BCTDA seeks ‘responsible travelers’ in new ads

Psychographic illustration
TARGET AUDIENCE: New ads funded by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority are designed to reach tourists with a specific psychographic profile: a "willingness to conform" with public health measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. Graphic by Getty Images

Free-spirited county of quirky creative types and adventurers seeks short-term relationships with conscientious conformists. Must live within driving distance and bring protection. Deep pockets a major plus.

If the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority wrote a dating profile for the time of the pandemic, it might look something like that. During a June 24 meeting, the TDA board heard a presentation from marketing firm 360i about a new advertising campaign, scheduled to start in July, designed to attract a “responsible tourist audience” to the region.

According to 360i strategist Angie Arner, her group is creating digital and social media ads targeted at tourists whose behaviors agree with certain “psychographic statements” about “willingness to conform.” Such visitors, she suggested, will be more likely to follow social distancing guidelines and wear masks, thereby slowing the local spread of COVID-19.

In a further effort to reduce introduction of the disease, said 360i’s Lauren Jennings, ads would only be shown to potential tourists from areas within a 6.5-hour driving distance of Asheville that have comparatively low COVID-19 case counts. “Hot spot” counties in that radius, as determined through statistical analysis of data from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, would be excluded from any marketing.

TDA board member Leah Wong Ashburn, who is also the president and CEO of Asheville-based Highland Brewing Co., said she welcomed the campaign as a way of drumming up visitor spending. “For the businesses to really come back, asking for people who are centered on safety to come back when they’re ready is something I’m comfortable with,” she said. “We need people at Highland, and this wonderful city needs other folks to come in and open their wallets.”

But ex-officio board member and Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield questioned the wisdom of restarting advertising in light of statewide and national COVID-19 trends. North Carolina confirmed 1,721 cases of the disease on June 24 — its second-highest daily increase since the start of the pandemic — and on June 23, new daily cases in the U.S. reached their highest level since May 1.

Other tourist-heavy areas in the region, Mayfield continued, have not seen visitors adhere to public health recommendations. “I spent a very frightening evening at Folly Beach, and nobody’s wearing a mask,” she said about a recent trip to the South Carolina destination. “I wanted to completely decontaminate myself after that evening.”

Stephanie Brown, president and CEO of the Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, countered that not advertising would actually be more dangerous. “We can stay silent and not have any paid messaging out there, but then we lose the opportunity to communicate to potential travelers that the safety of our community is a high priority,” she argued. “To be silent on that front would not rise to our responsibilities and leave an additional gap.”

Brown, who is leaving Explore Asheville at the end of June to become the executive vice president of Indianapolis-based marketing firm SMARInsights, won’t be around to see those summer visitors to Buncombe County. During a farewell recognition from the board at the end of the meeting, she noted that she was selling her North Asheville home and would be leaving the area.

Stimulating developments

Also at the June 24 meeting, the TDA board heard a presentation from Mountain BizWorks about grants awarded from the Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund. The $5 million pot of money, funded from the portion of occupancy tax revenues previously reserved for community capital projects, was authorized by the N.C. General Assembly at the TDA’s request as part of COVID-19 recovery legislation signed into law May 4.

Noah Wilson, director of sector development for Mountain BizWorks, said 394 Buncombe County small businesses and nonprofit organizations out of 444 applicants had received grants of $2,000 to $30,000. The money is anticipated to retain, recover or create nearly 4,800 jobs.

Restaurants and bars received the lion’s share of the funding at more than $2.28 million (46%). That sector was trailed by arts and entertainment at over $704,000 (14%) and retail at about $610,000 (12%). In response to an Xpress request for details on businesses that did not receive support, Explore Asheville spokesperson Kathi Petersen said Mountain BizWorks was not at liberty to share that information.

Of that grant money, Wilson said, 18% had been awarded to minority-owned enterprises, nearly twice his organization’s 10% benchmark. However, he noted that the vast majority of such businesses had not been eligible for funding: 86% of all firms in the Asheville metropolitan area with owners who are Black, Indigenous or people of color are sole proprietorships, but the TDA grants were only available to businesses with at least two full-time employees.

Mountain BizWorks recognizes “a clear need to prioritize the startup and growth of tourism-related small businesses that are owned and led by people of color,” Wilson continued. “Increasing diversity is an ecosystem best practice: Diverse systems are resilient systems.”


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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the former news editor of Mountain Xpress. His work has also appeared in Sierra, The Guardian, and Civil Eats, among other national and regional publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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5 thoughts on “BCTDA seeks ‘responsible travelers’ in new ads

  1. bsummers

    “To be silent on that front would not rise to our responsibilities”

    Wow, does anyone else hear the Ride of the Valkyries?

    So, if you really mean that, will BCTDA be running ads directed at shameless Trump-loving yahoos who think the pandemic is a hoax, to “Pretty Please, Stay the F*** Out of Asheville.”?

  2. Big Al

    Maybe after the first wave of “responsible tourists” report back on Asheville’s half-deserted downtown, boarded up store fronts, trash-covered sidewalks, rampant graffiti, and growing infestation of beggars and professional protestors, then further tourism and the accompanying infections will not be an issue.

  3. luther blissett

    Weird to share Brown’s home listing, though it’s a testament to the benefits of being in charge of the TDA.

    Anyway, the paperclip maximizer is at it again: 360i gets its $150,000 / month to come up with a rationale for spending a million bucks on ads mostly in markets that are either on pause or reimposing restrictions. The grants carved out from the capital fund are undoubtedly important for the businesses that received them, but they’re orders of magnitude less than the marketing dollars.

    I genuinely don’t understand the TDA’s reluctance to get creative about what counts as marketing during this time, instead of embracing the psychobabble from its agency. (Well, maybe I do.) You don’t need the typical 30-second “restaurant, Biltmore, zipline, brewery, trail” montages.

    Sure, the TDA should take account of the crash in hotel revenues but also the savings from not advertising these past months. It budgeted more this year to compete with political ads, and hasn’t needed those slots. It’s a $12 million ad budget. Film some local artists and musicians and chefs working from home and put them online. Commission some documentaries. Lots of ways to pay local people that counts as marketing.

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