MEMPHIS — A promising year for Memphis tourism may have gotten even better with last week's announcement of events surrounding the 60th anniversary of Elvis Presley's first record.
Memphis area hotel occupancy, a key barometer of tourism, was up 12 percent this year through April 30, outstripping a 3.3 percent increase nationally.
Officials in the hotel and tourism business credited a rebounding national economy, the release of pent-up demand for leisure travel and a regional advertising campaign.
"The economy's stronger. That's a whole lot of it," said Chuck Pinkowski, a hotel consultant with Pinkowski & Co. in Memphis. "You're seeing people taking more trips and having the attitude, 'We suffered through the economic recession and skipped three-four years of doing something as far as a vacation,' and now they feel more comfortable doing it."
Memphis hotel occupancy was up 11 percent through May, and June has been good, said Kevin Kane, president of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. The Texas-based National Baptist Convention of America had 4,500 people at its Family Faith Fest 2014 at the Memphis Cook Convention Center last week.
"We feel like we're having a very good tourism year from the hotel standpoint as well. We're very optimistic," Kane said.
Last week Graceland and Sun Studio launched plans for a yearlong commemoration of Presley's first record. They're marking the recording on July 5, 1954 and broadcasting on July 8, 1954 of Presley's That's All Right. Downtown's Fourth of July celebration at Mud Island River Park also will feature an Elvis theme.
It's unclear how much impact the events will have, but hotels anticipate strong bookings with some sellouts as the city's usual summer tourism and arrival of Elvis fans coincide with new offerings.
"These anniversaries, as far as milestones and great moments in culture, I think they just go to underscore the role that Memphis has in the history of America's music," Kane said. "They send that branding message that Memphis is a great destination for the music lover, the music tourist."
The bureau, aided by a co-op grant from the state, spent $1.2 million on advertising between March and June to promote the city. A majority was spent in cities within easy reach by car or a short flight, such as Louisville, Nashville, Birmingham and Atlanta, Kane said.
Operators of attractions including Presley's Graceland and Sun Studio say they draw visitors year-round, but the pace quickens in the summer with an influx of foreign tourists, especially Europeans.
Graceland averages between 500,000 and 600,000 visitors annually. "July is typically our busiest month of the year with Elvis Week allowing Memphis and Graceland to finish the summer months on a high note in August," Graceland spokesman Kevin Kern said.
Sun Studio draws just under 200,000 a year to see where artists including Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins made records.
Sun Studio spokeswoman Jayne Brooks said, "We had a slow season once upon a time but it doesn't really exist any longer."