As with the Borg of Star Trek fame, resistance to the post-pandemic return of tourists to Asheville may be futile.
Marla Tambellini, Explore Asheville’s vice president of marketing, shared her confidence to that effect during the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s annual meeting on Oct. 20. She echoed the view of Adam Sacks, head of consulting firm Tourism Economics, who throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has held that “recovery is inevitable.”
The BCTDA’s best prediction for when the recovery from COVID-19 will be completed is 2023. Tambellini noted that some demand for lodging had already returned through domestic leisure travelers; while room sales for July (the latest month for which data is available) were down 28% compared with last year, sales for April had been 93% lower than in 2019.
Early next year, Tambellini suggested, would mark the return of essential meetings, small and medium events and regional international travel. Large events and long-haul international travel aren’t expected to return in force until the fall of 2021.
That timeline roughly coincides with expert projections for the widespread distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said that a vaccine would likely allow the U.S. to go “back to some degree of normality” by the third quarter of next year.
For now, the BCTDA has paused paid advertising that attracts visitors to Buncombe County. According to the agency’s previously adopted metrics, more counties within a 6.5-hour driving radius of Asheville were considered COVID-19 hot spots as of Oct. 19 than at any previous point during the pandemic.
However, Tambellini explained that BCTDA staffers were still “digging deeper into the data” to identify potential advertising targets for later in the year, particularly for attracting holiday travelers within driving distance of the region. “We’ll have to work on that a little bit more and see if that makes sense in the next few weeks,” she said.
And even with paid advertising paused, Asheville will still get time in the televised national spotlight as part of its agreement to host the Maui Jim Maui Invitational college basketball tournament in late November and early December. ESPN will run a dozen 30-second spots to “provide brand awareness for Asheville,” Tambellini said, and short commercial bumpers throughout the games will “showcase destination drivers and various brand features.”
Moving forward, Tambellini identified a need for the BCTDA to connect with a more diverse audience of travelers as it works to shore up demand. She said the agency would conduct listening sessions “to provide deeper understanding of content needs” and “seek authentic voices” from the area’s Black, Indigenous and LGBTQ residents.
The agency recently signaled a commitment to diversity by inviting Earl B. Hunter Jr., the founder of Brevard-based Black Folks Camp Too, to give the keynote address at the first session of its annual meeting on Oct. 7. “You don’t care where the money comes from; you need people in your doors,” Hunter remarked.