Destination Asheville: Local leaders chart course for tourism development

Images like these, taken by Asheville visitors and posted on social media, are increasingly shaping opinions of Western North Carolina. Photos courtesy of Instagram users (clockwise from top left) travelvirtue, andrepece, artliquorlove, cindyallmond, outsidetheden, hrohed.

“We must redefine and reinvent what we do. Change or be changed,” declared Mike Konzen. “You have a chance in Asheville to build something that’s really special on top of what you already have that’s really special. But you need to adapt and change to stay relevant.”

Konzen was addressing a group of about 150 local community leaders, gathered Dec. 11 in downtown Asheville for a forum on “Destination Development” organized by the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The chairman of PGAV Destinations, a global leader in the the business of tourism consulting and planning, Konzen flew in from St. Louis to deliver the keynote speech. He’s helped oversee a long list of successful projects around the world, from the pyramids of Giza to the Kennedy Space Center and the Biltmore Estate.

The tourism industry already brings in $2.3 billion annually to Buncombe County. That’s up from roughly $183 million 30 years ago. Traditionally, the big drivers of the local tourism economy have been the Biltmore Estate, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Grove Park Inn. But to continue to grow local visitation, government officials and business owners need to “anticipate trends that are shaping the future,” Konzen urged.

Brave new future

Those trends include changing traveler demographics, interests and the importance of social media in shaping opinions, he reported.

“This millennial generation is the future. … This generation will redefine American culture and society, just like the baby boomers did,” he said. “They’re very savvy travelers.”

A term referring to those born roughly between 1980 and 2000, so-called millennials care more about close friendships than money, and travel to learn things more than buy stuff, Konzen said. Their prolific use of technology and social media presents opportunities and challenges, he added. When a traveler is moved by a visit to a local brewery or restaurant to Tweet or post a positive Facebook comment, that shapes opinions in a more powerful way than less personal advertising, he said.

“The experience itself becomes the marketing,” he explained. “Those are marketing dollars that you aren’t spending because they’re doing it for you.”

On the other hand, a “negative complaint” via social media “resonates far more than something that’s positive,” he cautioned. And with technology putting more and more choices within reach of the push of a button or the click of a mouse, “it actually makes them harder to satisfy,” he reported.

“Lots and lots of choices are great, but they don’t necessarily make our lives as providers any easier,” he added. “People are more stressed. So when they get away, they have higher expectations.”

The key to growing the local tourist economy in a sustainable way is to maintain Asheville’s sense of authenticity — even as it takes intentional steps to increase visitation, according to Konzen.

“Asheville has a really strong brand. We hear about Asheville all over the country,” he reported. “Authenticity is what separates Asheville from Greenville or any other place people want to go.”

To that end, he encouraged cooperation and planning. “Placemaking is a key thing, because individual attractions usually don’t do very well on their own,” he said. “They need to synergize with things around them, they need to fit together.”

Charting a course

Officials proceeded to tout a number of upcoming projects that could help improve Asheville’s appeal in coming years. Many of them are in the River Arts District.

Paramount to the discussion was New Belgium Brewing’s plan to invest $175 million in a new Craven Street facility along the French Broad River, tentatively set to open in two years. When deciding where to locate the new brewery along the East Coast, Asheville’s thriving tourism scene — as well as its “progressive community climate” — was key, said Operations Manager Gabe Quesinberry.

New Belgium’s Fort Collins, Colo., headquarters attracts 150,000 visitors a year; there’s a two-month waiting list to sign up for brewery tours. And there’s “internal betting that that number will be even higher in Asheville, due to existing tourism infrastructure,” Quesinberry revealed.

Meanwhile, Harry Pilos reported that his nearby RAD Lofts project on Clingman Avenue will include hundreds of residential units as well as a parking garage, retail space and restaurants. “I take comfort that New Belgium is anchoring this area,” Pilos said, noting the development’s $50 million price tag. “I’m taking a huge personal gamble here. … I think the time for the RAD is there. I think it’s going to create a nice synergy down there.”

But his project “needs to generate tourist interest, or else we’re not going to be able to make payments on that $50 million,” he added.

Stuart Cowles, owner of downtown’s ClimbMax Climbing Center, also revealed plans to open a Smoky Mountain Adventure Center in the RAD next spring that will offer “uniquely Asheville experiences,” such as climbing and other outdoor activities. A new French Broad River Paddle Trail and several new access points will also help attract outdoor enthusiasts, said Karen Cragnolin, executive director of RiverLink.

City government is helping facilitate the private-sector growth by building pedestrian-friendly infrastructure in the area to lure and accommodate growing crowds, said Stephanie Monson, riverfront redevelopment coordinator.

“One of the things government can do best is provide connections to the places you are building,” she said. Revamped roads — as well as new greenways, bike lanes, sidewalks, trails and public bathrooms — are all in the works for the district, she reported.

Numerous projects in other parts of the county were celebrated as well, such as the Noble Rock Resort & Spa, a 290-acre luxury wellness development planning to open in 2016 near Black Mountain.

Going forward, a 1 percent hotel room occupancy tax will continue to be key in funding major tourism projects, said Marla Tambellini, deputy director of the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Administered by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, the tax has generated $14.9 million since 2001. It’s been dispersed in grants for 16 projects that attract visitors, including Pack Square Park, the Grove Arcade and the John B. Lewis Soccer Complex at Azalea Park. The TDA will accept applications this spring for the next round of grants. About $3.5 million will be available for local projects.

Stephanie Brown, senior vice president of the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, said a goal of the forum was to spark future grant ideas. “We’re coming together today to think creatively, to dream a little dream,” she said. During a brainstorming session, there seemed to be a consensus that there’s a need for more transportation infrastructure between local attractions, said Brown. Thinking big, several attendees even floated the idea of constructing a light rail service.

As for the challenge of maintaining Asheville’s sense of authenticity amid a new planning push, Brown said she doesn’t see a contradiction. “I think it’s about having a commitment to a sense of place. I don’t think that’s inconsistent with planning,” she explained. “The role that we can help to play is to build connectivity between these ideas that are growing organically. … And to foster a sense of how we can put these things together and plan for them in a way that all of them are successful, and the whole will be more than the sum of its parts.”

And despite the forum’s focus on luring outsiders to town, ultimately, the idea is that a growing tourism industry will benefit Asheville residents, said Mayor Esther Manheimer, who was sworn in to office Dec. 10.

“We want it to be a place where people can afford to live and have a high quality of life,” she said.

About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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