Even as the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority reported record numbers for visitation, spending and lodging throughout the region at its Sept. 19 annual meeting, the group’s message for the future was clear: full speed ahead. BCTDA representatives shared ambitious marketing plans, both currently underway and in development, to keep visitors flowing in and occupancy rates high.
Stephanie Pace Brown, president and CEO of Explore Asheville (the BCTDA-funded convention and visitors bureau), outlined the situation to over 200 local hoteliers, business owners and community figures at the Grove Park Inn’s Seely Pavilion. Roughly 1,600 new hotel rooms have opened in Buncombe County since late 2015 — an increase of approximately 15 percent over that period — with 1,900 more still in the construction pipeline. Airbnb bookings, an estimated 75 percent of the short-term rental market, have more than tripled since the 2015-16 fiscal year to reach nearly 500,000 nights annually.
Despite this considerable increase in capacity, hotel occupancy rates have remained steady over the past few years at roughly 72 percent. “Since the start of this construction cycle, we’ve been able to fully absorb a pretty enormous supply,” Brown said. “We just need to do that over again in the next three or four years.”
Making the sale
Key to achieving that goal, according to Explore Asheville Vice President of Sales Diana Pierce, is year-round promotion of the area as a tourist and convention destination. “We need to be present in the market at all times,” she explained.
Pierce pointed to sports as a way to shore up business during “softer” times of the year. Last year’s success with high-profile competitions such as the Fed Cup women’s tennis tournament and Haute Route cycling race, she said, has led the BCTDA to budget more dollars for connecting with sporting event organizers.
International tourists also present a promising growth market. While travelers from abroad currently make up only a small slice of the visitor pie, Pierce said, events such as the World Equestrian Games that recently wrapped up in Tryon have put the region on the global map. To target Chinese visitors specifically, the BCTDA hosted 16 international travel buyers in Asheville last December for a “familiarization trip” titled “Southern Pearls.”
Marla Tambellini, vice president of marketing and deputy director of Explore Asheville, said the group had achieved a record paid media reach in the last year, with approximately 706 million impressions in total. National cable advertising alone, she estimated, had reached 31 percent of all U.S. adults ages 35-64 last spring.
New media outlets had provided value as well, Tambellini noted. Explore Asheville was one of the first destination campaigns to use the wake screen of the Kindle Fire tablet to show video ads, generating over 1 million views last June. And a partnership with social media influencer and “digital magician” Zach King generated approximately 5.6 million Explore Asheville video views on Instagram and YouTube.
“It was a way for us to reach families,” Tambellini said of the King collaboration. “There’s a lot of young adults who follow him and children who follow him. … He was stopped on the streets while he was filming here.”
But it was another video collaboration that took top billing at the meeting: Asheville by Design, a half-hour special on the region produced for the National Geographic Channel. Andrew Nelson, director of editorial projects for National Geographic Traveler magazine, spoke to attendees about the synergy between Explore Asheville and his media outlet.
The magazine, Nelson explained, caters to groups such as urban explorers, “mature sophisticates,” outdoor adventurists and culture seekers. “This is really your audience too, and perhaps that’s the reason we get along so well,” he said.
In his keynote address, Nelson shared three driving principles behind the special that he believes should apply to all tourism promotion. To “know the dream” of visitors, he said, is to develop messages with deep appeal. For Asheville, that dream consists of authenticity, interaction and transformative experiences, Nelson explained.
“I think Asheville is lucky; you guys have so much here that’s so rich and meaningful and unique,” Nelson said. “You are not Modesto, California.”
Nelson’s remaining two principles, “the power of narrative” and “your people tell the story,” were on full display in the Asheville by Design preview screened at the meeting. The program featured chef John Fleer of Rhubarb talking about the inspiration he finds in the region’s local agriculture, while Highland Brewing President Leah Wong Ashburn spoke about the growth of Asheville’s beer scene.
While the BCTDA touts the economic benefits of tourism, claiming that one in seven Buncombe County jobs are supported by visitor spending, others are less sanguine about its impacts. A recent presentation to Asheville City Council by city Chief Financial Officer Barbara Whitehorn, for example, noted that visitors create significantly more demand on fire, police and street services than expected for cities of Asheville’s size.
Xpress asked Brown after the meeting how her organization was working to mitigate these negative effects of tourism. She said that Explore Asheville was partnering with city officials to investigate infrastructure needs that could be considered “placemaking projects” rather than simple construction or operational expenses.
State law, Brown explained, prevents the BCTDA from spending its income — primarily derived from room taxes paid in Buncombe County lodgings — on uses unrelated to tourism development. “We think we can make connections to help get work done that the city needs to do and also enhance the visitor experience,” she said.
The only state lawmaker in attendance at the meeting, Rep. Brian Turner (D-Buncombe), said that a number of previous bills to amend the BCTDA’s authority had been denied hearings because they violated the guidelines of a General Assembly subcommittee. When asked how those guidelines could be changed, he responded that Democrats would have to return to the majority in the legislature.
Turner did not confirm whether he’d vote for a bill allowing the BCTDA to spend more on local infrastructure. “I’d have to take a look at it,” he said. “I’d want to talk to the TDA and see what the impact would be.”
Meanwhile, BCTDA chair and Beaufort House Inn co-owner Jim Muth suggested that criticism of the authority was overstated. “I don’t think the opinion is broad-based,” he said. “I think it’s very prevalent on Facebook and in some Facebook groups.”