As presidential hopefuls blitz the airwaves over the coming months to hook undecided voters, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority will be stepping up its own campaign. The authority’s board voted to increase its spring and summer advertising budget by $1 million, for a total of $12.65 million, during a Jan. 29 meeting.
“We considered carefully what level of investment, and my comfort level is at a million dollars for anticipating other demands that would be coming,” Stephanie Brown, president and CEO of the Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, told board members during the meeting. “I would not feel comfortable at $2 million; I think it would be outsized and too much of a reduction in our budget.”
According to a presentation by Cindy Stein and Nick Smart, representatives with Atlanta-based marketing agency 360i, additional ad spending is needed in part to break through the noise of the upcoming presidential election, which not only raises rates for commercial advertising but also increases competition for audience attention.
The marketing reps also pointed to increased room supply as a reason to boost advertising spending to avoid a market slowdown. More than 800 hotel rooms are expected to come online in 2020 — a 10% increase over those available in 2019. And while room sales have continued to grow every year from 2016-2019, the annual rate of that growth has slowed over the same period from nearly 13% to just under 9%.
“We’re kind of hitting the bubble in terms of supply,” Brown said.
In addition to the just over $1 million budget amendment for general advertising, the agency also voted to include an additional $150,000 to promote new nonstop flight routes at the Asheville Regional Airport. The airport announced that eight new or expanded nonstop flights will be offered this year to and from destinations including Boston, Chicago and New York City.
“[Advertising] support for nonstop air service, which certainly was not a known possibility last spring when the budget was created, is important because generating bookings on flights into Asheville can ensure the sustainability of those flights,” Explore Asheville spokesperson Kathi Peterson wrote to Xpress in a Jan. 30 email. “This is a positive for not just bringing visitors here, but also for those of us who live here and want to be able to fly out of our own hometown airport versus having to drive elsewhere.”
A Jan. 29 press release from the agency said that both budget amendments would be funded from a pool of unassigned occupancy tax revenue already designated for tourism advertising, which has accumulated to roughly $6 million over several years of underspending. Brown also emphasized that the allocations were one-time supplements to the agency’s budget.
“After the presidential election, I could anticipate that we could return to the level that was budgeted for this year,” Brown said. “If we do not proceed and we experience declines, then it’s kind of hard to get your momentum back.”
BCTDA board member Andrew Celwyn, who is currently gathering signatures to appear as an unaffiliated candidate on the ballot for Buncombe County Commission Chair, cast the sole dissenting vote in both budget increase decisions. “The fundamentals across the board are generally strong, and we’re talking about taking over 15% of our rainy day fund to spend right now,” he said.