published Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

More drivers, fewer fliers on holiday weekend

  • photo
    The USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial National Championships come to Chattanooga this holiday weekend.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND

BY THE NUMBERS

* $659: Median spending

* 690 miles: Average distance traveled

* 62: Percent of travelers who said gas prices did not affct their plans

* * 34.8 million: Weekend travelers

* $166: Average hotel rate

Source: American Automobile Association

The Zubke family is on Day 6.

They started in South Dakota, drove to St. Louis, stopped in Memphis and now they're in Chattanooga for days four, five and six of their 14-day summer road trip.

"We always do one big vacation during the summer, and this is the first time we've ever driven," said mom Roberta Zubke. "We usually fly, and instead we thought we'd drive and see everything along the way."

She, her husband and two daughters are visiting the Tennessee Aquarium, Ruby Falls, Rock City and the Chickamauga Battlefield. Then they're off to Vicksburg, Miss.; New Orleans and Huntsville, Ala., before looping back to South Dakota.

And while the distance the Zubkes are traveling during the Memorial Day holiday is unusual, the way they're going -- by car -- is not.

Across the nation, fewer Americans will travel more than 50 miles from home during Memorial Day weekend this year, according to the American Automobile Association. But most of the drop -- from 35.1 million travelers last year to 34.8 million this year -- is created by an 8 percent decline in air travel.

The number of drivers on the road will be a tad higher than last year, and that could be good news for Chattanooga, said Bob Doak, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Keep in mind, this is a national projection, and the vast majority of the decline was indicated in air travel," he said. "Close to 90 percent of our market is rubber-tire, personal passenger vehicles. We're still expecting a good weekend and a good summer."

As summer unofficially starts this weekend, somewhere around 35,000 people are expected to descend on the Scenic City for a series of Memorial Day festivities.

Most of that crowd will show up for the USA Pro Cycling Championships -- the Super Bowl of American cycling -- which kicks off Saturday. About 200 professional cyclists will compete in the event and downtown hotels are filling up as competitors and spectators roll into town.

"We know lots of people who are already talking about coming to Chattanooga, from Nashville to Knoxville to Atlanta," said Micah Rice, vice president of national events at USA Cycling. "I think you'll get a lot of people coming in. They might be just a couple hours away, but they'll probably spend a night."

As many as 40,000 people watched the event when it was in Greenville, S.C., he said, but since this is the first year in Chattanooga, he expects a smaller crowd of about 25,000.

And on top of that, an additional 7,000 to 10,000 people are expected to show up for the FIM Trials World Championship in Sequatchie, Tenn., about a half-hour drive from downtown. That motorcycle competition attracts riders from all over the world and kicks off Friday.

The summer outlook for Chattanooga is good even beyond this weekend, said Bob Bhagat, general manager at the Comfort Inn downtown.

"We're excited about the summer season," he said. "We see a lot more people traveling than the past year. It was busy during spring break, so we expect this summer to turn out to be a better summer than the past couple years."

At the Chattanoogan, general manager Tom Cupo agreed that the summer is looking up -- if the weather cooperates.

"We're a drive market, so a lot of the weekend business is weather driven," he said. "If people know the weather is going to be nice, they'll make a decision to come last minute."

Gas prices can also affect Chattanooga's summer traffic, but most of the travelers the AAA surveyed said current prices aren't affecting their travel plans.

Chattanooga's rates have been sitting fairly steady at about $3.22 a gallon for the past month -- 13 cents cheaper than this time last year. For Roberta Zubke, that was a welcome reprieve.

"Gas was $4.29 when we left South Dakota," she said. "Then we got down here and realized that this trip won't be as expensive as we thought."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at sbradbury@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6525.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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