to hear Gov.-elect Haslam’s ideas on regional economic development and tourism, and I’m thrilled to be a part of his team,” Whitaker said. “I’m especially proud to be representing Tennessee in tourism, and I’m excited about the future of the industry in our state.”

Whitaker is married to Ken Whitaker, and they attend Christ Community Church in Franklin. She has two sons, Josh and Jeff, and four grandchildren.

Colin Reed, CEO of Gaylord Entertainment, will chair the statewide committee. Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc. CEO Jack Soden and Dolly Parton Productions President Ted Miller will be vice chairs of the committee.

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