TDA grapples with image problem

The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority met on March 23 and 24 at Antler Hill Village at Biltmore. Photo by Laurie Crosswell
The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority met on March 23 and 24 at Antler Hill Village at Biltmore. Photo by Laurie Crosswell

The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority walks a line stretched between two realities.

On one side — with tourism booming in the region — the authority is wealthy, powerful and successful beyond even its own ambitious dreams.

But look again, and you will also see an organization (and the industry it represents) with an image problem. The law that funds the TDA through a six percent tax on Buncombe County hotel bills writes the tourism trade a blank check for marketing itself. That’s because 75 percent of the TDA’s budget must, by law, go to advertising and other programs to attract visitors to the region. The remaining 25 percent of the money the authority collects funds local projects that have the ability to draw visitors.

None of the money collected through the hotel occupancy tax goes to offsetting the costs associated with hosting growing crowds of tourists from all over the country and, increasingly, the world. Those costs, say city and county officials, include fire and police service, roads, sidewalks and other amenities used by tourists as well as residents. Critics of the hospitality industry and the TDA also contend that the industry relies on low-wage workers while simultaneously pushing up the cost of living for those workers by inflating the value of real estate, among other necessities.

All this was on the minds of TDA members as they met on Thursday, March 23, for the organization’s annual strategic planning retreat at Antler Hill Village at Biltmore. The authority tackled a marathon agenda, while also providing space on the schedule for discussion and even public comment.

“One of the biggest challenges is to strike a balance between reviewing where we are and setting the stage for planning for next year,” said Stephanie Pace Brown, the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s executive director, of the agenda.

Carrying over into the board’s regular monthly business meeting on Friday, March 24, at the same Biltmore location, topics of discussion ranged from results to goals to challenges. Even as other topics were considered, however, the theme of balancing positive and negative perceptions of tourism ran through both sessions.

Board Chair and Biltmore executive Paula Wilber summarized the history of the authority, which she said has “generated more than $2 billion in visitor spending for Buncombe County.” She noted the boldness of a tax enacted to “single out one group of business.” The TDA’s mission, she continued, is to “administer the use of the occupancy tax according to the legislature to the best of our abilities and to the betterment of our community,” and to generate a positive return on that investment.

Tourism has been “convenient target in recent years,” said Wilber, arguing that the industry’s positive benefits are often overlooked despite the prosperity it brings. Wilber said she is looking forward to new hotel rooms opening in the county. “Our ability to fill those rooms and the ones we already have will be an unprecedented accomplishment, and I know we will make that happen,” she said.

“I’ve never heard anyone say anything negative about Asheville — and I travel a lot,” said Joe Lathrop of OCG International, a Florida-based consulting firm that advises destination marketing organizations. Lathrop introduced a presentation outlining the authority’s strategic plan and operational objectives. The floor was open for discussion and suggestions throughout. Several comments highlighted the large number of requests from businesses that contact the CVB for help with promotion.

“Managing the expectations that people have with the CVB is critical,” noted Lathrop. Wilber revealed that Brown has been successful at managing the requests by “adding more resources to manage that.” Brown suggested the need for a “brand ambassador” who goes out into the community to advocate for and connect people to the services.

“Ultimately our job, as mandated by legislation, is [creating] demand,” said Brown.

Monitoring the impact of short-term lodging rentals surfaced as a new goal for the authority.

“What are we doing to promote that part of our business?” asked board member John McKibbon, owner of the Aloft Hotel on Biltmore Avenue, as well as other lodging properties in Asheville and elsewhere. “Should that be one of our initiatives to focus on the long-term visitor who is going to stay at a short-term rental as opposed to a hotel?”

Conventions and weddings regularly attract the types of visitors who gravitate toward short-term rentals, the group agreed. McKibbon went on to note that long-term visitors are often more family-oriented. The group asked the facilitators to add “ encourage return visitation” to the authority’s strategic objectives.

“Repeat visitors must be a part of your strategy,” commented Buncombe County Commissioner Joe Belcher.

Brown revealed that Glenn Cox, the CVB’s interim vice president of administration, has been developing a tourism training program. Cox will present a proposal to roll out a tourism training program in the next fiscal year.

The TDA’s strategy of using Asheville itself as the star of its promotional activities has been very effective, the group agreed. “We’re helping to maintain the authenticity of Asheville by curating these true and authentic experiences through the marketing and advertising that we do,” said Brown. The CVB’s deep understanding of local attractions and culture are critical to the organization’s ability to create compelling messages, she said.

Brown also noted Asheville’s unique ability to make anything seem special.

“I love beer because I love the people who make it,” she said. “Backstories make it more special, and we can tell those stories through our advertisers and privileged social [media].”

After a break for lunch on Thursday, Josh Mayer of Peter Mayer Ad Agency began a presentation showcasing the advertising campaigns created for the CVB. His agency strives to communicate “inspiration and awareness” to highlight the best of Asheville, Mayer said. He outlined “passion points” such as food and music. Mayer said social media also allows potential visitors to explore Asheville through interactive ad units and Google Maps. The CVB’s website at exploreasheville.com was recognized as having been highly successful.

Marla Tambellini, the CVB’s vice president of marketing, spoke on the importance of maximizing marketing investment. Cluster maps that track where people who are exploring Asheville through social media are located make it possible to decipher which ads work best in which geographical areas, she said. Matching the correct social media app for the correct group is vital, Tambellini explained.

At the close of the first day, Brown led the group in brainstorming the strengths and challenges faced by member organizations, as well as those related to the TDA.

Despite the numerous strengths mentioned, board members agreed that the negative stigma attached to the TDA’s use of tax funds represents the authority’s greatest challenge. Public perception paints the industry and its members as uncaring when it comes to the negative effects of tourism. The best way to combat tourism’s image problems, members said, was to educate local residents on where the money goes and how it benefits the city.

Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield noted that the “work product isn’t apparent in the region so people have no idea where the money goes.”

Belcher warned of the dangers of listening only to tourists and not to the residents of Asheville, saying, “You can spend all your time with the loudest voice…and the quiet is getting lost in the storm.”

“We’re all on the same side,” responded board member Jim Muth. “We’re just looking at it through a different lens.”

The CVB’s organizational transition, which will make it independent of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce by June 30, presents an opportunity to brand the organization in a new way, the group agreed.

On Friday, plans for the new CVB offices at Asheville Office Park at College Street and Town Mountain Road were presented to the board. The CVB’s current offices on the ground floor of the Chamber of Commerce building at 36 Montford Ave. will be occupied by Chamber staff, who will move from their current offices on the building’s second floor. Lenoir-Rhyne University, which already owned space on the building’s third floor and part of the second floor, purchased the Chamber’s previous office space early this year, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times.

New Convention and Visitors Bureau offices at Asheville Office Park. Rendering by Fisher Architects courtesy of the Asheville CVB
New Convention and Visitors Bureau offices at Asheville Office Park. Rendering by Fisher Architects courtesy of the Asheville CVB

Brown provided additional information about the relocation project’s costs in an email after the meeting. The TDA board, she wrote, “approved a total relocation budget not to exceed $519,000. We are still refining plans for IT, AV and furniture, so I expect that we will be able to trim those estimates.”

Creating a “warm and inviting” feel in the space is the top priority, said Jakub Markulis of Fisher Architects of Asheville.

The CVB is targeting June 23 as the date for its move, Brown told board members at the meeting, and the organization hopes the new location will help change the organization’s public image.

“My favorite part of the new building is that it will be a hub for the tourism community,” said Brown, “We are thrilled to co-locate with the Sports Commission and AIR (Asheville Independent Restaurant Association).”

“Part of the CVB’s work is not just about making Asheville a great place for people who come here, but for people who live here,” said Mayfield. Board members indicated agreement with the sentiment, and resolved to pursue that goal moving forward.

 

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About Laurie Crosswell
I am a freelance writer for all subject areas as well as a film critic. Follow me @lauriecrosswell

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24 thoughts on “TDA grapples with image problem

  1. NFB

    More than a year ago, when City Council approved plans to turn much of the BB&T building into a hotel, developer Mr. McKibbon promised that he would work to allow a portion of the room tax go to fund services used by the tourists the TDA’s room tax is designed to attract. That was nearly 15 months ago. Anyone know anything about how that advocacy he promised is going?

  2. luther blissett

    “The best way to combat tourism’s image problems, members said, was to educate local residents on where the money goes and how it benefits the city.”

    Not so sure about that. How about addressing the perception that downtown Asheville is increasingly off-limits to residents by doing things that make them feel welcome downtown? Pretend that they’re tourists for a minute.

    • Lulz

      LOL, the only pretender is you. Who can afford to go downtown Luther?

    • Gary Woods

      “Not so sure about that. How about addressing the perception that downtown Asheville is increasingly off-limits to residents by doing things that make them feel welcome downtown? Pretend that they’re tourists for a minute.”

      I’m a local and spend a considerable amount of time downtown for both business and leisure, so please explain the perception of that specific area of the city as being off limits for residents.

      • luther blissett

        There’s the inevitable debate about parking (or “driving around in search of parking”) as well as the impact of beer tourism, especially on weekends. Retail opening times tend to follow standard business hours, which works against leisurely browsing of what’s on offer. Downtown restaurants are looking at outlying areas and satellite locations (such as Bouchon’s Haw Creek project) as a way to expand in ways that are more inclusive to locals.

        It’s the “nobody goes there, it’s too crowded” perception. If your work is downtown or takes you there regularly, you’re going to be less put off, because you know it’s relatively easy to get parked up and have a good cheap lunch or go to a couple of stores, but if you’re out of the habit and only get to see downtown on a busy weekend with jammed streets and $7 SPECIAL EVENT parking in the decks, then you’ll probably need encouragement to come back.

        Said it before, saying it again: for the first Tuesday of each month, encourage downtown retail to open a little later, make deck parking a cheap fixed rate, encourage restaurants to put on a fixed-price special, have the buskers and street performers out in force, get the TDA to spend money selling it to locals. Downtown After 5 and the Shindig are fine enough, but summer weekends would be busy regardless.

        • The Real World

          Shocking, I know…but Luther and I are in agreement twice in one week.

          “for the first Tuesday of each month, encourage downtown retail to open a little later, make deck parking a cheap fixed rate, encourage restaurants to put on a fixed-price special” — yes, this is a total no-brainer! I have said the same previously.

          C’mon local downtown businesses — make us feel special and valued and we will support you! On a generally slower night of the week it’s a total win-win.

        • Not Tone Deaf

          You had me until _”have the buskers and street performers out in force”_ — nothing will keep me away more than that smelly, tone deaf lot.

          • The Real World

            LOL…….and notice I left that part out of my copy/paste of the original statement. I could take ’em or leave ’em, whatever folks want.

          • luther blissett

            If you want downtown to be something other than a sanitized tourist playground, then it means tolerating the presence of one or two things that aren’t necessarily your personal preference. You’re not obliged to throw money in the hat. If you don’t want the whiff of eau de busker, go to the mall.

  3. Gordon Smith

    A third-party study on the effects of tourism – positive and negative – would offer us a common vocabulary and sets of facts. However, the TDA continues to ignore this option. As a marketing body, they are not prepared to deeply and honestly examine what the industry means to Asheville. I have been asking for this for some time, and there has been no appetite to talk about wages, carbon, traffic, etc. The room nights and overall economic impact gets thrown around on the regular, and that fine. I hope one day we can speak about the industry in its totality and in an honest way.

    • One would have thought that after so many years in office you would know that by law, that is not the TDA’s charge. Guess not.

      • luther blissett

        On the one hand, you’re right that the TDA law is drawn narrowly in terms of disbursals. Of course, laws can be changed, per Don Kostelec below.

        On the other hand, the TDA is granted 10% of the net occupation tax proceeds for administrative expenses, which added up to $1.6m for the 2016 fiscal year. I assume that the shiny new CVB office comes out of that pot. I also assume that the plan to “educate local residents” has a non-zero cost filed under that line item. (I’m assuming, because while there are colorful reports and presentations on the TDA website, I can’t find a budget statement listing administrative spending. Please enlighten me if one is available.)

        Perhaps the TDA’s board could chuck a few admin dollars to get some education from local residents?

        • NFB

          “Of course, laws can be changed, per Don Kostelec below.”

          But TDA laws will never be changed without the support of the TDA and why on earth would they ever willingly put an end to the fun they are having? Oh sure, they want to “educate” the public, as if the ignorant rubes here don’t understand why tourism is the only industry that has the state collect a tax that is solely directed to the purpose of promoting said industry, but they won’t show any goodwill by allowing at least a portion of their slush fund to go to give locals (many of who work for the wage slave wages tourism pays) a break in having to carry so much of the burden in proving services tourists benefit from while they are here.

          And, at risk of sounding like a broken record, nobody can seem to answer the question of just what Mr. McKibbon has done to make good on his promise to work and advocate for a portion of TDA room tax money to go towards helping to pay for these services — a promise that was a condition for his getting City Council approval of the renovations he wanted to do to turn the BB&T into yet another downtown hotel.

          The TDA indeed, as the headline of this article says, grapples with an image problem but it is an image problem it has brought on itself and one it refuses to really do what would go a long way in fixing and its patronizing attitude of how it needs to “educate” the local yokels is only making things worse.

          • luther blissett

            Is the CVB still doing bonuses and profit-sharing of “surplus revenue” as it was in 2015, something that only came to light because of a public records request to the TDA? Will budget and salary information become public records when the CVB comes solely under the control of the TDA this summer?

            http://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2015/09/05/public-see-bonuses-salaries-paid-room-tax/71773128/

            ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

            If there’s room to redistribute “surplus revenue”, there’s room for a study on how the TDA can fix its image problem. If they hired an image consultant to do image consulting about their image, I bet that would be covered as an administrative expense. Same difference.

  4. Don Kostelec

    It’s frustrating to hear them simply recite what state law allows and doesn’t. NC is a Dillon’s Rule state, which means the state can modify laws for individual entities like the TDA. I’ve seen language in other individual TDA statutes that allow for things other that what Buncombe’s TDA can do. Ask for a change in state law to meet the area’s unique needs. The TDA in Banner Elk paid for sidewalk construction materials and town crews built the sidewalks or let smaller contracts to build sidewalks.

    Diversity might also help. Pale and male dominates that table, which isn’t very representative of Asheville or Buncombe County.

    • NFB

      Which is a good point and one that brings me back to my original post.

      Does ANYONE know what Mr. McKibbon has been doing over the past 15 months in regard to his promise to work and advocate for some of the TDA room tax money going to help pay for services tourists use? This was one of the conditions he agreed to in order to get City Council approval for his plans for the BB&T building, but more than a year later I have heard nothing more about this. Maybe I am missing something. If so, can somebody fill me in?

      Thanks.

  5. AVL LVR

    One reason the hotel industry is singled out is because it disproportionately affects poor people. The wages are low and the costs of living are high. They also cannot afford the benefits of tourism like specialty shops and restaurants. Moreover, a lot of the free activities like parks are overcrowded with tourists.

    Yet, the benefits are obvious as well. Would we be any better off if Asheville was one big Canton with no tourists? How are the poor doing there?

    • AVL LVR

      Also, if there was no tourist industry, would the people revert to junk yards and trailer parks? You drive through Canton into Candler and people have trash and rusting equipment all in their front lawns. It might be better to keep the land expensive enough that it is out of reach of them. Yes, we could provide better jobs in the tech industry. However, are the homeless in San Francisco any better off?

    • luther blissett

      It’s beyond question that Asheville punches above its weight for a city of its size and location, though a better comparison would be with Hickory or Johnson City. I’d offer a slight twist on your comment: the spaces where people in the service and hospitality sectors can say “we may have low wages and high rents and antisocial hours but at least we have this” have gradually been squeezed over the past five years, especially downtown but also on Haywood Road.

      I’m loath to wallow in nostalgia, given that I remember the chorus of “it’s all ruined! gentrified to death!” when Vincent’s Ear closed, but the very nature of the occupancy tax — paid by hotel guests to be spent on getting more hotel guests — creates a self-perpetuating dynamic. It’s a little like those small towns that have grown accustomed to funding their operations from traffic tickets and court fees, and so start spending their budgets on speed traps and law enforcement. Tax policy is social policy.

      In passing: did Biltmore provide the retreat facility to the TDA (chaired by Biltmore’s sales & marketing executive) free of charge, or was that covered by the TDA’s budget?

      • AVL LVR

        True, and they will be squeezed even more. That is why I advocate for more parks and more infrastructure spending to be paid by the TDA. Strangely enough, they aren’t even smart enough to figure out it will help their business and tourists too. Who wants to visit a place where all the facilities are over crowded.>

  6. AVL LVR

    I would also use the TDA money to provide more free things for everyone. As the number of tourists increases, TDA should provide compensation for overcrowding the current facilities. I wish we had nice free museums like Raleigh does. A new library and more greenspace downtown would be nice. The poor may earn less, but at least they would have a better life.

  7. TDA is Turrible

    The hoteliers knew they were going to be taxed eventually, so they decided to create an entity they controlled to receive and distribute the tax money (including to private businesses) – genius and diabolical. $10+ million/ year and increasing could go a long way to improving Asheville’s deteriorating infrastructure. I wonder if I could create an authority to receive and distribute my property taxes to whomever I wanted?
    My vote will be to abolish the TDA and it’s self-serving interests. Asheville will continue to attract tourists with or without the TDA.

  8. CMON FOLKS

    To the reporter’s informative article that “TDA Grapples with Image Problem,” perhaps the problem can be summed up in the artist rendering of the proposed design of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s new building. THAT IS, if the TDA wants to improve it’s image problem, the first place to start should be its new building design. I mean, REALLY? How about something a little more interesting than a two-story concrete pancake. Asheville citizens — not to mention AVL’s high-rolling tourists — deserve something so much better. C’mon folks, ART buses are rolling pieces of artwork compared to this THANG OF UUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGLLLLLLLLLYYYYYYYYYYY.

  9. Scott

    Here is a link to an Occupancy Tax Overview prepared by the State of North Carolina. There are details about the TDA tax in Banner Elk.
    http://bit.ly/2p05zQ6

    I once served on the Banner Elk TDA and can confirm that for ten years the group was able to reverse the typical split between marketing and capital projects. The modification helped theTDA support many capital projects that appealed to tourists and also benefited local residents. It was deemed appropriate to make investments in public infrastructure that enhanced the town and attracted more tourists. Banner Elk is a great place to visit, play, and stay.

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