The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority unanimously approved a total of $100,000 in funding for 25 local events and festivals at its Nov. 29 board meeting. According to Tiffany Thacker, director of grants for Explore Asheville, the investment in the projects will “enhance local experiences for both residents and visitors.”
“The purpose of these funds is to support and preserve the cultural identity of Buncombe County, while also fostering the creation of new festivals and cultural events,” said Thacker. “The projects that were selected, some of which have never received TDA funding before, best exemplify these goals and will have lasting impacts in our community.”
The funding for the projects comes from the TDA’s Festivals and Cultural Events Support Fund, a competitive grant program established in 2016 with the goal of providing financial support for events that serve both the residents of and visitors to Buncombe County. The number of grant awards is limited by available funds, with $100,000 available in the current cycle.
A committee, including representatives from the City of Asheville and Buncombe County, reviewed 36 funding requests submitted by local nonprofits, totaling $176,000. Of those, 25 events were recommended to the TDA board for consideration and approval, with investment support ranging from $1,000 to a maximum of $5,000.
Events included the well-established Asheville Celtic Festival and Blue Ridge Pride Festival, both of which received $5,000. New events, such as Groovin’ on Grovemont, a concert series sponsored by the Swannanoa Community Council, were also supported. In addition to financial support, grant recipients will receive assistance from Explore Asheville, the TDA’s marketing agency, to promote attendance.
Vic Isley, TDA president and CEO of Explore Asheville, noted that this was the first year that the lodging tax will support the grant program, enabled by a change in state law in 2022. Before fiscal year 2024, the Festival and Cultural Event Support Fund was supported through advertising sales and reservations booked on ExploreAsheville.com.
“It is really a major win for this in terms of where the funds are coming from to invest in these events,” said Isley. “Because the money now comes from lodging tax, it frees up our earned revenue and advertising revenues from ExploreAsheville.com, which will allow us to invest in workforce development here in our own community.”
While not all grant applications were accepted, BCTDA board member Matthew Lehman, also a member of the Festivals and Cultural Events selection committee, noted that the TDA offers sponsorships for events and special projects that will enhance the tourism industry.
“Some of the projects that were not approved as part of this grant request because of the change in legislation do qualify for sponsorships,” said Lehman. “Those projects, who may have used this pathway in the past to get funding, can still get funded elsewhere if they choose.”
In other news
The BCTDA board also unanimously approved an operating fund budget amendment that increases its investment in paid advertising by $1.35 million. According to Dodie Stephens, vice president of marketing for Explore Asheville, this decision was made in an effort to maintain the authority’s advertising promotion schedule and reach due to rising media costs in a presidential election year.
“Political ad spending drastically raises the price of paid advertising across media platforms, and it is anticipated that the 2024 election cycle will outpace the record-setting spending that we saw in 2020,” said Stephens. “If we want to maintain the intended impact of our strategic plan in this politically charged media landscape, then it is going to be necessary for us to increase our investment into paid advertisements to combat the rising costs.”
Board member Elizabeth Putnam questioned the effectiveness of tourism advertising in a politically charged landscape.
“As the political stuff starts to take over, I stop watching TV,” said Putnam. “Is there any research that tells us how effective our advertising will be in such an environment?”
Isley suggested that tourism advertising may have a stronger appeal with people looking to escape politics.
“I can tell you that in Asheville, with 95% of our visitors coming here for leisure purposes, they’re coming here to escape,” Isley said. “They’re coming here to immerse themselves in a destination and culture and experiences here. During an election period, you will see destinations like Asheville fare better than you will [Washington] D.C., as leisure travel will increase but corporate travel will start to contract as businesses wait to see what happens.”