Susan Whitaker, a veteran tourism marketing executive, was appointed in January 2011 to the cabinet of Governor Bill Haslam as Commissioner of Tourist Development. Whitaker was initially appointed to the position in 2003 by Governor Phil Bredesen and reappointed under his administration in 2007. Whitaker was named the 2013 National Tourism Director of the Year by the U.S. Travel Association’s National Council of State Travel Directors.
As Commissioner, Whitaker is responsible for marketing Tennessee’s tourism industry domestically and internationally. Tourism is one of Tennessee’s largest industries with a $16.7 billion direct economic impact in 2013, a 3.4 percent increase over 2012. State and local tax collections reached a new high of $1.28 billion for tourism related businesses in 2013, which is the eighth consecutive year above $1 billion.
Whitaker oversees the development and implementation of the state’s comprehensive marketing, public relations and promotions campaigns designed to stimulate growth of tourism in Tennessee. Of note is the state’s award-winning consumer website, tnvacation.com, as well as the state’s 15 Welcome Centers.
Under Whitaker’s leadership, the Department of Tourist Development launched the Discover Tennessee Trails & Byways program, featuring 16 comprehensive, statewide trails that guide visitors from Tennessee’s big cities to off-the beaten path attractions throughout the state. Each of Tennessee’s 95 counties is included in the Trails program as well as the state’s five National Scenic Byways.
As co-chair of Tennessee’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission, Whitaker is a strategic part of the planning and overseeing of Tennessee’s 150th Civil War commemoration. In preparation for this Civil War milestone, Whitaker launched the Tennessee Civil War Trails Program. Markers are in place at more than 300 Civil War sites throughout the state with a goal to have the trail go into every Tennessee county. The commission also is responsible for annual Civil War Sesquicentennial Signature events during the 150th commemoration.
Whitaker launched Tennessee’s Sustainable Tourism initiative with the 2008 Great Smoky Mountain Sustainable Tourism Summit, positioning the state as a national leader in sustainable tourism. Further outgrowth of the Summit has been Tennessee’s launch of a sustainable tourism website, featuring a complete online toolbox, 10 statewide sustainable tourism workshops, and a six-part webinar series. Tennessee’s program has been recognized by U.S. Travel Association as a national best practice.
Whitaker serves as the Secretary of the U.S. Travel Association’s Board of Directors and sits on the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta Travel and Tourism Advisory Council. She also serves on the Executive Committee of the National Council of State Travel Directors, Travel South USA Board of Directors, the University of Tennessee’s Retail, Hospitality and Tourism Management Advisory Board, and the Governor’s International Advisory Council. She serves as the co-chair of Tennessee’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission as well as the Tennessee State Fair Commission and is a member of the Smoky Mountains Park Commission. In September 2013, Whitaker was appointed to the Civil War Trust Board of Trustees.
Whitaker is a Chicago native and a direct descendent of Tennessee’s first Governor, John Sevier. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois. Prior to her state cabinet post, Whitaker served as vice president of marketing for Dollywood, Tennessee’s most visited manmade attraction.