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Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association: Practicing regionalism for 42 years

Zach Vance • Feb 4, 2019 at 8:26 PM

Long before the term “regionalism” was coined to encourage collaboration within Northeast Tennessee to compete on a larger scale economically, a similar trend emerged in 1977 with the development of the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association. 

“We’ve been doing regionalism before regionalism was cool,” NETTA Executive Director Alicia Phelps said. 

More than 100 businesses, both large and small, are members of the association, which is overseen by a 21-member board of directors.  

“It started out as a council, and it has grown since then to what we are today,” Phelps said. “Basically, our counties and larger cities, as well as some of the smaller ones, came together and saw a need for regional marketing and tourism development. Through those conversations, our organization was born.” 

When NETTA was first established, it was Tennessee’s first regionally-focused tourism organization. Now, Phelps said there are nine such entities modeled after NETTA that are recognized by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.

To this day, Phelps said NETTA’s mission remains the same as it did 42 years ago: To serve as a catalyst for tourism promotion and development for all, not just some, of Northeast Tennessee’s assets. 

NETTA, which operates as a nonprofit organization, promotes tourist attractions, natural resources, historical sites and businesses spanning Carter, Greene, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties. Phelps said her group also collaborates with partners in Southwest Virginia, as well as Morristown and Cumberland Gap.

At times, Phelps said it can be difficult to promote a region spanning 2,897 square miles, but the diversity of culture and attractions within those boundaries is certainly beneficial from a tourism aspect. 

“We are not known for just one thing. When we’re promoting the region, we look at several of our different assets and kind of blend us together to make us this cultural tourism area that folks will want to come visit,” she said. “It works out really well because we are attractive to a variety of different folks, depending on what their interest is.” 

With so much emphasis now being put on regional cooperation, NETTA’s experience and knowledge could prove to be a valuable resource for committees, like Washington and Sullivan counties’ Blue Ribbon Committee on Regional Cooperation, which is tasked with finding common ground on regional issues.

“Because of the tourism professionals and folks we have on our board, as well as our organization just being around for so long, we have seen trends, and we know what’s working and what’s not,” Phelps said. 

“I do think we’re definitely another resource for folks when they’re looking at the regional conversation. We’re definitely excited to be a part of that. We want to help further elevate Northeast Tennessee and make it as competitive as possible.” 

Phelps said a unified message produces a louder voice on a bigger scale. 

“We’re all very separate, and it’s hard to compete with much larger tourist areas. However, when we all do work together, we have a much larger voice. It makes us a lot stronger from a tourist aspect, where we can market all our assets together. I think it’s been great, and something we’ve seen happen as we’ve evolved,” Phelps said. 

While some may be unfamiliar with NETTA, it is likely you have seen some of its promotional work. Phelps said her organization’s promotional efforts target a nationwide audience, sometimes directed towards the southeastern portion of the United States, as well as the Tri-Cities region itself. 

For example, NETTA  recently installed an interactive kiosk at Tri-Cities Airport for tourists to learn about each city within the region and the attractions available. 

In 2017, all eight Northeast Tennessee counties generated more than $835 million in economic impact from domestic travel into the region, 4.2 percent more than the total generated in 2016, according to the latest data from the U.S. Travel Association.

The economic impact of travelers visiting the Tri-Cities also produced $25.56 million in local tax revenue for local counties and municipalities. 

“One of the things about organization is that, yes, we have been promoting the region for a long time.  We have all these professionals and tools already at the table and the resources here. So we’re definitely moving forward in terms of our area being a top entity when it comes to tourism and development,” she said. 

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