Have you noticed when Chattanooga’s hottest destinations or special events earn national press? Chances are the behind-the-scenes doer Sean Phipps, Marketing Director for the Chattanooga Tourism Company (CTC), had a hand in it. TREND sat down with Sean to have him walk us through a “day in the life” of his professional responsibilities, helping communities elsewhere to learn about what Chattanooga has on offer, and how CTC can help area businesses capitalize on an increasingly-thriving local tourism economy.
TREND: Tell us about how you arrived at your current position and what your day-to-day responsibilities entail.
Photo by Dan Henry.
I’ve been working in marketing at the Chattanooga Tourism Company since 2019, and before that I was a journalist for about nine years at a local startup called Nooga.com, part of The Lamp Post Group. After working in journalism, writing, local radio, and some local television as well, CTC became interesting because I started to think I’d hit a ceiling in terms of what working in media could offer in Chattanooga. It felt like a lot of being on the outside looking in, and with this job I knew it’d be more of an inside looking outward focus, trying to change things for the betterment of the community. As a journalist, a big part of the job is being an unbiased, objective observer. I couldn’t ever get deeply involved.
As CTC’s marketing director, now I can get deeply involved. I oversee all internal marketing needs from all four of our divisions, as well as the digital experience team which is responsible for the website and all our social media channels. And I’m the main liaison between our agency and Denver-based Miles Partnership, a firm that specializes in destination marketing. We do a lot of advertising outside the region–in all markets within driving distance, and even beyond like Chicago or Miami. And then I also handle a local media budget so I’m still working with NoogaToday and all of our local TV and radio stations, to get the message out about what we do and what’s going on around town.
We also do some advocacy around what the Chattanooga Tourism Company is, because folks sometimes don’t know that while we work to drive visitor demand, we’re also very focused on how our visitors can make the experience of living in Chattanooga better for locals. We want people to visit, but we also want that visitation to enhance our community, to build the things that provide a good life for residents like great parks and restaurants, and a steady income.
CTC also supports the Chattanooga Convention Center by helping to bring in groups–sometimes very large groups, as in thousands of people in town experiencing Chattanooga, maybe for the first time. CTC focuses on figuring out ways to get them outside of the Convention Center and nearby area to explore more of the city, by putting fun and interesting itineraries in conventioneers’ hands.
Sometimes I feel like I have have the best job in the world because Chattanooga is just so great. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches. Pretty simply, people know us as the Scenic City, and that’s really the entry point for a majority of visitors. If they know nothing else about Chattanooga, they know it’s a great place for outdoor activities, and that gets a lot of people here. So while large groups are meeting at our Convention Center, we try and encourage them to enjoy all of the other amenities on offer–from legacy attractions like Rock City, Ruby Falls, and the Tennessee Aquarium, to a nice hike on one of our beautiful local mountains followed by some great cocktails and a delicious dinner.
TREND: What are some of your current or most recent projects to help promote Chattanooga?
This year we’ve been working on strategic visioning to put an increased focus on our local culinary scene. I’m personally tired of hearing people say Chattanooga doesn’t have much of a culinary scene, or they’re even surprised when they visit and discover we actually have really good food here in Chattanooga. We have some amazing local chefs, award-winning restaurants, truly unique dining, super-local food like Uncle Larry’s, and great diversity to our restaurateurs. We’ve also got a lot of craft beer and are a great compliment to Asheville, N.C. in that a lot of our breweries are walkable to each other so you could go on a real brewery tour by foot if you want to.
I think one of our biggest problems here in Chattanooga is just thinking too small and not working together, so CTC tries to bring folks together under one umbrella for promotional purposes. For example, to collectively and cohesively market our culinary offerings, we’re coming up with fun new ideas like, “Here are 15 great restaurants in Chattanooga–and here’s the one bite you must have from each.” Your “Bucket List Bite” items, so to speak.
Additionally, Chattanooga Sports is an amazing division of the Chattanooga Tourism Company; they work on positioning Chattanooga to host major athletic events like the IRONMAN, the TSSAA BlueCross Bowl, soccer championships, tennis championships, and Head of the Hooch. I’m really excited about the upcoming potential to host the World Rally Car Championship. It’d be a region-wide event, with multiple millions of dollars in economic impact. We’re about to hold a test event for WRC in a couple of weeks: Who would’ve thought Chattanooga might host an international event like that? It’s very exciting.
TREND: The CTC is a Chamber member, and the two organizations are close, hand-in-glove partners on cheerleading all things Chattanooga. How have you interacted with the Chamber in your role as Marketing Director?
We love our relationship with the Chamber because in many ways it completes that puzzle on what we do, getting people to visit. That initial visit often turns into repeat visits, and then sometimes repeat visits can become a relocation, which I know is something the Chamber really focuses on. To be part of that journey, from someone’s first Chattanooga experience planting that initial seed of “Wow! This is a place I could live!” to then seeing those same people in town two years later, and they share that they’re now living here and experiencing all the great things Chattanooga has to offer. For us, that’s the perfect journey.
And I’ll say this about Leadership Chattanooga: Having been a journalist for a decade prior to my enrollment in the program, I thought I knew a lot about Chattanooga. But then I went through LC and it was revelatory for me in that I realized there’s so much more to learn. There are so many people at local organizations doing amazing things that often fly under the radar. It really does take a lot to make this city work, and the people behind these agencies are so passionate about what they do, I almost envy them. That dedication to their work with every fiber of their being, you have to admire it. I also got to meet and hang out with some very cool people. A classmate who I never would’ve crossed paths with otherwise –we’re in completely different fields professionally– has become a good friend of mine. It’s important to have those shared experiences in our community; Leadership Chattanooga provides that so I highly recommend the program to others who haven’t gone through it yet.
Finally, one of my favorite ways I’ve worked with the Chamber was during the pandemic: the absolute genius idea of marketing Chattanooga as a remote-work destination. We were able to get earned media in several national magazines talking about EPB’s reliably fast Internet service, and Chattanooga as a remote-work destination where you could also bring the family. I actually got to speak about that marketing program at Destinations International, which is the largest annual gathering of destination-marketing organizers. That idea and Chattanooga Calling originated with the Chamber, and it became a huge part of what we worked on during the pandemic.
TREND: What are some specific ways you incorporate local, independent businesses into your marketing efforts?
The reality is that when people visit, Chattanooga-Hamilton County is not that big of a geographic area. Most visitors will likely come into contact with or experience Downtown Chattanooga at some point during their stay. We work to ensure those folks have an idea of what all they can experience in Downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, and that they can support locally-owned businesses while they do so. Through our partnership program, we invite every proprietor with an attraction, restaurant, or hotel aspect to their business to become a Chattanooga Tourism Company partner. CTC then takes the information partners supply, and use that to suggest awesome, whole-package experiences for our visitors.
We’ve also recently placed a new Visitor Information Center in the Aquarium Plaza and everything gets directed there. So if a visitor needs a guide or information on what to do, where to shop and eat, what parks are open, they can go to that Visitor Information Center in the middle of Downtown Chattanooga and branch out from there.
We’ve seen a lot of our local partners experience growth through just these tactics, but we’re also constantly visiting other cities to tell the world about Chattanooga. We go to conferences in Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, the Northeast, Chicago–huge trade shows all over, where people come up to our Chattanooga booth and we represent our local makers through those opportunities. We’ve partnered with Chattanooga Whiskey on custom whiskey cocktails at these events; we’ve given away small bottles of Hoff & Pepper hot sauce. People eat that stuff up, literally–they love it. We’ve worked with Cocoa Asante and The Local Juicery—we’ll try just about anything to see if it works but the most important thing is to represent our city and the people in it well. It’s about trying to bring the experience of being in Chattanooga to that person who may be encountering a trade-show booth in, say, Baltimore, and they’ve never heard of Chattanooga before but they walk by us and see a makeshift rock-climbing wall. Yes, we could give away a frisbee with “Chattanooga” on it, but isn’t it much better to take home a locally-made hot sauce that reminds you of Chattanooga every time you dab it on your eggs?
TREND: If I’m a local business owner with a product or experience that visitors might find interesting, how should I seek to work with CTC?
2021 was an incredible year for us, and 2022 was even better. New hotels continue to get built and Chattanooga continues to get a lot of buzz. One of the best things to happen already in 2023 was Samantha Brown’s “Best Places to Love.” That was just a huge, huge gift and an opportunity to show off the city from an accessibility standpoint, but also to highlight some of our great places that don’t normally get all the classic-tourism love. It’s so cool she went to the International Towing Museum, and the same can be said for High Point Climbing–like, you don’t have to be this chiseled climber or climbing enthusiast to go have fun at High Point. We want to continue highlighting these types of opportunities for our visitors, and so if a local business has any kind of a touchpoint with tourists –and the reality is that most do if you’re in the Downtown footprint, or if you’re even further out– we would love to know about it and see if there are opportunities to partner. Partnership is key, in that we know we can’t do it alone, without the support of our local businesses and community members.