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.
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.