The city’s tourism and travel industry is thriving as a one-of-a-kind destination for leisure and business travelers, but industry insiders believe a larger, technologically updated convention center is needed in years to come if Memphis wants to remain competitive in bringing larger groups to town.
What’s obvious now is that the city is still a huge draw for travelers looking to sample local cuisine and culture.
About 10 million people visit Memphis each year, including leisure, business, convention, and sports travel segments, and Memphis and Shelby County account for more than $3.2 billion in tourist expenditures each year, according to a study from the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development through the National Travel Data Center.
“The great news about Memphis is we have so many attractions,” said Regena Bearden, Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau vice president of marketing & public relations. “We really have a global appeal in music heritage with attractions like The Stax Museum, Beale Street and Graceland, which now has its tour in seven languages.”
In 2012 Graceland welcomed its 18 millionth visitor, and it also launched its first exhibit outside of Graceland in Brazil, an emerging tourism market.
Lee Robinson leads a Segway Tour through Beale Street. (Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
The American Queen Steamboat arrives at Memphis for the first time. (Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
Debbie Diaz, Carlos Diaz and Jeremy Diaz of Kansas City, Mo., outside Graceland. (Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
The Orpheum Theatre Memphis draws visitors to town with its Broadway shows, concerts and summer movie series. (Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
Zookeeper Carolyn Horton feeds bananas to the giraffes at the Memphis Zoo, the city’s top ticketed attraction in 2012 with 1.1 million admissions sold. (Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
Memphis Grizzlies fans gather for a pregame celebration outside FedExForum before a 2011 playoff game between the Grizzlies and Spurs. The venue not only is home to Grizzlies and Tigers games but also touring acts like Paul McCartney. (Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
Bearden believes regional attractions like the Center for Southern Folklore, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and Dixon Gallery and Gardens round out the experience, creating a complete package visitors can enjoy.
Popular historic attractions like Beale Street, Graceland and Sun Studio are more likely to draw visitors from more than 500 miles away, while The Memphis Zoo and The Children’s Museum of Memphis mostly bring in guests from within 300 miles.
The top ticketed attraction of last year was the Memphis Zoo, with 1.1 million admissions sold. The 70-acre zoo averages about 950,000 visitors each year, and a visitor survey from last summer found that 67 percent of zoo visitors come from outside the Memphis area.
“We expect to see approximately the same number of visitors by the end of 2013. We opened a new stingray exhibit this year, which should bring a major draw,” said Abbey Dane, director of marketing and communications for the Memphis Zoo.
Stingray Bay, an interactive exhibit in which visitors are able to touch and feed stingrays, opened in March and will be open from March to October for the next two years. Future zoo plans include the Zambezi River Hippo Camp, a state-of-the-art exhibit for hippos, flamingos, mandrill baboons, okapi and Nile crocodiles slated to open in spring 2015.
Overall, the number of visitors to the city has fluctuated a few percentage points in the past few years as the economy struggled, but Memphis has fared better than some other markets.
“Many destinations have suffered a lot more than we have,” said Bearden, who handles the leisure/tourist segments for the Convention & Visitors Bureau. “This year so far looks like a really strong year for us. You can tell the consumer confidence level is starting to inch back up a little bit.”
The current two-year consumer marketing campaign for the Convention & Visitors Bureau is “Find Your Soul Mate in Memphis,” which ties in directly to the 10th anniversary of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, as well as other music, food and family fun attractions around the city.
The Convention & Visitors Bureau, which has a domestic advertising budget of $550,000 and a total leisure budget of about $2 million, elected to not produce a new TV spot this year, and instead it is focusing heavily on the digital realm, buying space on popular travel sites like Priceline, Kayak, Travel Channel, Hotels.com, Hotwire and National Geographic Traveler.
“The majority of the time the vacation decision maker is female, so we skew a lot of our media buys towards women’s/food sites like allrecipes.com, Food Network, Real Simple, Parenting.com, Dealtime.com and Weather.com,” Bearden said.
“The great news about Memphis is we have so many attractions. We really have a global appeal in music heritage with attractions like The Stax Museum, Beale Street and Graceland, which now has its tour in seven languages.”
– Regena Bearden
Vice president of marketing and PR, Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau
The Convention & Visitors Bureau also works to tell the Memphis story in markets like Nashville and Chicago, leveraging the success of touring acts like the musicals “Memphis” and “Million Dollar Quartet.”
In fact, 25 international reporters were in town for four nights that included a 25th anniversary event at Stax Museum, a “Memphis” performance at The Orpheum Theatre Memphis and a Grizzlies playoff game at FedExForum.
“In terms of the recent European familiarization tour, we will get millions in circulation, which is very cost-effective for us and drives the European visitor to be interested in Memphis as part of coming to America,” Bearden said.
The recent success of the Grizzlies, now playing in the NBA’s Western Conference Finals, is helping garner free national exposure on major media outlets. The team is in the middle of leveraging the Grizzlies as the team of the Mid-South, trying to appeal to more markets like Little Rock, Jackson, Miss., St. Louis and Nashville, according to John Pugliese, Grizzlies vice president of marketing communications and broadcast.
Memphis will play its first preseason game in St. Louis against the Chicago Bulls in October, have expanded broadcasts into Little Rock, and managed bus tours to home games for fans in Nashville, creating a whole new visitor for Memphis.
The economic impact that large visiting groups bring to the area is substantial. An average group of 1,000 people that visit Memphis spends a total of roughly $280,000 per day.
“We are coming off a record 2012 as far as meetings and conventions are concerned,” said J. John Oros Jr., Convention & Visitors Bureau executive vice president and chief operation officer. “Last year was quite a spectacular year, and we hosted some of the largest groups we’ve ever had at the Cook Convention Center.”
Highlights included the North American Spring Championships for the American Contract Bridge League, which brought in more than 5,000 participants and their families for a 10-day stay Downtown.
“It definitely made a huge impact on our hotels and restaurants,” Oros said.
Although this year is shaping up to be less spectacular overall than 2012, the Natia convention will return to Memphis for the third time in July, bringing 6,000 people that will make a $2 million impact on the local economy, and the Kubota Tractor national dealer meeting and its 10,000 participants will hit town in October, generating an estimated $5 million in economic impact.
“It was a major coup for us to bring the Kubota event to Memphis,” Oros said. “We were able to wrestle it away from competing cities like Kansas City and Nashville.”
Other major competitors for meeting and convention business include Louisville, New Orleans, Atlanta, Dallas and St. Louis, and Oros said Memphis will need to step up its game and build a new convention center sometime in the near future if it wants to compete with cities like Nashville, which is opening its new 1.2 million-square-foot Music City Center this month. Construction cost for that project is $635 million.
“It’s a hyper-competitive convention industry right now, and we are faced with the fact that we are the smallest convention center in the Southeast for mid-sized/major-sized cities,” Oros said. “Many of our groups are growing, and the space is getting very tight. The question is: where will the money come from to build a new facility?”
Last year the 350,000-square-foot Cook Convention Center brought in $85 million for the city, and Oros estimates that total will be $65 million to $70 million for 2013.
“If we had a convention space the size of Nashville’s new facility, the economic impact from conventions at its current pace would probably triple to $250 million to $300 million,” Oros said.
A new convention center would also mean the need for more quality hotel rooms connected to or close by a new facility. Last year was a strong year for the local hotel industry, as overall occupancy hit 60.6 percent and the 12 major Downtown hotels ran higher than 71 percent. Average daily rates grew by 4 percent to 5 percent last year and are on par for the same growth this year.
“It seems 2013 is continuing the trend,” said Oros. “With the improving economy, we are seeing increases in corporate travel, and many of our hotels are reporting meetings at their own properties.”
The Peabody hotel, which is celebrating the 80th anniversary of the walking of the ducks this year, is one Downtown hotel that is upgrading its property, currently undergoing renovations of all of its sleeping rooms.
Those aren’t the only things going for local tourism. Memphis is the only city in Tennessee with Amtrak service, and it is also the only city in the state with an excursion boat service, the American Queen Steamboat Co.
Business is doing well and running ahead of last year for the second-year venture, which opened in Memphis in October 2011 and sailed its first voyage in April 2012.
“This year we should carry about 18,000 passengers over the itineraries we operate,” said Ted Sykes, American Queen president and chief operating officer.
Last year, the company entertained more than 14,000 passengers. The typical American Queen cruise travels from Memphis to New Orleans in seven days, including port stops at Helena, Ark.; Vicksburg , Miss.; Natchez, Miss.; St. Francisville, La.; Baton Rouge, La.; Houmas House or Oak Alley, La.; and New Orleans. Northbound, the boats reposition to the Upper Mississippi via St Louis.
Drought affected some river traffic last year, but American Queen did not suffer any setbacks due to the low river levels.
“News stories made it out to be far worse than it was,” Sykes said. “We operated all scheduled cruises.”
When the boat docks in Memphis, it brings loads of visitors, many for the first time.
“We carry more than 400 passengers each trip, so when we turn around in Memphis, it is double that amount that will visit the city and local attractions,” Sykes said.
Another popular attraction to debut in the past several years is Mirimichi golf course in Millington, which is approaching its four-year anniversary. Mirimichi is the first golf course in North, South or Central America to be certified “green” by the Golf Environment Organization.
Last year, more than 28,000 players enjoyed the championship-level greens and fairways, and as many as 30 percent hailed from out of town, according to Deb Peterson, Mirimichi director of sales and marketing.
“Because we are owned by Justin Timberlake, Mirimichi has received a lot of worldwide publicity, including being featured on Oprah, The Golf Channel, ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest,” Peterson said. “We have golfers visiting Mirimichi literally from all around the world, and celebrities play here when they are in town.”
Mirimichi was recently named the No. 1 golf course in Tennessee by Golf Week. News about the course is regularly communicated through electronic newsletters, social media, radio, and, most importantly, word of mouth.
“Referrals are a big deal for us and speak to the quality of our product,” Peterson said. “The majority of our customers refer Mirimichi to their friends once they play here. We also get a lot of referral business from the Memphis hotels since we are a public course, and we have a large amount of great rental clubs available for travelers.”