TDA projects roaring year for Buncombe visitation

Tourists wearing white masks
BUSINESS AS (NEW) USUAL: Pent-up travel demand and healthy consumer savings, say members of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority board, spell a big year ahead for regional tourism. Photo courtesy of the BCTDA

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.

Sweet spot

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.

Cleanup crew

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.

New faces

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.”

Creative juices

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.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Assistant Editor of Mountain Xpress, regularly contributing to coverage of Western North Carolina's government, environment and health care. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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10 thoughts on “TDA projects roaring year for Buncombe visitation

  1. NFB

    “Board members also discussed how the TDA might address existing community issues, with a particular emphasis on homelessness.”

    Well, there is that thing called the room tax which, by state law, is required to be used 75% for marketing for the tourist industry to promote itself, and 25% for projects that will draw even more tourists. Maybe the TDA could support a change to that law so that a portion of the tax can go to for some local services. I know, I know. Their contempt for the local yokels will never allow for them to even consdier doing such a thing, which right there tells you how serious they are about the “community issues” they give lip service to.

    • bsummers

      “You can have my room tax revenue when you pry it out of my…”

      You get the idea.

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      • NFB

        That sums it up pretty well. And then the TDA acts so surprised to learn it has so a bad public image.

    • luther blissett

      The Asheville-Buncombe Hotel Association proposed asking the NCGA to change the split to 67-33 last year before the pandemic, but the problem isn’t the split: it’s that the TPDF remains based around heads-on-beds projects and the TDA gets to decide which projects deserve that money. (It’s also that a state senator from Hendersonville has veto power over any state laws affecting Buncombe County.)

      The fundamental issue with the TDA doesn’t change. It is a body granted tax revenue from a specific activity to spend on generating more tax revenue from that activity. It is a paperclip maximizer. If it were to perform its function with complete efficiency — if every dollar spent generated more dollars in taxes from overnight stays — it would turn Asheville into a theme park resort comprised of nothing but hotels and visitor attractions. That is its purpose.

      The secondary issue with the TDA is that it is run lazily and stupidly because it is unaccountable. It throws money at an ad agency based in New Orleans which produces TV ads that are a pile of clichés: Look at the big fancy house! Walk on a trail! Dine on a patio! It has a massive amount of discretion to direct marketing resources towards community enterprises but chooses to hire a “place DNA” guy from Canada — Canada! — to tell them that. Even then, the chair of the board thinks that’s a terrible idea because he distrusts local residents. Maybe they distrust the TDA because the TDA has done nothing to earn that trust? Dear me.

  2. lolo

    “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.

    Wow….. way to show your true colors + horrifying lack of compassion for those who struggle with homelessness, Sandra.

    • bsummers

      But luckily the new director of TDA acknowledges that homelessness is “a bit of a sticky wicket”. (Not that tourism has played any part in making housing so expensive in Asheville. No no no no no.) And maybe they’ll spend money on “street ambassadors” to steer tourists around the panhandling.

      I would support this if, and only if, these street ambassadors are the homeless themselves. Don’t you have to be from a place to be an ambassador?

    • bsummers

      I know very little about Kilgore, but is it possible she was saying this in the context of, “OK, powerful local financial interests – you need one more reason to use your resources to help people out of homelessness, here it is.”

      If so, that’s pretty smart.

      • NFB

        I want to give her the benefit of the doubt, but wow, the quote is staggeringly tone deaf.

  3. luther blissett

    If the TDA actually has a problem with homelessness, it can find places for the unhoused to stay. If only its members knew of large buildings designed to accommodate significant numbers of people…

    The TDA likes picking its numbers, and Daniel tells us the numbers it has picked, but what’s missing is that occupancy tax revenue essentially held up over 2020 after a couple of bad months at the start of the pandemic. At the same time, the TDA budgeted $11 million for advertising and has spent just over $2 million. You do the math. It is rolling in money. It has Scrooge McDuck money. It will want to splurge on paid media once things start reopening and pay a large premium for doing so, and it will be entirely in character.

    But if we’re talking about tone-deafness, it’s good to be reminded that Himanshu Karvir prefers tourists over locals, and essentially wishes that Asheville were a theme park populated with “cast members” who follow the script.

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