BCTDA plans $15M in marketing for 2021-22

"Exfoliate Your Soul" screen capture
SPREAD THE WORD: "Exfoliate Your Soul," a 15-second video ad by the Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, had nearly 2 million views on YouTube as of press time. Screen capture courtesy of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority

By the start of April, Buncombe County’s lodging sales had almost entirely regained the ground lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. Year-to-date revenues from July 2020 through March 2021, according to figures presented to the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority board on May 26, were down just 4% compared with those for July 2019 through March of last year.

The board now seeks to further fan the flames of recovery with its biggest-ever annual marketing spend: more than $15 million. That allocation, outlined in the BCTDA’s proposed operating budget for fiscal year 2021-22, is 55% more than the roughly $9.7 million the authority plans to spend on marketing in the current budget cycle.

As explained by Vic Isley, president and CEO of the Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, the TDA would spend at least $10.6 million on advertising buys, an 8% increase over the last pre-pandemic fiscal year. Just over $3 million would go toward the production of new content, with the remainder of the marketing budget spent on research.

“We want to work on increasing length of stay, so that will reduce the wear and tear on infrastructure,” Isley said about the TDA’s advertising goals. “We want to work on influencing visitor behavior and dispersal, creating itineraries and experiences to motivate them to move throughout the county so that their physical attendance in our community — as well as their dollars represented — will be dispersed throughout the community better.”

Research items would include a software system that Isley said would “really help us with that destination management and that comfortable carrying capacity,” a resident sentiment survey and visitor satisfaction tracking. The authority’s last resident sentiment survey was completed in October 2019 as part of the now-stalled Tourism Management and Investment Plan process.

Exact spending levels, noted Explore Asheville Director of Finance Jennifer Kass-Green, will depend on changes to the TDA’s enabling legislation being considered by the N.C. General Assembly. Currently, the authority must spend 75% of occupancy tax revenues on tourism promotion, with 25% going toward tourism-related capital projects. The Asheville Buncombe Hotel Association, which represents local hotel owners, supports adjusting those percentages to 66% and 33%, respectively.

If the revenue split is adjusted, Kass-Green explained, the TDA will use $2 million of its roughly $12 million in available cash reserves to fund its desired level of marketing. However, it is unclear if the legislative changes will pass; Republican Sen. Chuck Edwards, who represents Henderson County and the eastern third of Buncombe County, told Asheville’s Council of Independent Business Owners in February that “this is not the time to talk about redistribution in any manner” regarding the occupancy tax.

Because the TDA board continues to meet remotely during North Carolina’s COVID-19 state of emergency, members of the public will not be permitted to comment on the budget proposal in person. Instead, comments may be submitted to Reply@ExploreAsheville.com through 4 p.m. Tuesday, June 29. A final vote on the budget is scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday, June 30.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Assistant Editor of Mountain Xpress, regularly contributing to coverage of Western North Carolina's government, environment and health care. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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12 thoughts on “BCTDA plans $15M in marketing for 2021-22

  1. luther blissett

    We appreciate Daniel’s TDA beat, but it sometimes feels like he’s just repeating the official line without doing some of the basics, like reading the financial statements.

    “the roughly $9.7 million the authority plans to spend on marketing in the current budget cycle.”

    The TDA fiscal year runs from July 1 – June 30. It’s May 26. How much has the TDA spent so far? Seems relevant here. The April 30 2021 financial statement (part of the documentation for this meeting) says that $3 million had been spent on marketing since July 1 2020 and that $8.4 million remained from what was budgeted. Assuming the $9.7 million figure is meaningful, is the TDA planning to spend $6.7 million in May and June in some kind of mad spending spree? Seems relevant here. Might be worth following up.

    The fund balance started the year at $12 million and is now $20 million. Lodging sales for every month of 2021 so far are way up from 2019. The average monthly marketing spend has been around $300,000 and mostly reflects the retainer it pays its ad agency, not any actual campaigns.

    To reiterate: the TDA has spent essentially ~nothing~ on advertising this past fiscal year, and visitor numbers / occupancy tax revenues only fell slightly. During a pandemic. Knowing this, the TDA has decided in its collective wisdom to spend $15 million on advertising. As a point of reference, the entire Asheville Police Department budget for 2020-21 was just under $30 million. It’s a redistribution of wealth from visitors to TV stations, online ad platforms and whoever else wants to be showered with cash as long as they’re not locals. (Though the TDA can pay the Explore Asheville staff amply.)

    Either the people running the TDA and Explore Asheville are too stupid and feckless to be in charge of the money, or they’re deliberately insulting the people of Buncombe County. But our colonial governor Chuck Edwards has spoken: state law will not change. The only option to rein in the TDA is for the county commission to defund it. It’ll still have $20 million in the bank to waste, but after that it will be done and good riddance.

    • Hi Luther, thanks much for reading and for the sharp-eyed analysis. The $9.7 million figure was drawn from Kass-Green’s presentation (page 36 at https://www.ashevillecvb.com/wp-content/uploads/05.26.21-BCTDA-Mtg-Webinar-PPT.pdf), and your numbers do check out regarding the difference between that figure and the ~$3 million spent on marketing through April 30 this fiscal year.

      Neither Kass-Green nor Isley spoke on how the TDA planned to reach this year’s spending target in the months remaining, but I agree that it’s an excellent question. I’ll reach out to the TDA and let you know what I find out!

      • luther blissett

        Thanks for pointing out the reference in the presentation, Daniel, and for being willing to follow up. It’s very much appreciated, and I certainly didn’t mean to diminish your commitment to the TDA beat.

        Perhaps it’s just a lack of clarity in communication, but that page seems pretty clear. If the TDA / Explore Asheville is planning to spend (or has already started spending) $6.7 million on marketing over two months in some kind of mad rush to justify the 2020-21 budget, seems like we need to know about it, though it will only start to become clear when the May 31 financials are provided for the June 30 meeting (i.e. the last day of the fiscal year.) Pretty sure there’s no “use it or lose it” provision to the TDA’s annual spending, but I’m happy to be corrected on that.

        On that page you cited, the $4.5 million “loss” listed in the first column is in terms of budgeted spending vs revenues, not actual spending for FY21, so we can put it to one side. But I legitimately don’t know how they get from $5.8 million in total expenditures and $9.9 million under budget from the April 30 financials (page 1) to $13.1 million in total expenditures in the FY21 Forecast without going all “Brewster’s Millions” with the marketing budget.

        https://www.ashevillecvb.com/wp-content/uploads/03-BCTDA-Financials-April-2021-v3.pdf

        • Hi Luther, here’s the response I got from TDA spokesperson Kathi Petersen when I asked about the levels of marketing spend for the rest of the year:

          “First: Throughout much of the pandemic, we pulled back significantly on advertising investment. With the rate of vaccinations increasing and Buncombe County hotel room demand dropping back to 2010 levels, we reentered the very competitive travel marketplace this spring intent on meeting travelers where they are – whether ready to travel now or planning trips for the future. Our messaging and content strategy are meant to influence visitor behavior; for example, introducing itineraries that will increase length of stay, encouraging travelers to take the time to visit more local businesses and communities, thereby contributing to recovery efforts.

          Second: During any year, it’s not unusual for expenses to be higher in the second half of the fiscal year. Marketing ramps back up in anticipation of summer travel. Marketing costs include much more than net media: In addition to development and production of the campaign, marketing also includes our public relations efforts, research, content creation, and projects with local photographers, videographers, freelance writers, and so on. Despite expenses being incurred sometimes months earlier, invoices for paid media costs and the creative production and delivery expenses generally come in during the end of the campaign.”

          She also attached a flowchart outlining when different paid media efforts are scheduled (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1iqxFS3MiNQqA8w2BtjFKljwehQ33lxIF/view?usp=sharing). As you can see, it is indeed very heavily weighted to May and June.

          • luther blissett

            Thanks for the follow-up, Daniel. The flowchart has its access restricted, so I can’t see it what you’re seeing.

            Anyway, that’s not an answer to what is a simple math question. It’s obfuscatory PR-speak, which tells its own story. Maybe it’s a very convoluted way to say “yes, we’re spending $6.7 million on marketing — twice as much as we’ve spent the entire past fiscal year — in May and June .” Or maybe the word salad in the second paragraph means that the TDA has signed contracts that will eventually involve spending $6.7 million for those months. It’s not saying that the TDA isn’t planning to spend $6.7 million over May-June. (Once again: visitor numbers were hardly down. During a pandemic.)

            The TDA had ample opportunity to spend its marketing dollars on “projects with local photographers, videographers, freelance writers, and so on” last year — when it mattered most for those local creatives — and didn’t. Instead it’s flushing millions down the toilet at a time when paid media is at its most expensive to pretend that its marginal value in attracting visitors is greater than it really is. We’ll see just how much has been flushed in a month’s time.

            It’s a scandal in plain view, and it’s long past time to a) FOIA the heck out of the TDA; b) defund it.

          • luther blissett

            For what it’s worth, the past financial statements say that the May 2019 marketing spend was perhaps $400,000 — the itemization is different in the 2019 statements, but it was no more than $600,000 — though the TDA threw $3 million at paid media in June 2019.

            I would have a tiny bit more respect for the TDA if its spokesperson had said “yeah, we’re in the middle of spending $6.7 million over two months because it’s our money to spend on marketing and we can do what we want with it.” That the TDA gave you that weasely statement instead tells you that it didn’t expect anyone paying attention. It got caught piling up $100 bills as high as the former Vance Monument and setting them on fire.

  2. luther blissett

    I have to throw this in: the “community engagement” budget for 2021-22 is… $123,178. That’s less than half of Vic Isley’s salary. So yeah, it feels like a deliberate insult to the community.

  3. luther blissett

    Finally, in regard to that dumb “Exfoliate Your Soul” video: most videos with 2 million organic views from real people don’t have only 3,750 subscribers, a total of 10 likes / dislikes and zero comments. The most obvious (and legitimate) way to get those numbers is if was used as a “TrueView in-stream ad” which is counted as a view if it isn’t skipped. So congrats to whoever created something too short for people to hit “skip ad” but long enough to register as a view [golf clap]

  4. Jonathan Wainscott

    The BCTDA collects and spends $26,000,000 a year.
    That’s over &70K every single day Saturdays and Sundays included.
    Clearly this is not enough. How can Asheville ever become a real city on such a meager budget? There are people in Iceland that don’t know how awesome Asheville is.

  5. HendoHendo

    This is has gone on long enough. It’s absurd and an insult to our community. We must, must, must defund this bloated, useless organization. I look forward to speaking to my Buncombe Co. Commissioner about it and urge you to do the same. Beyond that, is there already an organized group lobbying to zero out the occupancy tax and defund the TDA? I would love to know.

    • luther blissett

      If there isn’t, now’s the time there should be. There is no legal way to deprive the TDA of the money it has been hoarding this past year, but the most basic political request would be a one-year moratorium on the occupancy tax. That puts money in visitors’ pockets that can potentially be spent in ways that generate sales tax revenues or put money in the hands of service workers through (taxable) tips. The county commission can then, if it chooses, reinstate the tax for 2022-2023 at a percentage that better reflects what the TDA ought to have at its disposal. Maybe between then and now something changes in Raleigh.

      The TDA had ample opportunity to spend its marketing dollars in creative ways within the local community and it chose not to spend it at all. It decided to prove itself unnecessary, and we should respect that decision.

  6. RWD

    “We want to work on increasing length of stay, so that will reduce the wear and tear on infrastructure,” Isley said about the TDA’s advertising goals. “We want to work on influencing visitor behavior and dispersal, creating itineraries and experiences to motivate them to move throughout the county so that their physical attendance in our community — as well as their dollars represented — will be dispersed throughout the community better.”

    THIS IS A WONDERFULLY CRAFTED PHRASE THAT IS PURE BS !!! At least someone has acknowledged the fact there is infrastructure in town that might need help !!

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