Selling the Scenic City: Meet Sean Phipps of Chattanooga Tourism Company

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 Phipps to have him walk us through a “day in the life” of his professional responsibilities — helping communities elsewhere learn about what Chattanooga has to offer, and how area businesses can partner with CTC to capitalize on an increasingly thriving regional tourism economy.

TREND: Tell us about how you arrived at your current position and what your day-to-day entails.
Sean Phipps (LC ’22), Marketing Director for the Chattanooga Tourism Co. Photo by Dan Henry.

Phipps: 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 NOOGAtoday, part of The Lamp Post Group. After working in local news, the job at 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 was 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, an important part of the job is serving as 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–all markets within driving distance, and even beyond like Chicago, 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 tourism can help improve the experience of living in Chattanooga for locals. We want people to visit, but that visitation should serve as a driver for enhancing our community, for building 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 the Convention Center 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 such an embarrassment of riches. Pretty simply, people know us as the Scenic City, and that’s 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; that gets a lot of people here. So while large groups are meeting at the Convention Center, we encourage them to enjoy all the other amenities on offer — from legacy attractions like Rock City, Ruby Falls and the Tennessee Aquarium, to a hike on a beautiful mountain followed by some great cocktails and a delicious dinner. 

TREND: What are some of your current or most recent projects to promote Chattanooga?

Phipps: This year we’re doing some strategic visioning to increase the focus on our local culinary scene. I’m personally tired of hearing the claim that Chattanooga doesn’t have much of a culinary scene, or they’re even surprised when they visit and discover we have really good food here. Chattanooga has some amazing local chefs, award-winning restaurants, super-local food like Uncle Larry’s, and diversity to our restaurateurs. Our craft beer scene is also a great compliment to Asheville, N.C. in that a lot of the microbreweries here are walkable to each other so if want, you can take a whole multi-brewery tour on foot. 

One of our biggest problems here in Chattanooga is sometimes we just think too small and don’t always work together, so CTC works to convene folks to collaborate on co-promotion. So for example, to cohesively market our local culinary offerings, we’re coming up with some 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, the Chattanooga Sports division of the Chattanooga Tourism Company works to position Chattanooga for hosting 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 holding a test event for WRC in a couple of weeks: Who would’ve ever thought Chattanooga might be host to an international competition like that?

TREND: The CTC is a Chamber member, and the two organizations are close partners on cheerleading all things Chattanooga. How have you interacted with the Chamber in your role as Marketing Director?

Phipps: We love our relationship with the Chamber because in many ways it completes the puzzle on what we do, which is 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 focuses on. From planting that initial seed during someone’s first Chattanooga experience of, “Wow! This is a place I could live!”, to then seeing those same people in town two years down the road, and they share they’re now living here and experiencing all the great things about Chattanooga on a daily basis–For us, that’s the perfect full-circle journey. 

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 broadband service, and Chattanooga as a remote-work destination where you could also bring a family. I got to do a presentation about that marketing program at Destinations International, the largest annual gathering of destination-marketing organizers. That idea, of Chattanooga as a remote-work destination and Chattanooga Calling, originated with the Chamber and it became a huge part of what we worked on during the pandemic. 

Finally, I’ll say this about Leadership Chattanooga: Having been a journalist here for a full decade prior to my enrollment in the program, I thought I knew a lot about this city. But when I went through LC in 2021-2022, it was revelatory for me; 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 envy them. They’re so completely dedicated to their work, with every fiber of their being, you just have to admire it. I also got to meet and hang out with some very cool people. An LC classmate of mine who I probably never would’ve crossed paths with otherwise –we’re in completely different fields professionally– has become a good friend. It’s important to have those shared experiences in our community; Leadership Chattanooga provides that so I highly recommend the program to others.

TREND: What are some specific ways you incorporate local, independent businesses into your marketing efforts?

Phipps: The reality is that when people visit, Chattanooga-Hamilton County is not that big of a geographic area. So most visitors will likely come into contact with or experience Downtown at some point during their stay. We work to ensure those folks have an idea of what all they can experience in Downtown and its adjacent neighborhoods, that they can support locally-owned businesses in doing 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 our partners supply, and uses that to suggest awesome, whole-package experiences for visitors.

Visitors can access information on things to do in/around Chattanooga at the CTC’s new Tourism Information Center, located just outside The Tennessee Aquarium.

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 on things to do, public parks, places to shop and eat, they can go to that Visitor Information Center in the middle of Downtown and branch out from there.

We’ve seen a lot of our partners experience growth through just these tactics, but we’re also constantly visiting other cities to tell the world about Chattanooga. We staff exhibits in Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, the Northeast, Chicago — huge trade shows where we represent our local makers. We’ve partnered with Chattanooga Whiskey on custom whiskey cocktails at these conferences; we give away small bottles of Hoff & Pepper hot sauce. We’ve also 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 attempting 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 not heard of Chattanooga before but they walk by us and see a makeshift rock-climbing wall. Sure, 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 might appeal to visitors, how should I seek to work with CTC?

Phipps: New hotels continue to get built and Chattanooga continues to get a lot of buzz. One of the best things to happen this year was Samantha Brown’s Best Places to Love.  That was just a huge gift and it not only showed off our city from an accessibility standpoint, it also highlighted some enjoyable activities that don’t normally get 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 — you don’t have to be this chiseled climber or climbing enthusiast to 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 located in the Downtown footprint, or even if you’re further out– we’d love to know about it and explore opportunities to partner. We can’t do it alone, without the support of our local businesses and community members. 

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