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.
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.”