Name: Susan Whitaker
Job: Tennessee Commissioner of Tourist Development since 1973
Career: A graduate of Northwestern University, she worked in key marketing and planning roles for the Silver Dollar City and the Herschend Family Entertainment Corp., properties in Branson, Mo., and for Dollywood in Pigeon Forge before then Gov. Phil Bredesen named her to head the Department of Tourist Development in 2003. Gov. Bill Haslam reappointed her in January.
Industry memberships: She serves on the boards of the U.S. Travel Association, Travel South USA, the Smoky Mountains Parks Commission and the University of Tennessee’s retail, hospitality and tourism management advisory panel.
Personal: She and her husband, Ken, have two sons and four grandchildren and live in Franklin, Tenn.
Growing up in Chicago, Susan Whitaker fondly recalls family vacations when she and her three siblings shared the back seat of the family station wagon on trips across the country.
Tennessee was one of her favorite destinations and decades later she is in charge of trying to lure other vacationers to the Volunteer State. Whitaker says it’s an easy sell and brags that “I have the best job in state government.”
“Being from Chicago, I appreciate the mountains of Tennessee more than most people who live in the state and I get the great privilege of telling other people every day why this is a great place to come and visit,” she said.
The marketing executive was tapped to head the state’s tourism agency in 2003 by then Gov. Phil Bredesen and is one of three members of the cabinet asked to stay on by Gov. Bill Haslam in January. She is now the most senior member of the 22-member gubernatorial cabinet.
As the biggest travel month begins today in Tennessee, business editor Dave Flessner talks with Whitaker about the outlook for the state’s tourism industry and her department’s marketing efforts.
Q. The state of Washington is eliminating its tourism marketing in their new budget to save money while other states like Michigan are boosting their tourism advertising to try to boost their economies. What is Tennessee’s strategy for promoting tourism?
A. We’re very fortunate that even though our overall state budget was down, Gov. Haslam agreed to keep our department’s promotions about the same this year. We’ll be spending more than $7 million on our marketing efforts this year. Our studies indicate that those promotions return more than $20 for every dollar spent in extra tax collections on the additional visitors we are able to attract to Tennessee through our efforts. I just think Washington is making a real mistake because even if you are well know you need to continue to let people be aware of what your state has to offer.
People have waited a while to take a vacation and they want to get out and see the world. There is a pent up demand for people to travel and we want to let people know that there is so much to do and our state if very affordable.
Q. What are the key attractions you try to sell to prospective vacationers to Tennessee?
A. We are blessed with three of the biggest tourism attractions all in one state. We have the Great Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee, Nashville and the appeal of Music City in Middle Tennessee and Memphis and its blues and riverfront attractions in West Tennessee. These are all iconic attractions known throughout the world. Once we get people’s attention, we can also tell them about the wonderful other places in our state in cities like Chattanooga.
Q. What is the size of Tennessee’s tourism industry and what’s your outlook for its future?
A. We’re sitting in a very good position to bounce back. From 2003 to 2008 we grew from a $10.8 billion industry to a $14.4 billion industry in 2008. That declined to $13.3 billion in 2009 during the recession, but every indicator is that we are back to where we once were and I’m confident we will continue to grow as an industry. More than 175,000 people work in tourism-related jobs in Tennessee so it is a very important part of our economy.