In March, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s finance committee faced an enviable dilemma: With actual occupancy tax revenues up 25% over projections, how should the authority adjust its forecasts for the rest of the fiscal year?
Stephanie Brown is president and CEO of the Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, the arm of the TDA responsible for spending the money generated by the county’s occupancy tax to promote local tourism. She described the finance committee’s conundrum at the May 29 regular meeting of the authority.
Committee members decided to “smooth” the predictions to reflect a 10% increase for March and an 8% increase for each of the following months through the end of June, Brown said. If that best guess comes true, occupancy tax revenues for the year will total $18.8 million — a 9% increase over 2018’s take from hotels and short-term rentals.
Going forward, the TDA estimates revenues for fiscal year 2020 at $19.36 million, a 3% increase over 2019, Brown said.
Those funds will be used to promote the area’s “vitality for the benefit of the people who live in Buncombe County,” increase lodging demand and boost Asheville’s brand profile for group meetings and events, according to Brown. The budget will also fund a yearlong Tourism Management and Investment Plan process and “engage partners and the community” through local paid advertising and outreach.
The biggest 2020 budget bucket will fuel $11.5 million in media spending, up from $10.5 million in 2019. TV and streaming advertising account for $6 million, while the digital budget is $3.7 million. Of interest to print lovers, the TDA’s print advertising budget will plummet from $705,402 in 2019 to $110,000 in 2020; all of that money is slated for publications distributed outside the local area. A local advertising campaign promoting the message “Tourism builds community” is financed by $175,000 in earned revenue from sponsorships on the CVB website.
Salaries and benefits for Explore Asheville employees account for $2.7 million of the total, a 3% increase over 2019. That number includes a new director of finance position, 3% merit-based pay increases and a 4% increase in health insurance costs.
Explore Asheville’s group sales department will have a budget of about $1 million to spend on a consultant who’s completing a “brand refresh,” support for the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission (which accounts for $205,000 of the total, with sports bid fees not included in the budget), 17 trade shows and meeting development. The Explore Asheville office rent and other expenses will run $685,947.
Administering the Tourism Product Development Fund’s existing grants and programs will cost $504,950. The fund has temporarily paused its grantmaking during a yearlong planning process, which will develop a long-term approach to awarding tourism dollars for capital projects with the potential to increase overnight visitation. Brown explained that 25% of occupancy tax revenues flow to this fund.
According to Brown, TDA-sponsored research indicates that every dollar spent on marketing results in $43 of local revenue, including $3 in sales tax and $0.92 in occupancy tax proceeds.The 2020 advertising budget of $11.5 million, she continued, will therefore generate $494 million of local spending.
No member of the public commented on the proposed budget during the May 29 meeting, but the TDA will hold a second public hearing during its next meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday, June 26, at the Explore Asheville offices, 27 College Place, prior to a vote of the authority board on the proposed budget.
On Wednesday, June 12, 9 a.m.-noon, the TDA’s newly formed Community Leadership Council will hold its first meeting. Composed of representatives from local government agencies, nonprofits and other organizations, the group will provide input into the TDA’s Tourism Management Investment Plan. More information is available at ashevillecvb.com/tmip.
Both meetings are open to the public.