Businesses and organizations throughout Buncombe County are stirring back into action as Phase 2 of Gov. Roy Cooper’s three-phase plan to lift COVID-19 restrictions continues, and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority is no exception. At a May 27 board meeting, staff with the Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, which manages the 6% occupancy tax collected by the BCTDA, outlined plans to resume marketing the region to tourists as soon as July.
“Our objective is to safely and responsibly encourage travel, working hand in hand with our local health officials and government, as we move toward that direct invitation of visitors to our community,” said Marla Tambellini, Explore Asheville’s vice president of marketing. “We understand that the safety of our community comes first, but we’re also balancing the economic cost.”
Tambellini noted that, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7.7 million of the country’s 20.5 million jobs lost in April were in the leisure and hospitality industry. Locally, according to analysis by accounting firm Johnson Price Sprinkle, the Asheville metro area lost 18,700 hospitality jobs in April, a drop of nearly two-thirds from the industry’s pre-pandemic peak.
In another clear indication of direct impacts on the area’s hotel sector, the BCTDA saw just over $504,000 in March occupancy tax revenues, down about 63% from the nearly $1.35 million collected last March. (Tax data for April and May are not yet available.)
Explore Asheville canceled roughly $6.7 million in paid advertising and employee travel through June 30 soon after Buncombe County declared a COVID-19 state of emergency on March 12. The bureau has since committed $130,000 for the “Together in Spirit” online campaign, which Tambellini said was designed to “keep Asheville top of mind” for travelers in local markets such as Winston-Salem and Knoxville, Tenn.
But once that campaign wraps up in June, Tambellini continued, the bureau plans to move from just maintaining awareness to making a “soft call to action.” New advertisements would replace the “Together in Spirit” tagline with the Explore Asheville logo and website address, encouraging tourists to research and make plans for visiting the area.
Ads initially would target markets within driving distance of Asheville, Tambellini said, consistent with research that consumers are wary about boarding airplanes during a pandemic. She added that advertising decisions would take into account county-level data on COVID-19 cases, with the goal of avoiding viral hot spots.
The local elected officials who serve ex officio on the BCTDA board appeared to agree with this approach. “I wanted to express my appreciation for your thoughtfulness in working with Buncombe County health officials in terms of targeted marketing in appropriate places that are not COVID-heavy,” said Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield.
And Buncombe County Commissioner Joe Belcher said he had spoken about “smaller markets that we know have good numbers” with colleagues on the Board of Commissioners. “I wouldn’t think we’d want to run ads in Atlanta right now, but we might want to run ads south of Cincinnati,” he said.
As of May 26, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, all three of the counties immediately south of Cincinnati — Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties in Kentucky — had higher levels of COVID-19 per capita than did Buncombe County. At roughly 323 cases per 100,000 residents, Kenton’s rate of the disease was nearly triple that of Buncombe’s at 107 per 100,000.
Updated at 1:11 p.m. May 28 to add information about local hospitality job losses.