By JOHN McBRYDE
Ellie Westman Chin has spent her entire career in the travel industry, and in July she will mark five years as the person overseeing the efforts to ensure tourist and convention travelers are still coming to Williamson County.
Indeed they are, as visitor spending in the county now exceeds $427 million annually, with a yearly increase of $10 million since Chin’s arrival as president and CEO of the Williamson County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Franklin Home Page: You’ll be reaching your fifth anniversary in your current position this summer. Do you feel that you and the Williamson County Convention & Visitors Bureau have reached the goals or met expectations you may have set?
Ellie Westman Chin: I’m very pleased with where we are almost five years later after I had gotten here. When I got on board, there was some refreshing and updating we needed to do. We needed a whole new website. We needed a little more focused branding effort. One of our big goals when I got on board was how do we work with Nashville, because it’s so great to be so close to them; but how do we stand on our own brand where we talk about Franklin without having to talk about Nashville? And I think we’ve made great strides in doing that. One of the things we needed to do was get out in the community more and get to know our hoteliers and attractions and restaurants. I feel like we have gotten out and built some really great relationships so we can partner together to promote Franklin.
FHP: What are the biggest challenges you and the WCCVB face?
EWC: We’ve had a lot of discussions internally. We have a great experience for our visitor. We have amazing attractions like Carnton, the Carter House and the Lotz House. There are beautiful parks. But as our visitor numbers grow, we have a lot of discussions about other things a visitor would like to see in Franklin. One of them is definitely sports. We have a very good reputation in the youth and amateur sports field, and I think we could be booking more tournaments here if we had access to more venues or fields or whatever that might be.
There’s a lot of business we turn away because we just don’t have space for it. I think that’s a growth opportunity for us. And the way I view any kind of development for visitors is, usually if it’ s good for the visitors it’s good for the residents. So if we build a cool sports facility our tournaments could use, then it’s going to be available for the locals as well and what their needs are.”
FHP: In addition to what Franklin has to offer, what are other selling points through the rest of the county?
EWC: You know, music continues to move up the list thanks to Pilgrimage. Of course, that’s in Franklin, but it has brought a spotlight to us as far as the music aspect, and we’ve got great music throughout the county. Two years ago we launched the Masters & Makers Trail. Because of Thompson’s Station and Leiper’s Fork, we have these really neat independent distilleries. Of course, in Arrington, we have the vineyard. We launched that trail [in 2017] because we want our visitors to get out around the whole county. It’s beautiful, and there are little gems and nuggets all over the county. So we have people coming in because they want to try that craft whiskey or that cool wine that you’re not going to get anywhere else.
And I think just the natural beauty [is attractive]. We were in a meeting just recently and we were talking about how you can drive just 10 minutes outside of Franklin and you’re in this gorgeous rolling countryside and you feel like you’re hours away from anything and really you’re just 10 minutes down the road from a decent size population. I think in today’s world we’re just all so busy and harried; with our phones we’re never off anymore because somebody could call at night if they need something. I think what we offer is that chance to just shut down a little bit and relax and have a conversation.
FHP: Could Williamson County use a larger convention center?
EWC: I think we can. The [Franklin] Marriott is great, and we have a great relationship with Chartwell [Hospitality], which is now managing it. But there is quite a bit of business in the step-up to the larger size that we can’t host here, and because Nashville has grown so much in their convention business, there’s a lot of opportunity for us to bring that 1,000-person convention down here if we had a space that was a little bit bigger.
FHP: How will the new Harpeth Square development benefit the convention and tourism business in Franklin once it’s completed later this year?
EWC: I think Harpeth Square does a couple of things for us. One, I think it expands our visitor footprint downtown. As much as we tell people to go down to Gallery 202 [on Second Avenue] and try to get them over to the cute little Coffee House on Second and Bridge, once they get to the square a lot of visitors think this is where it stops. So I think it will expand that footprint all the way down to the Boathouse, which is very exciting for us.
The other thing it does is, we get a lot of of visitors who think they’re going to come in for a day. They have so much fun and they get to the Visitor Center and say, “Hey, where can I stay where I can just walk to dinner for tonight?” We don’t have that right now, so I think it’s going to help us turn those day-trippers to overnighters. And the third thing it does, there’s a whole market of business we haven’t pursued because we need an independent, boutique hotel, and that will serve that purpose for us. So we are very excited that’s going to open and they have made that commitment. I really think it’s going to be a game-changer for us.
FHP: What do you envision for Franklin and the county as they relate to the WCCVB five to 10 years from now?
EWC: We have had really strong and consistent growth. I don’t see anything in our future to make me think that won’t continue as a trend. We have a lot of hotel rooms opening this year, about 7,000, which is a lot for a county our size. I would love to see more sports venues, additional meeting space where we can bring in more group business. I’d love to see our leisure travel increase.
I look down five years from now, and I get really excited about what our opportunities are, because we are really blessed here in the county that we have people who are invested in our county and they are doing really neat things. When I look at cities and counties our size across the country, they don’t have what we have. They don’t have their own attractions, they don’t have the history of the Civil War battle, they don’t have the people that are invested in building these things for our city. I get really excited about that.