Middle Tennessee county is ready to ramp up its run of record-setting tourism numbers as sporting events and conventions return.
After a challenging 2020, the welcome mat is back out in Rutherford County.
The shutdowns caused by the pandemic brought an end to Rutherford County’s string of consecutive years of record-setting tourism numbers. But the county is poised to bounce back in 2021, as sporting events and conventions return to the region.
“All the hotels in Rutherford County were doing phenomenal business through the first two months of 2020,” says Karen Cothern, general manager of the Candlewood Suites in Smyrna, TN. “Then things changed fast, but we were resilient. Now, it’s coming back, and it will be great again.”
Even with travel and events curtailed for most of 2020, Rutherford County still experienced a hotel occupancy rate of 54% for the year, compared to the 44% national average. By mid-February 2021, weekend occupancy was up to 71%, as the county played host to the Tennessee Middle School Athletic Association Basketball State Championships.
“We’re letting travelers know that Rutherford County is ready to welcome them back for a safe travel experience.”
Barbara Wolke/Rutherford County Convention & Visitors Bureau
Also in February, more than 600 people attended the National Guard Association of Tennessee’s annual conference in Murfreesboro. In March, thousands of visitors came to Rutherford County for the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association Girls and Boys Basketball Championships held at Middle Tennessee State University. Weekend occupancy in March saw an increase, rising to 85%-89%.
“Sports business has returned and conference business is seeing a slow, yet steady increase,” says Barbara Wolke, senior vice president of the Rutherford County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re letting travelers know that Rutherford County is ready to welcome them back for a safe travel experience.”
Meet ‘The Sports Capital of Tennessee’
Rutherford County has utilized sports to attract tourists for decades. It has been hosting the Girls State High School Basketball Championships consecutively since 1975, and the Boys’ Championships from 1975-1982 and 1989-present. Since then, it has steadily added new sports venues and attracted a wide variety of events, including baseball, softball, soccer, football, golf and tennis.
Sports have also played such an integral role in Rutherford County that, in 2014, it officially became known as “The Sports Capital of Tennessee.”
The community was named one of the Best Sports Cities in the U.S. by The Sporting News, and one of Livability.com’s Top 10 Soccer Cities.
Soccer has been a big draw, thanks in large part to the Richard Siegel Soccer Park Complex. The 130-acre, 15-field athletic complex has regularly hosted the Tennessee Soccer State Championships and the TSSAA State Soccer Championships. The complex was the site of one of the largest youth soccer events ever held in Tennessee, the U.S. Youth Soccer Southern Regional Championships.
The complex recently underwent a $14.5 million renovation. New turf, seating and lights were added, and one field was enclosed so it could be used as a full-size indoor training facility.
Rutherford County: A Center for Visitors
Rutherford County has also long been a premier convention location. In fact, for eight consecutive years, the Convention & Visitors Bureau has received a Readers’ Choice Award as one of the top convention destinations from ConventionSouth, a national multimedia resource for planning events in the South.
“It is no surprise to us that Rutherford County Convention & Visitors Bureau has been selected to receive our annual Readers’ Choice Award,” says Ashleigh Osborne, ConventionSouth associate publisher. “(The voters) have determined that Rutherford County Convention & Visitors Bureau displays the commitment to professionalism, creativity and service that they require.”
Economic impact from tourism in Rutherford County in 2019
These qualities enabled Rutherford County to put up record-setting tourism numbers year after year before the pandemic. In 2019, the county reached an all-time high with $385 million in economic impact from tourism ($17.6 million more than in 2018) and welcomed a total of 2.6 million visitors (a nearly 11% rise from the previous year), with regular increases in employment and tax revenue.
Rutherford County will continue to be home to the TSSAA basketball, bowling and Spring Fling Championships through 2023.
“Tourism has always been tremendous for the economy,” Cothern says. “Hotels have been sold out for weeks at a time because of all these events. It supports the whole community financially. It’s just been amazing.”