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.