TDA board hears update on quarterly goals and initiatives

NEW CAMPAIGNS: Dodie Stephens, Explore Asheville’s vice president of marketing, said that a big focus of the marketing team last quarter was to update the agency’s fall content. Photo by Chase Davis

A new destination app, an upcoming website redesign and the unveiling of the Asheville Black Cultural Heritage Trail highlighted the Jan. 24 meeting of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority board. The quarterly progress report from Explore Asheville, the TDA’s marketing agency, aimed to spotlight the authority’s strategic goals and initiatives.

“We agreed to do quarterly updates this year to show the work that the team is doing in an integrated fashion,” said Vic Isley, TDA president and CEO of Explore Asheville. “Our job is to inspire visitors to come here for leisure and to spend money throughout our businesses and our community. The team really thinks about our strategic imperatives to guide their work, and those imperatives ladder up to the broader community goals of delivering balanced and sustainable growth.”

Dodie Stephens, Explore Asheville’s vice president of marketing, said that a big focus of the marketing team last quarter was to refresh the agency’s fall content. She noted that each week of fall 2023, the agency sent out a “color report,” an email blast that featured photographs and insights from local content creators as well as the week’s best events and activities.

“In general, our fall content is some of our highest performing,” Stephens said. “An anchor of that content year over year is our fall color reports. We gave [the color report] a complete overhaul with the addition of content from our ambassador program. This content was important because it was specifically designed to move business around the community and strategically showcased all of the paths that visitors can take to experience the season.”

Data from last year showed that the fall campaign boosted visitor engagement, with clicks on digital fall content increasing by 90% year over year and opt-outs decreasing by 17%.

In addition to the content overhaul, Stephens also gave details on the new Explore Asheville app, which soft-launched in October. Designed in partnership with Austin, Texas-based Visit Widget, the app serves as a mobile compilation of all of Explore Asheville’s preexisting partner listings and includes information on lodging, restaurants, tours and events.

“There are early signs already that this app is going to be a popular tool,” said Stephens. “Within one email we went from 70 to 500 downloads, so it is going really strong.”

Stephens noted that the Explore Asheville website is also up for a redesign, with the team working with Miles Partnership to analyze content and data for the future design. The new website is projected to go live in late summer.

Black Cultural Heritage trail launched

The TDA board also heard a report from Penelope Whitman, Explore Asheville’s vice president of partnership and destination management, regarding her department’s work in the past quarter. Most notably, Whitman discussed the official launch of the Black Cultural Heritage Trail, which was dedicated last December and funded by a $500,000 Tourism Product Development Fund investment in 2018.

“The launch of the Black Cultural Heritage Trail was a huge success. Our Explore Asheville team worked closely with community members, local and regional scholars as well as archival institutions to gather local stories and set them in local and national historical context,” Whitman said.

There are three trail sections in different areas of Asheville, including downtown, Southside and the River Arts District. Each section features a number of informational panels that tell the Black history of the area. Additionally, the panels feature a QR code that can be scanned to play a voice-over narration by local performer Stephanie Hickling Beckman.

Whitman also gave a summary of the projects that were recently approved for investments from the TDA’s Tourism Project Development Fund. Totaling $6.1 million, the three approved projects included upgrades to Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville, an outdoor covered equestrian arena for the WNC Agricultural Center and new turf, lighting and a playground for the Enka Recreation Destination.

Combined with the nearly $23 million committed to McCormick Field last July, the TDA’s Tourism Project Development Fund invested over $29 million in community project awards last year, marking the largest annual investment in the 20-year history of the fund.

“Additionally, the TDA funded 11 events through our sponsorship programs [in the last quarter], disbursing a total of $37,000,” Whitman said. “These investments into these projects and events are a direct result of the hard work that our team and our community partners have put in.”


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About Chase Davis
Chase Davis is an Asheville-based reporter working for Mountain Xpress. He was born and raised in Georgia and holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from LaGrange College. Follow me @ChaseDavis0913

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20 thoughts on “TDA board hears update on quarterly goals and initiatives

  1. Mike Rains

    Add a couple of downtown bathroom facilities to their list. They should cover it all; Initial costs and ongong maintenance/cleaning.

    City of Asheville can’t handle it/manage it.

    Functional, safe and well maintained bathrooms would be of great assistance to all these beer drinking tourists,

    • RG

      The TDA should absolutely pay for the downtown toilets. And if Chuck Edwards is so concerned about downtown Asheville, he should advocate for a change in the law to allow for the TDA to contribute to infrastructure/salaries without more of the mumbo jumbo and deflection. The TDA should contribute $3-5million yearly for law enforcement salaries. Maybe even buy each officer one of those denim shirts!

      • Mike Rains

        “The city hasn’t maintained them or kept them open regularly for public use”……which is why in my recommendation, money also be provided for operation and maintenance (and through the use of a private contractdor). Asehville can’t do it.

        The problem is and always has been that the TDA is very limited in what they can support (by law). Look through this list and its all recreation and tourism related items. All well and good, but we know that tourism, particularly in Asheville center city exacts a pretty significant impact on infrastructre and core services (roads, walks, police and fire). That is the gripe. And it’s a valid one.

        Regarding personnel at TDA, I doubt complainers have any personal grudge or animosity to these folks because as you say, they are doing their job as defined by the state. I certainly don’t, with he exception of the Director.

        The salarly increase for the TDA director to $450K+ (thanks a lot Chuck Edwards) is a slap in the face to Asheville government leaders and workers (and by extension to the taxpayers of this city) who try and run a city with an inadquate tax base. No matter how one wants to sugar coat it (e.g., this is what the market supports), it’s unnecssary and I actually believe counterproductive to the TDA’s acceptance in the community.

        There are plenty of well qualifed people that would step into this role for much less than this salary and a salary more in keeping with what other leaders make in this area.

        • James

          It baffles me as a city and county tax payer residents continue to let the city off the hook for what we pay them for — basic public services — and scapegoat another community organization that doesn’t have that responsibility.
          Many of the roads used by visitors (and us residents for that matter) are maintained by NCDOT, not the city or county.
          And as to the salary of the head of the TDA, you drank the slanderous Kool-Aid of the Watchdog. Her salary is in line with other CVB CEOs and nonprofit heads in Asheville. A simple search of 990s shows that.

          • Mike Rains

            Yes NCDOT owns/maintains most of the main roads in Asheville and virtually all of the county roads; however, just taking downtown, there are likely more side street miles “owned” by the city than the few miles of NCDOT roads. City streets are poorly maintained everywhere and while I do not let Asheville off the hook for key infrastructure funding, I’ve come to realize that with a much lower ad valorem tax base (relative to the county in which it resides), Asheville doesn’t have sufficient funding to do all the things required of a city (although they sure try).

            But roads are but one infrastructure item. Downtown sidewalks are in constant need of repairs which requires a thinly staffed Public Works Department to do repairs; which takes away from other needs throughout the rest of the city. So this is one concrete (no pun intended) example of infrastructure impact. Another is litter control. Asheville really needs a dedicated litter cleanup program. They have one now but that is being funded by our spendthrift Federal Government and will end.

            You may be correct in saying this infrastructre impact gripe is scapegoating the TDA for something largely beyond their control; however, I believe the basis for this ongoing infrastructre complaint is more emotional and based on the sheer amount of increasing dollars that keep getting poured into marketing. The question (formed as a complaint) is a fair one: How much is enough?

            Regarding salary, please show me which nonprofit CEO’s in Asheville are making $450K/year total package. I am not aware of any and have researched some of the major ones in years past via 990’s (which by the way are not that simple/transparent).

            And while the high salarly complaint uses government-side salaries/budget size responsibility for comparison (which you and others may consider invalid), I think again it has roots in the main question of: How much is enough for this organization? How far do we let this continue?

          • James

            I’m not going to drop links here and do to other leaders in this community what AWD did to the TDA CEO. A recent public article stated that the new UNCA Chancellor’s base salary is $300k and could make as much as twice that amount if she achieves certain performance markers. There is a nonprofit CEO managing 1/10 of the TDA budget that makes the same base.

            TDA CEO’s base salary is now $300k, and has the opportunity to earn an incentive that is not guaranteed. The number Watchdog knowingly pulled was including a retention bonus that would only paid out on a third year of employment, but left the impression on readers it was part of annual compensation, then added all potential earnings including incentive, retirement, etc, which they did not do for any other position they outlined in the article, nor did they research comps for similar sized tourism communities. Here’s just one:

  2. Bright

    Wondering how these “people” feel being so well-liked by other Asheville citizens.

    • James

      These people are members of our community doing their jobs well and help our economy. You don’t like it, go talk to the General Assembly in Raleigh.

      • Mike Rains

        Asheville citizens/taxpayers don’t “like” the setup and rules for this organization, not the people who do the work:
        With the possible exception of the DIrector Vic Isle and the unecessarily high salary she if paid.

        But there again, the “rules” were changed when the 1/4-3/4 split was changed to 1/3-2/3 so that more money was allowed for administrative expenses (salaries and boondoggle retreats for example). They didn’t have to raise the director’s salary this high, but the folks that run the TDA (the hoteliers) decided they wanted to supercharge this organzation. I believe one board member actually showed some courage on this issue and resigned their position.

        • James

          Once again, Mike, incorrect. See above for compensation.
          Also, when the legislation changed to 2/3 – 1/3, it limited the administrative expenses, not expanded them.
          It increased the amount of investment annually in tourism/community capital projects and reduced marketing.
          And no board member resigned. Publicly available documents outline all of these facts.

          • Mike Rains

            You may know something I haven’t run across, but having previously studied Session Law 2022-40, House Bill 1057, as well as earlier laws affecting the BC TDA structure, this is what I undertand to have changed:
            We all agree that marketing funding went from 75% of net proceeds from occupancy taxes to 67%.
            But this session law also changed the “adminstrative expenses” allotment from a previous 10% to 20%.
            So by my math, allowance for adminstrative expenses went from 10% x 75% = 7.5% to 20% X 67% = 13.4: Almost a doubling of allowed administrative expense (which of course includes salaries).
            Again, please set me straight if I’m missing something or have this assesesed incorrectly.

            I was incorrect in stating as fact that a TDA Board Member resigned over these salaries issue. That statement was based on “reading between the lines” from press reports and should have been stated as an opinion of what I think may have happened. My insight was gleaned from a recent Mountain Express article:
            “Asheville food and beverage industry gets new representative on BCTDA board”
            Posted on August 2, 2023 by Greg Parlier:

            “For the last six years, (Andrew) Celwyn, whom Wilson is replacing, developed a reputation for being the board’s skeptic. He often was the lone dissenting vote on various issues, including voting no in June on the annual budget because he said Explore Asheville staff made too much more than other employees paid with public funds like teachers and city and county staff. In July, Celwyn was the only member to vote against funding McCormick Field.”

            This same article does state that Celwyn served on the board for 6 years but does not state WHY he left. Based on what I have read about Mr. Celwyn, I think he was a thorn in the side of TDA and perhaps they both agreed to go separate ways. Certainly, he seems to have been the main lone voice against the amount of money being spent on salaries.

            Maybe you can shed some light on what happened.

            Thank you for your questioning comments. I should note that while we don’t likely agree on some or much of this, I do appreciate your willingness to defend your position with rebuttals, questions and facts. Unlike some of the regular commentors on Mountain Express.

          • James

            Celwyn served two terms so he “termed out” as they say. So the city council appointed a new board member.

            There are two references to administration and percentages.
            1. The legislation enables the county to take up to 5% administrative fee off the top of all occupancy tax dollars before remitting to the TDA. I’ve heard it costs the county $500k annually to administer the funds, so now they net $1.5 mill ++ annually into the future to their general fund.
            2. Administration costs moved from 10% of total occupancy tax and capped them at 20% of the 1/3 fund and specifically defined administrative expenses.

  3. KW

    Seems misleading to suggest that the 23mill commitment to McCormick brings an annual total to 29mill. Could someone please clarify?

    • Mike Rains

      Because the TDA supported several other projects, but you’re right it is misleading.

      The TDA’s $23M for McCormick is spread over 20 years. It’s financing that is supported by debt and annual payments (new for the TDA and who knows whether they’ll even be in existence in 10-15 years??).

      From a previous Xpress article: “The project’s” total cost with interest over the life of debt service is $55.6 million. The City of Asheville requested $22.95 million from the Tourism Development Authority, 41 percent of the total project cost, through the TPDF Major Works Pathway.”

      Asheville is contributing $20 M,
      Buncombe County is contributing ONLY $5M even though close to half of the Tourist attendees are from the county (not city). This is just another example of county residents getting a really “sweet deal” for amenities that Asheville taxpayers fund (like the Civic Center, Thomas Wolff Auditorium, Nature Museum, Aston Tennis Courts, and Municipal Golf Course).

      And keep in mind that many “county residents” don’t have to travel very far to be within the Asheville city limits and to access everything that Asheville taxpayers support! Does Biltmore Forest and the Ramble ring a bell? No Asheville taxes for them but within a stone’s throw of everything Asheville taxpayers support.

      • KW

        Thanks. I’ve been to 2 Tourist games in all my decades living here. I’m in the county and opposed the corporate giveaway. Just another way that locals subsidize tourism…I also work as a caregiver and don’t benefit from golf, tennis and some of the other venues you mention. But thanks for the clarification.

      • Mike Rains

        James, thank you for the clarifications provided above.

        I was incorrect on my assumptions about Andrew Celwyn leaving the TDA. You are correct in that his 2 term limit had expired. He did not resign or was not forced out. He was however, pretty much the only vocal board member regarding salary and compensation.

        Also, thank you for clarifying the changes to allowed administrative expenses.

        To summarize, prior to these last changes, Buncombe County was allowed to be compensated only for the cost of collecting the occupancy tax.

        The new law allows for the BC to be “compensated” up to 5% of the gross occupancy tax proceeds. If the past collection costs have been around $0.5 M as you state, then I would fully agree with you that this sure looks like a give-away to the County and probably due to some back room dealings.

        Obviously, the TDA is not going to challenge or inspect what the County charges for collection so to your point, the county will likely charge near to or the full 5%. Using rough numbers of $40M in total occupancy tax, this means the NET to TDA would be $38M. So TDA may lose $1-2M to Buncombe County.

        Regarding Administrative expenses, thank you for clarifying that the previous 10% limit for adminstrative expenses (salaries, etc.) was for the entire NET of occupancy taxes. So for the example above, admin expense could not exceet $3.8M/year ($38M x 10%).

        The new law allows for 20% but only from the 2/3’s of the NET which are reserved/restricted for tourism marketing. So in that instance, we would be looking at (using the $40M model), $38M X .67 X .20 = $5.1M. So a clear administrative cost increase, but clearly not the ~2X increase I claimed above.

        Obviously the struture of the these allowance is based on percentages of occupancy taxes collected, which ostensibly is designed to “reward” or “grow” the organization if tourism/occupancy expands in Buncombe County. The same, as you mentioned is true for the Director’s compensation (large “incentive” bonus for tourism milestones met)

        In addition to challenging many of the “stock complaints” (e.g.., director way overpaid, TDA should pay for roads and other infrastructure impacts) as well as clarifying the actual financial structure, you have at least helped me better understand my feelings/views regarding the current structure of the TDA for Buncombe County.

        I am still opposed to the structure of this quasi-government entity because (as I’ve stated before in other responses) it seems to me to be designed to prostitute the City of Asheville for the promotion of growth well beyond Buncombe County and throughout western NC. BCTDA is is a part of a larger package of “growth” initiatives including major spending by NCDOT and of course the Asheville airport expansion. All of this might be a bit more palatable for Asheville residents/taxpayers if this growth promotion didn’t have so much impact on our city, specifically uncompensated impact to already limited city services as well as obvious hotel overbuidling and loss of housing. At every turn, the state legislature blocks any remedy for these impacts and continues to pour gasoline on fire.

        And clearly, the continuing constraints on the now 1/3 allowed spending for tourism projects doesn’t remedy these issues. If anything, it exacerbates them. Thus back to the start of all of this discussion which was my initial comment about funding the purchase and ongoing operation of the bathrooms downtown. TDA could fund the initial cost (capital expense) but as I understand the rules, is prohibited from funding the ongoing operations/maintenance. That is left for our underfunded city government to pick up.

        Thank you for the civil discourse.

        • James

          Thank you as well.

          Regarding compensation, other TDA board members voiced support for competitive salaries. In fact one of them said why do you want us to pay our people less, others should be paying people more. We should be lifting people up not tearing them down.

          For clarity, administrative costs are defined as salaries, benefits, operations and facilities.

          We may not agree, but I don’t see the motivation of the TDA as exploitation. They are responsible for supporting about 20% of the local economy and at least in part because of that promotion. creatives in our community make a living. Go ask an art gallery owner downtown or artist in the RAD where the majority of their sales come from. Most of visitor spending in the city and county is outside of lodging. Tourism has saved this town’s economy multiple times in the last 200 years. And I also agree we need to diversify our economy at the same time, but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of tourism.

          Our population growth is not out of control. According to statistics, between 2010 and 2022, the county grew by an average of 1.1% per year. It’s intellectually dishonest for politicians to say tourism is driving residents out of their homes when they themselves own multiple vacation rental properties in tourism-specific markets or stay in a home they own in another country for the entire month of January. Or when they vacation they rent vacation rentals themselves.

          For a town that presumes to be open and tolerant, it sure does create scapegoats and conflict more than real forums for understanding and progress. Our community needs much more civil discourse. Again, thanks for your willingness to engage.

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