downtown murfreesboro
photo: Main Street Murfreesboro/Rutherford, Inc.

This article is part of our series “COVID-19: 1 Year Later,” exploring the ways COVID-19 has affected and changed daily life over the last year. For two weeks, we surveyed our readers on how COVID-19 has affected them. Read our survey results here. Today, we write about how the hospitality industry is coming back as people return to more normal travel patterns.

Tourism is a major economic development driver in Rutherford County. In 2019, Rutherford County hit record-breaking numbers with tourism economic impact reaching $385 million dollars, a $17.6 million dollar increase over the previous year, with increases across the board in state and local taxes, and employment.

“Rutherford County’s 2019 visitor volume report showed that we welcomed a record breaking 2.6 million visitors,” said Barbara Wolke, Senior Vice President Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce, “10.9% over 2018 visitor volume numbers. If it were not for state and local taxes generated by tourism each household in Rutherford County would pay $289.77 more in taxes per year.”

While Rutherford experienced a decrease in demand last year due to the pandemic, the county’s hotel occupancies remain much higher than the national and state averages. Rutherford County hotel occupancy for 2020 was at 54%, while the national average was 44%, and state average was 45.2% according to Smith Travel Research.

“We are continuing this trend in 2021,” said Wolke. “Hotel occupancy the weekend of Feb 12 and 13 was at 71% for the area as we hosted the TMSAA Middle School Basketball Championships.”

Sports Brings Increased Tourism to County

Last March, due to the Pandemic, at the conclusion of the girls’ basketball quarterfinal round TSSAA canceled the remainder of the girls’ state tournament. The TSSAA boys’ basketball tournament was canceled the following week.

“With the cancellation of last year’s event,” said Wolke, “this year it is extremely important to bring back the excitement of the TSSAA Spring Fling and see these young athletes crowned as champions.”

Rutherford County CVB was also thrilled to host the 2021 TSSAA Girls’ and Boys’ Basketball Championships at Middle Tennessee State University in March. The CVB staff coordinated media meals and hotel rooms for teams, coaches, media, and TSSAA staff.

“Capacity was limited and admission tickets were sold online,” explained Wolke. “Based on GoFan online gate sales, and schools and athletes participating, Rutherford County welcomed 25,380 athletes, coaches and spectators.”

Slower Return of Conference Business

Conference business is returning at a slower pace than sports tourism, but hotels in Rutherford County continue to experience a slow but steady occupancy increase. County occupancy for February was 53.7%, March was 65.2%, and April saw a slight increase at 67%. Weekend occupancies are trending much higher. Sporting events and leisure travelers are driving weekend occupancies, with weekend occupancies currently at pre-pandemic levels of 90 to 93%.

“Onsite group meetings and conferences are currently taking place at most Rutherford County hotels,” said Wolke. “Hotels and restaurants are both seeing increased traffic from visitors as tourism continues to return to Rutherford County. Our occupancies continue to trend higher this year than both national and state averages.”

In September, Rutherford County will be the destination to host for the 2021 Tennessee Governor’s Conference on Hospitality and Tourism in September.

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