Across the United States, people are sick of being at home. They’ve just received a chunk of cash from the latest federal coronavirus relief package. COVID-19 vaccines are quickly becoming available to anyone who wants one.
Put that all together, say the members of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority board, and the result should be a banner year for the region’s visitor economy. At its March 25 regular meeting, the TDA board unanimously approved a projection that occupancy tax revenue would exceed a record $27 million for fiscal year 2021-22 — 15% more than projected for the current fiscal year, which ends in June, and 9% more than the year before the pandemic.
“Buncombe County is in a comparatively strong position coming out of the current crisis,” said Vic Isley, the recently hired president and CEO of the Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau. As a destination that caters to domestic leisure travelers with a large vacation rental market and “a strong pre-COVID growth trend,” she explained, the area is poised for a quick recovery as the country tames the coronavirus.
That optimistic outlook came as board members embarked on their annual retreat, a two-day virtual affair meant to hone the TDA’s thinking on tourism management. The discussion revolved around four strategic pillars:
- Deliver balanced recovery and sustainable growth.
- Encourage safe and responsible travel.
- Engage and invite more diverse audiences.
- Promote and support Asheville’s creative spirit.
Where the pandemic will have lingering effects, suggested Erin Francis-Cummings, those will be to the benefit of Buncombe County. The president and CEO of Destination Analysts, a tourism marketing research firm, noted that over two-fifths of travelers say COVID-19 has “altered their outlook on life” and made them more interested to vacation in certain places.
National parks, small towns and mountain destinations, Francis-Cummings said, had all become more attractive to visitors, while large cities and theme parks were now less desirable. Although research hasn’t yet established how long those changed perspectives might last, she added, Asheville will certainly be able to capitalize on tourists’ new priorities in the short term.
As visitation increases, the board acknowledged, so too will the potential impacts of tourists on the local community. Members floated several strategies for a “balanced recovery,” including a “hub and spoke” model in which visitors would explore the rest of Buncombe County while using Asheville as a home base. Dispersing tourists across a larger area, they said, would reduce complaints of downtown overcrowding and parking woes.
Another approach recommended by Randy Durband, CEO of the Global Sustainable Travel Council, is to promote longer stays, thereby dispersing impacts over time. He pointed out that a tourist in Asheville for the day might only visit the downtown core and a big attraction such as the Biltmore House, while someone staying for the week would likely venture to more remote trails or artist studios.
Such visitors would spread their economic benefits more widely, Durband added. “I want to talk about the best kind of visit, not the best kind of visitor,” he said.
Board members also discussed how the TDA might address existing community issues, with a particular emphasis on homelessness. “Tourists basically say they’re not coming back because of the panhandling,” remarked Sandra Kilgore, an Asheville City Council member who serves on the TDA board in an ex officio, nonvoting capacity.
Isley said homelessness was “a bit of a sticky wicket for Asheville” but suggested that a street ambassador program, similar to existing initiatives in Washington and Tampa Bay, Fla., might make a difference. Those ambassadors, she said, could both assist unhoused people with community resources and help tourists find their way around town.
In the short term, Isley continued, a pilot ambassador program might be funded in partnership with Asheville or Buncombe County using money those governments will receive through the federal American Rescue Plan. As previously reported by Xpress, Buncombe County alone is slated to receive over $51 million in relief funds, which among other uses can be spent on “aid to impacted industries such as tourism, travel and hospitality.”
Once that money is gone, Isley said permanent funding might come from a downtown business improvement district. Under that scheme, businesses would pay an additional tax to support downtown-specific services such as the ambassador program. “Now is not the time to approach local businesses to ask them for a give,” Isley added in acknowledgement of the pandemic’s lingering effects. But she said a successful pilot could set the stage for a BID in the near future.
Asheville technically already has a BID in place; the district was formally established by City Council in 2012. However, its board disbanded in 2014 after controversy regarding its bylaws and proposed tax rate.
As the TDA shapes Buncombe County’s tourism recovery, its board hopes to bring a broader swath of visitors to the area, with people of color a particular focus. To that end, said Earl “Butch” Graves, the board must “extend a genuine invitation” and include Black people at every stage of its marketing.
The president and CEO of Black Enterprise, a multimedia company, Graves said that destinations often give lip service to attracting Black visitors while continuing to run advertisements in their usual general-market publications. “You’re not saying to me that I value you and I genuinely want you to be there,” he explained, when ads aren’t present in culturally relevant channels. “If you’re a surfer, you’d rather read a surfing magazine than read Sports Illustrated, because it’s dedicated to my passion. It’s the same thing as it relates to an African American audience.”
When Black visitors arrive at a destination, Graves continued, they should see themselves represented in the places they visit and feel like a guest wherever they go. He encouraged tourism leaders to set the tone from the top and manage hiring more equitably.
After Isley asked if Asheville’s push toward community reparations might boost the region’s attractiveness to Black travelers — a theory floated by former Council member and current state Sen. Julie Mayfield soon after the July passage of the city’s reparations resolution — Graves said that in his experience, similar moves were “a rubber stamp, and then they go back to business as usual.” Instead, he said marketing messages could emphasize how people of color have contributed to the area’s culture and encourage tourists to “explore all of Asheville.”
The final pillar of the board’s discussion involved Asheville’s “creative spirit” and how tourism authorities might support area artists and makers. Before settling on specific programs to bolster creatives, said consultant Rodney Payne, Asheville should hold a community discussion regarding its “place DNA.”
Payne, the co-founder and CEO of Destination Think, pointed to Nashville as a prime example of a city that had held that conversation successfully. The Tennessee destination’s “Music City” theme, he said, runs through every element of a tourist’s experience. But locals also benefit through opportunities like paid gigs for bands to welcome travelers at the regional airport.
While Payne stressed the need to involve residents in the articulation of Asheville’s DNA, TDA board Chair Himanshu Karvir expressed skepticism that such a discussion would be productive. “If we start that conversation with locals, it would start by saying, ‘We’re already maxed out. Let’s pull back,’” Karvir said. “That’s not what we want to do; that’s not where our goal is. Our goal is to get more visitors here, to get more overnight stays.”
(In November 2019, Karvir delivered nearly 20 minutes of remarks at a TDA board meeting excoriating community members for what he called anti-tourism bias. “In my opinion, there are no problems with the TDA. The problems lie elsewhere,” he said.)
A good starting point, Payne suggested, might be conducting a carrying capacity study to objectively establish Buncombe County’s current limits for accommodating visitors. “It’s great to want to increase prosperity, but how much is enough?” he asked. “How many people is too many for our place? I think until you can answer that question, you can’t really build a plan.”
After Payne left the virtual meeting, Isley told the board that she had asked him to speak because he was “a bit provocative.” Although she acknowledged that the TDA needed to do more research on visitor impacts, she assured members that their job was not to limit tourism.
“Our role is not on constricting growth,” Isley said. “Our role is about enabling the opportunity for more people to win in this community through it.”
Full recordings of the retreat, as well as accompanying slide presentations, are available at avl.mx/975.
Editor’s note: This story has been changed from the version which appeared in print to give the full names of each of the TDA’s four strategic pillars.