Cece Noonan, 41, says that she became aware of Asheville about four years ago. First, as she recalls, there was an ad (or maybe it was an article?) about the city in USA Today or some other newspaper. Then she read about the city and saw ads for it in Southern Living on a consistent basis. Next came travel stories in online newspapers. Noonan even noticed the city cropping up in a number of magazine “best-of” lists and books touting the top spots to live, start a business or retire.
So, about two years ago, in the throes of a painful divorce, Noonan sought refuge from her Florida home and decided to give Asheville a try.
“It just seemed from what I’d read that it would be pleasant and affordable, and just a good place to escape to—a funky, artsy mountain hideaway,” Noonan says. That first visit led to others, each one memorable in its own way. Come August, she will be packing up and moving here, either to Asheville or Black Mountain, depending on the real-estate market.
“I am so excited,” says Noonan, who works as a telecommuting software consultant for a Texas firm. “This is a place I can see myself living ‘til I die.”
The enticements that drove her here originally—the advertisements, the articles, the lists—are not so much a sublime accident or serendipity. In large measure they are part of a calculated and very successful advertising, marketing and PR effort to lure leisure travelers to Asheville and Buncombe County. The fact that seemingly large numbers of those travelers are becoming residents is merely a consequence of the original plan, notes Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau Assistant Vice President and Director of Marketing/PR Marla Tambellini.
“I already know that some people aren’t too happy about that, about all the people moving in,” says Noonan, who on at least a couple of occasions has overheard Ashevilleans bemoaning the influx of Floridians and others who, those detractors were overheard to say, came here because “the city advertises too damn much.”
Tough coconuts, says Noonan. “Because I’d bet you none of those people I heard bitching about it are really natives either, just transplants like me who moved here and then wanted to slam the door to everyone else. They sure didn’t sound like mountain folk.”
Tambellini says that the ACVB (which is part of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and works in conjunction with the county’s Tourism Development Authority), puts a heavy focus on tourism development because that sector is, after all, a major part of the area economy.
A recent study showed that the annual economic impact on the Asheville area from overnight “leisure visitors” alone (2.76 million visitors) accounts for an impact of more than $1.88 billion on the local economy. Buncombe County estimates that visitors to the Asheville area generate one-third of all retail sales. And, based in part on that figure, it’s estimated that nearly $40 million goes back to local government in combined sales and property taxes resulting from tourism. “It’s interesting to note that prior to the use of the room tax for marketing, the annual economic impact was approximately $198 million,” Tambellini says.
And that’s not all, she adds. “Since its inception in 2002, the Tourism Product Development Fund [derived from a percent of the room tax visitors pay] has awarded $9,033,500 through 2007 to such notable projects as the John B. Lewis Soccer Fields, Pack Square Park, the Grove Arcade, Momentum [the new version of The Health Adventure scheduled to be built in Montford] and the Bonsai Garden at the N.C. Arboretum, to name a few,” she says. “Additionally, the new way-finding system, a million-dollar investment that will be implemented later this year throughout the county, is being paid for through those tourism dollars as well.”
The marketing budget for the city and county is approximately $6 million, Tambellini says. “Our board has always felt very strongly about putting as many of those dollars as possible into straight advertising. So about $3 million, or half of our budget, was just in net media buys; that doesn’t include production, that’s not agency fees, that’s not PR or other marketing things, just straight advertising.” When those other costs are factored in, she says, the total marketing/PR/advertising outlay is well over two-thirds of the budget. Tambellini says the bureau maintains a “lean and mean” staff to keep costs down so that more money can be devoted to boosterism, and effort that includes not just Asheville but all of Buncombe County.
Compared to other cities its size, that’s a whopping amount, says Tambellini, with Asheville outspending such notable destinations as Charleston, S.C. “We spend way more on media than like cities,” she says. However, places that rely almost exclusively on tourism, such as Myrtle Beach and Gatlinburg, Tenn., routinely spend millions more annually than Asheville, she notes.
In addition to print, TV and other media buys, which are mostly confined to the Carolinas, the Atlanta area, coastal Georgia and, of course, Florida, the ACVB aims to get more heavily into online marketing and advertising. One of those efforts is a new Web site, www.foodtopiansociety.com, which will market the area as a gustatory destination.
And while straight advertising and marketing are crucial to its efforts, Tambellini and others with the ACVB and TDA have become adept at building close relationships with writers, editors, publishers, station managers and others that have helped lead to the recent barrage of positive press, she says.
In fact, Tambellini notes, she spent the entire previous day with a Southern Living writer and has even invited such writers into her home in an effort to build the kind of rapport that pays off in glowing coverage. “I’ve had travel editors from USA Today for dinner in my house,” the former journalist says. For a relatively low cost, such personal efforts can produce “a really, really strong return on investment. They see us as not just a PR person pitching a story, but someone they’ve gotten to really know.”
— Hal L. Millard
Biz-minded teachers: Teachers are vital to building a robust workforce. On May 9, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce recognized three outstanding local educators and awarded each $500 for their respective initiatives.
Madison High School’s health-sciences instructor Kathy Mackey‘s program is so popular that students are being turned away. While lauded for a number of things, perhaps the most impressive she has done is to ready students for nursing careers. Her Allied Health Sciences II students are eligible to take the certified nursing assistant state examination and receive their CNA license before graduation, enabling them to immediately enter the workforce. Many of her students begin as CNAs and continue with their education to become a registered nurse.
North Buncombe Middle School’s Future Farmers of America Advisor Justin Gillespie established the only middle school FFA chapter in Buncombe, where students learn daily about agriculture careers, often through hands-on work. Students also have sponsored beautification projects and learned public speaking as they are called upon to represent their school at events or before groups.
And Asheville High School science teacher Sarah Duffer was lauded for her efforts to promote “green” living among her students and for an art contest, with the winner’s work featured on grocery bags at Earth Fare as part of the grocer’s 2008 Earth Day promotion. Duffer also has enabled her students to tour a local power plant and learn about energy-industry careers.