TDA President Vic Isley plans to go full speed ahead in promoting tourism

NEW STRATEGIES: Vic Isley, Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority president and CEO of Explore Asheville, says the TDA is implementing several new strategies to bring in more tourism, including a new destination app. Photo courtesy of BCTDA

Vic Isley is well aware of the local criticisms that tourism is overpromoted, bringing too many visitors and pushing Asheville’s cost of living out of reach for many.

“Asheville is a community with a wide variety of opinions and viewpoints, and there is a lot to like about that,” says Isley, president of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority and CEO of Explore Asheville. “I grew up outside of Greensboro in the Piedmont, so I’ve been a student of Asheville and Buncombe County from afar for years, and as a resident for three years now, what I’ve found is that narratives around tourism have been perpetuated that are not rooted in data but are rooted more in emotion.”

Since Isley arrived as president of the TDA in 2020, she says that she has been intentional about being “a continuing student of Asheville and Buncombe County” and has hosted several listening sessions in the community.

Throughout the first quarter of 2024, Xpress has connected with local leaders about their organization‘s plans for the new year. In our latest feature, we speak with Isley, who says that in 2024, the TDA will stick to its four strategic imperatives that guide the organization’s decisions and planning: delivering balanced and sustainable growth; encouraging safe and responsible travel; engaging and inviting more diverse audiences; and promoting and supporting Asheville’s creative spirit.

‘Challenges of success’

According to Isley, “Tourism has been baked into this community and this part of the world for over 200 years, and it’s been a part of revitalizing or restarting this community at least two or three times. There are natives of Asheville and Buncombe County who I have listened to in these sessions who have said, ‘We know what it was like back then, we don’t want to go back.’ Then there are some folks who have lived here five or 10 years who just want Asheville to stay exactly how it was when they got here.”

Isley says the community is dealing with the “challenges of success,” and local organizations and governmental bodies, including the TDA, should be working together to address these issues.

“As a community, we really are in this together, and each entity and organization has specific roles to play in our collective success,” Isley says. “The TDA is legally structured in North Carolina to play a specific role, which is a supporting role in a healthy economy. And we do that through promotion that brings net new dollars in the front door of businesses.”

According to data from Tourism Economics, a Pennsylvania-based economic consulting company, $238 million in state and local taxes were generated by the visitor economy in 2021, accounting for about 20% of city and county revenue. Additionally, the report found that Buncombe County households would need to pay an additional $2,261 in taxes annually to replace the visitor-generated taxes received by state and local governments.

“Going back to the listening sessions, one person said, ‘There is a lot of emotion tied up in this because intellectually we get that tourism is important for our community, but emotionally we don’t want to.’ I think that is a pretty interesting way to sum it up,” Isley says. “That is not to say we are perfect, and we really are working on how we can be community partners and how we can have those longer-ranging conversations with our other government partners, with our business partners and with our nonprofit partners.”

A shift in strategy

One notable strategy Explore Asheville and the TDA plan to implement is attracting business-oriented visitors throughout the week, rather than focusing primarily on weekend leisure vacations.

“Our business development team is working on bringing groups and conferences here that focus more on Sunday to Thursday trips, and [those visitors] spend differently than a leisure visitor.”

Several business conferences are already set to come to Asheville in 2024, Isley says. The N.C. Athletic Directors Association state conference took place  March 16-18. Adventure Elevate, an annual three-day conference for leaders in the adventure travel business sector, is Friday, July 12-Thursday, July 18. The Model A Ford Club of America will also have its national meeting in Asheville from Monday, July 15-Thursday, July 18. It is estimated these events will generate more than $2.5 million in visitor spending and nearly 4,500 room nights.

Additionally, the TDA is partnering with the Asheville Regional Airport to establish new flight routes. Allegiant Air, one of six of the airport’s airlines, is adding a new route to Orlando, Fla., International Airport in May. Isley says the new route will generate more tourism in Asheville, while also providing locals with outbound travel opportunities.

“Explore Asheville has also been building its relationship with the U.S. Tennis Association to be the official destination sponsor for the Billie Jean King Cup tie. [The competition] is going to take place in Orlando in [April], just one month before nonstop service starts from [Orlando International Airport] to here,” Isley says. “That partnership will include event signage, television exposure and digital marketing, which is important when we are talking about strategies because we know from data that visitors who arrive here by air generally stay longer and spend more on entertainment throughout their stay.”

Isley also mentions Explore Asheville’s new app. Designed in partnership with Austin, Texas-based Visit Widget, the app is a compilation of all of Explore Asheville’s partner listings and includes information on lodging, restaurants, tours and events. The app, which soft-launched in October, has had over 500 downloads.

“I think what we’re seeing with early adoption and by doing one email outreach and having 500 downloads, is that an in-market app can really help with our strategy of dispersal and can get visitors not only downtown, but also into other neighborhoods, districts and towns throughout Buncombe County,” Isley says. “We’re excited about what the app could mean in terms of being a great in-market tool for visitor movement.”


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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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23 thoughts on “TDA President Vic Isley plans to go full speed ahead in promoting tourism

  1. Jones

    The challenges of growth and affordability are real and deserve more thoughtful conversation like this among our residents and leaders, thank you to Ms. Isley for her tone and thoughtful approach to listening and reflecting on what makes this place special. The breathless criticism and scape goating of tourists and new residents (typical in these pages) is neither constructive nor problem solving.

    • Voirdire

      Ms Isley isn’t one of our “leaders” …nor was she elected to anything. And somehow I missed Ms. Isley’s take on “affordability” ….I’m sure she’s well versed in it though, lol. Get real here, okay? Ms Isley is at the helm of a GOP MAGA created slush fund here in Asheville created by our as undemocratic as they can possibly get away with legislators in Raleigh. Nothing else.

      • Lisa

        Community leaders aren’t only electeds thankfully. I tend to agree with Jones. I’ve heard Isley speak several times now. Sounds like a realist and we need more rational conversations in our community. Other than the clickbait headline, the story seems to outline a pretty balanced approach to what their job is.

  2. NFB

    “There are natives of Asheville and Buncombe County who I have listened to in these sessions who have said, ‘We know what it was like back then, we don’t want to go back.’ ”

    As a native of Asheville I don’t want to go back either. Neither do I want to continue on this totally unsustainable path in which more tourists bring in more room tax money for the TDA to spend to bring more tourists here which brings in more tax money for the TDA to bring more tourists here which brings in more tourists, etc. The fact that the TDA wants nothing more than more, more, more, with absolutely no concern for the negative results for the local peons speaks volumes about the contempt they have for those hurting from their determination to turn Asheville into their own cash cow.

    With the recent news of Isely’s $450,000 salary she is not going to have any problem affording a place to live in Asheville, while many of the natives she pays a backhanded compliment to in her comments will, and indeed, are. As are the many of underpaid workers who struggle to make it her cleaning the rooms and busing the tables for tourists while she and the TDA spend $17,000 on a retirement party. But let’s be fair. That $17,000 budget included $1,35 for “cheese presentation.”

    Of course she’s not stupid and she knows full well that the legislature has the TDA’s back and will never approve of any reforms that that will give a single penny of the TDA’s slush fund to go towards the local community to help pay for services tourists pay for. That responsibility lies with the local yokel rubes.

    As long as Isely and the TDA continue to see Asheville as a commodity to be sold, rather than a community in which to live she and she locals, including natives, as merely surfs her to worship wealthy tourists the TDA will continue to have a poor image.

    Not that Isely cares Asheville is a rung on her career ladder, just like her predecessor Stephanie Brown. She sold Asheville to the highest bidder, beefed up her resume and moved on.

    The tone deafness of this article is just staggering.

    • Charlie

      Maybe you should learn more about Isley beyond the slanderous AWD coverage that was blindly picked up by other media. Her salary isn’t that, she grew up on a farm and from the looks of it, she doesn’t need to climb a ladder.

      From LinkedIn:
      Over her 28-year career, she has represented destinations including the island of Bermuda; Washington, DC; Tampa Bay, Florida and Durham, and now Asheville, North Carolina. Isley’s destination marketing leadership experience ranges from 9/11 recovery efforts for the nation’s capital, promoting Obama’s first presidential inauguration and the dedication of the National World War II Memorial to showcasing major sports events including Super Bowl XXXV, Men’s Basketball NCAA Final Four, NHL All-Star Game and America’s Cup and negotiating multi-year sponsorship partnerships with SailGP, the PGA Tour and United States Tennis Association.

      She served as Chief Operating Officer for what is now Destinations International, the world’s largest destination marketing trade association, representing 600 organizations worldwide. She also operated as the Executive Director of its Foundation. Isley is a currently a board member of the United States Travel Association, Asheville Buncombe Technical College Foundation, Asheville Independent Restaurant Association and the Asheville Buncombe Hotel Association.

      Growing up on a family farm in rural North Carolina, she knows first-hand the value of hard work. Her first job in hospitality was as a restaurant server, putting herself through college and falling in love with food culture.

      Vic is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, proud Carolina girl, passionate traveler, foodie, music lover, farmer’s daughter and more.

      • Voirdire

        RAH, RAH! SIS -BOOM -BAH! Please, spare us the loving details of Ms. Isleys’ farm girl to Carolina girl! /bootstraps to largesse… “and more!” ( sigh) …’success’ story! Ms. Isley and the TDA slush fund are the creation of a corrupt MAGA controlled state legislature ( ..that can’t get enough of undemocratically controlled tax monies) ..and not to mention, the height of tone deafness when it comes to the real world issues vis a vis the inevitable mess/morass of mass tourism.

        • Lisa

          LOL! Do you have anger issues or just not like facts? I believe it would be correct to say that Isley was a creation of her parents. Have a nice day.

        • NFB

          The TDA was formed by the legislature in the 1980s.

          Today changes to its structure and how it spends the money it gets from the room tax are controlled by the Republican legislature which will make no changes to the law without the support of the TDA which will never support any changes that allow a portion of the room tax to go to help local residents pay for services tourists use while they are here. This is a huge part of why so many locals have a negative view of the TDA.

          However, TDAs in NC are accountable to county commissions, and Buncombe County Commission could cut the room tax, and thus cut the TDA’s marketing budget. (It could also abolish the BCTDA altogether.)

          About 10-12 years ago there was a suggestion that the room tax be raised from 4 to 6 percent with the extra going to help locals pay for services tourists use. This was vehemently opposed by the TDA who claimed that the 2% increase would make hotel rooms more expensive and thus Asheville would lose tourists to Myrtle Beach and Gatlinburg, as if those places have the Biltmore House, and downtown Asheville, and as if people plan their trips around what hotel rooms cost rather than deciding what they want to see and finding a room within their budget. Thus the proposal went nowhere.

          A little after that the TDA began to panic that so many hotels were being built and that there would not be enough heads for all those beds. So, they went to the legislature and got the law changed to allow county commissions to raise the room tax by 2% for more marketing money, which Buncombe Commission did.

          So, room tax money to help locals pay for services tourists must be opposed. Room tax money for more marketing (and “cheese presentations”) is good.

          When pressed about its refusal to support changes to the law to allow some room tax money go for local services the TDS says they aren’t a lobbying group. Yet they lobbied for the aforementioned changes, and they lobbied again to allow them to spend money to support local businesses (but ONLY those that serve tourists) during the lockdown time during the pandemic. It also lobbied to get changes to the law so that 2/3 must be spent on marketing instead of the 3/4 it used to be. Still not a single penny can go to help pay for those services. So, it will lobby when it is in its interest.

          There are those in Buncombe County who advocate for County Commission to abolish the TDA. I am not oe of those. I do think that Commission should vote to cut the room tax so the marketing budget will not be so massive. Maybe that will put the TDA on notice that they need to cooperate with the community more and to dial back some of the smug dismissive tone that is reflected in this interview.

          • Taxpayer

            Those marketing dollars actually support a LOT of local businesses. Many of our creative businesses wouldn’t survive without it.

            $86 million in occupancy tax has been committed to community capital projects by the TDA. 79% of that has gone to city our county owned projects.

            Tourism makes up 20% of Buncombe County’ economy and generates 20% of city and county tax revenues each year through property tax, sales tax and fees to pay for public services. That seems fair.

            Unfortunately there isn’t much trust from the business community including tourism for government, particularly the city, to manage money properly.

            Remember what happened with the AB Tech sales tax?

            For what it’s worth, I don’t read smugness. Why don’t you ask her for coffee and find out for yourself?

          • James Taxpayer

            I don’t see the motivation of the TDA as exploitation and I don’t read the article as smug.

            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. Tourism generates 20% of Buncombe County’s local economy and generates 20% of city and county government revenues annually from property tax, sales tax and fees for public services for us residents. That seems fair.

            The TDA has committed $86 million in occupancy tax to community projects. 79% of that has gone to city or county owned projects. Unfortunately the city and the county have given the business community, including tourism, reason not to trust them to manage money properly. Do you remember the AB-Tech sales tax fiasco?

            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.

  3. Voirdire

    If I might give Ms. Isley just a bit of advise…. don’t ever agree to give another interview again. Your 450K per year bubble seems very bright and cozy indeed. And best of luck in your next position in Orlando or with the US Tennis Association or whomever. I’m quite sure wherever and whatever it will be, it will be a beautiful bubble as well. Bon Voyage and bye! ( good riddance too, sigh)

  4. Bright

    She’s really one of those women who is tough, strong, and therefore, has the ability to take her power hungry butt out of Asheville. Stop trying to horse your fit, dear. You dont fit our vibe and we don’t want you.

  5. RG

    Some simple questions:
    Does Tourism exist to serve/enhance the Region, or is it the other way around?
    Are there any dangers with promoting unchecked exponential growth unto infinity?
    Has anyone studied the impact that Ms. Isley’s Tourism ‘success’ had on affordable housing in Bermuda?

  6. NFB

    “Are there any dangers with promoting unchecked exponential growth unto infinity?”

    There are, but don’t expect the TDA or its cheerleaders to ever acknowledge this.

    In a lot of ways Asheville is really just a glorified mill town, only in its case the mill is tourism. ANY criticism of it, ANY acknowledgement of the negative aspects of it and ANY calls to try to lessen those negative aspects of it sends all the peal clutchers racing each other the the fainting couch. Even $1300 “cheeese presentations” are excused.

  7. Voirdire

    Just one other small… err, not so small, thing, lol …Ms. Isley’s exorbitant salary. Anyone who thinks she is paid this completely inappropriate salary ( along with the compulsory awarded “performance bonuses”) because it matches her equally exorbitant work skill set is delusional. Ms. Isley is paid this princely sum because she is in charge of a $30 million dollar and counting slush fund and the largesse that it dispenses. Btw, whom exactly decides to pay Ms. Isley this yearly treasure trove? …the very people who are the recipients of the TDA’s largesse last time I checked.

    • James

      A competitive marketplace actually sets competitive compensation. 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:

      • Voirdire

        ..the competitive market place huh? …and “other leaders” huh? And now we’re comparing the UNCA Chancellor’s salary to someone who is flying off every other weekend to another exotic location to schmooze with tourism and travel “influencers” ? ( and oh, let’s not forget the monumentally important task of choosing those $300 buff denim shirts for the staff to wear ;) I know it’s hard…. but it’s time to get real about all of this.

        • James

          LOL! Now I’m with Lisa above. Do you have anger issues or just not like facts? That is not what a CEO of a CVB does. A CEO of a CVB with a $40 million budget being paid similarly to a CEO of a Chamber with a $4 million budget seems pretty reasonable. Not to mention a male counterpart in Savannah. And the shirts? Handmade by a local creator (Twin Denim) who makes custom aprons for similar prices for local restaurants and bars who was able to pay their rent because of the purchase by the TDA. Facts are facts. Have a nice day.

  8. Think about it

    Why is there such a need to try and defend and prop uo the actions of the TDA? It is apparent that the organization has jumped the shark. The expenditures associated with the TDA are ludicrous. Does someone defending the TDA really believe that tourism would disappear without nonsense of this scale? The whole thing would be comical, if it wasn’t so tragic.

  9. Enlightened Enigma

    Wonder if Isley can work with the NEW NAME change for the city? After the monument decision, we must all come together and CHANGE the slave owner name of Asheville to something FAR more acceptable! What is your choice for a new city NAME ? The time is NOW.

  10. luther blissett

    “Isley also mentions Explore Asheville’s new app. Designed in partnership with Austin, Texas-based Visit Widget–”

    Yet another reminder that the TDA’s huge marketing budget is mostly funneled out of the area. I guess it allows some people in Austin to afford to live there.

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