by Sally Kestin, avlwatchdog.org
It’s a sweet deal: free trips to Asheville, complimentary facials, spa treatments and massages, and dinners costing up to $4,100 at the most sought-after restaurants.
These are Buncombe’s tourism tax dollars at work, according to expenses obtained through Asheville Watchdog public records requests.
The Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau paid one digital influencer $75,000 to promote Asheville on social media, plus an all-expenses-paid trip that included fly-fishing, rafting and mountain biking excursions. Another digital influencer pocketed $20,000 plus expenses for a visit that included relaxation in a salt cave, a massage, “forest bathing” and a “sound healing session.”
Explore Asheville spent more than $88,000 on a golf tournament in July, flying three stars from the MTV reality show “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta” to Asheville and paying $3,591 for VIP transportation, $3,800 for personal bodyguards and amenities that included a $300 golf lesson at the Omni Grove Park Inn.
For a tasting event in February, Explore Asheville spent more than $5,300 to bring French Broad Chocolates, Biltmore Chardonnay and Poppy Handcrafted Popcorn to Washington, D.C., and paid $344 to overnight a flight of cheese from Blue Ridge Mountain Creamery.
Explore Asheville hosted a private dinner in March at Neng Jr’s, the nationally acclaimed West Asheville Filipinx restaurant, for 15 — journalists, destination and public relations representatives — at a cost of $2,795. Another dinner in March at the Market Place downtown, for 16 meeting planners and three Explore Asheville staffers, cost $4,110, or $216 per person, including tip.
The tourism agency has spent thousands of dollars on gifts and merchandise in the past three years, including $250 apiece for custom denim shirts for employees and more than $6,200 on pens with an Asheville logo.
Brenda Durden, chair of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority and an Asheville hotelier, defended the expenses.
“On the surface, everyone’s going to form an opinion of, ‘Oh, that sounds extravagant,’” Durden said. “But I think in doing business in 2023, marketing efforts are not inexpensive, any less than gas or anything else that we’re all trying to figure out how to pay for these days, so I do think that it’s quite necessary, and I think that it’s not uncommon in the travel and tourism marketing realm.”
Budget highest in NC
Spending on marketing and promotion for cities that depend on tourism is a necessity, Durden said, especially in today’s world of travel options where any recognition can give an edge to one destination over another. What sets apart the TDA is just how much is being spent.
The TDA’s $40 million budget, of which by law two-thirds goes to promotion and one-third to capital projects that boost tourism, is the highest in North Carolina. Among counties closest to Buncombe in visitor spending, the budget for the Greater Raleigh Convention & Visitors Bureau was $9.6 million in 2022-23, and for the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, $9.8 million, The Watchdog found.
The TDA considers Asheville more comparable to other, mostly larger destinations in the Southeast and provided figures showing budgets of tourism agencies in Myrtle Beach, $59 million in 2021; Nashville, $32.4 million in 2021; Charleston, S.C., $26 million in 2023; Savannah, Ga., $13.5 million in 2023; and Chattanooga, Tenn., $12.4 million in 2021.
The TDA’s budget is bigger than the municipal budgets of entire cities in Buncombe — more than double that of Black Mountain, Weaverville and the town of Woodfin.
The funding comes from the 6% occupancy tax charged to overnight visitors in Buncombe. The budget is overseen by an 11-member volunteer board whose voting members all come from tourism businesses.
The expenses highlighted by Asheville Watchdog “are very reasonable investments for any marketing organization who’s doing very diverse and innovative marketing that has multiple layers to it,” said Kathleen Mosher, a TDA board member and past chair, and vice president of communications at the Biltmore Co.
“Those all represent really best practice in 2023, best practice, innovative marketing techniques,” Mosher said, “not anything that seems excessive.”
Gathan Borden, senior vice president of marketing and communications at Destinations International, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association, said the expenses are common among destination marketing organizations but can sound alarming.
“A lot of locals don’t understand that it’s not the local tax money,” Borden said. “It is money that is being used from visitors who come into the destination.”
Durden, the TDA chair, said the expenses are “exactly what would be expected” of an agency whose mission is promoting tourism.
“If we aren’t doing our job and all we can do to bring visitors here, new visitors and return visitors, we’re not supporting our tourism industry like we should,” she said.
More visitors, more spending
Tourism has surged in Asheville largely as a result of promotion by the TDA and its staff at Explore Asheville. The more visitors who come, the more the occupancy tax generates and the more the TDA has to spend, as The Watchdog reported in the first installment of Selling Asheville.
The TDA’s budget has mushroomed in the past five years. With 42% more for tourism promotion this year compared with 2019, spending has soared on travel, amenities, marketing and staff. Salary expenses are up 50%.
TDA President and CEO Vic Isley is the second-highest-paid tourism executive among the top 10 markets in North Carolina with compensation of up to $456,000 this year. She receives a $300,000 base salary, an incentive bonus of up to $90,000 and an executive retirement contribution of $60,000 that increases $20,000 each of the next two years.
The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority CEO makes more, receiving a base salary of $430,927 and a recent incentive bonus of $119,211, but the job also involves managing venues including the Charlotte Convention Center, Bojangles Coliseum and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The Buncombe TDA initially declined to provide the salaries of its other 34 positions, saying those are employees of Explore Asheville, a type of nonprofit exempt from public records. But after Buncombe County released salary information to The Watchdog in response to a public records request, the TDA did, too, saying it had changed course “after further consideration and review.”
The second-highest-paid position behind Isley is a senior vice president at $191,000 annually. Five other executives are paid $101,000 to $140,500 each and the other staffers earn less than $100,000 with nearly half at $45,000 to $65,000, according to the TDA.
Rafting, massages, food tours for influencers
The TDA is required to report expenditures to Buncombe County. The Watchdog obtained five years of TDA budgets and three years of expenses through public records requests to the county. The TDA provided receipts and supporting documentation for expenses requested by The Watchdog.
The largest spending category is marketing with $19.5 million budgeted this year, including for paid ads, sponsorships and promotions targeting travelers in strategic markets, primarily in the Southeast and in cities with flights to Asheville. The TDA pays an ad agency $1.7 million a year, according to the budget.
The February tasting event that involved shipping Asheville-made chocolates, wine, popcorn, cheese and other products was part of a “D.C. Roadshow.” Explore Asheville participated in a “multisensory tasting event, What Does Music Taste Like?” and hosted a “paint ‘n sip” event for 20 BIPOC creators and influencers led by Jenny Pickens, an Asheville-area artist. Expenses for the events included $1,500 for a DJ, $722 for “pencil bags” and art supplies, and $419 for cocktail napkins.
Both events showcased “Asheville’s creative spirit,” one of the TDA’s “strategic imperatives.” Two dozen meeting planners and 30 “media and industry influencers” attended the tasting event, including representatives of CNBC, Forbes, Thrillest, El Tiempo Latino and NBC Washington, said Cass Herrington, an Explore Asheville spokeswoman. The painting event was for 36 members of NOMADNESS Travel Tribe, a network of Black, indigenous, people of color travel writers and influencers that generated 123 Instagram posts and stories mentioning Asheville that reached an audience of about “63 million diverse followers,” Herrington said.
Over the past four years, the TDA has budgeted $620,000 for digital influencers, who are paid based on the size of their following to promote brands and products on their social media channels.
Explore Asheville paid photographer Chris Burkard, who is based in Pismo Beach, Calif., and has 3.9 million Instagram followers, $75,000 to produce social media posts that “promote Asheville’s outdoor economy,” Herrington said. Burkard’s contract called for specific types and numbers of posts aligned “with Explore Asheville messaging” but presented “in a way that is organic to Chris’ voice and style.”
The tourism agency paid expenses of more than $19,000 for Burkard and two producers to visit Asheville in May, including a business-class plane ticket, $2,437 for accommodations at the Wrong Way River Lodge & Cabins, $1,005 for two days of guided fly-fishing, $440 for “canyoneering,” an adventure sport involving hiking, boulder-hopping and rappelling, $455 for a mountain bike adventure tour and $177 for a rafting trip.
In one Instagram post July 3, Burkard wrote, “Some places just make you want to be in nature all the time … as if the town is just an extension of the outdoors, there’s a trail for everyone and the community centers sports like fly-fishing, mountain biking, and river rafting to name a few. … Nothing like southern hospitality, incredible bbq, and good people to show us around for the week. @visitasheville #exploreasheville”
Burkard published three reels and 18 stories on Instagram, reaching more than 1 million accounts, Herrington said.
Explore Asheville paid travel blogger Allison Anderson $20,000 plus expenses to promote wellness and Asheville as a winter “getaway retreat.” Costs for her January 2022 visit included a $296 dinner at Posana, $242 for a visit to the Asheville Salt Cave, $180 for candle making, $90 for a massage, $75 for “forest bathing,” $75 for a “sound healing session” and $44 for a yoga session.
“Asheville is the perfect place to find wellness, great food, and scenery, and I got to spend a week soaking it in thanks to Explore Asheville,” she wrote.
Anderson produced social media posts and a video that garnered 4,300 likes and 373 comments, Herrington said.
Neither Anderson nor Burkard responded to requests for comment.
Paying for promotional posts is common in the world of digital influencers, an increasingly popular form of marketing that is “pretty standard” among tourism agencies, said Borden of Destinations International. “Destinations and brands are able to branch out into audiences that they normally can’t reach through traditional means, like TV, radio, print publications,” he said.
The amenities Explore Asheville provided to travel blogger Ashlee Major Moss of London, whose Instagram account has 159,000 followers, included a $268 personal chef experience, a $203 rooftop tour and “Red Wine & Chocolate Tour at Biltmore,” a $190 “Shoji Spa experience” with a $36 “bottle service add-on” and two Visa gift cards costing $424, records show.
Explore Asheville paid $311 for local food blogger Stu Helm to take Moss and a companion on a food tour. “We got an insane amount of amazing food at 10 different stops (a typical food tour has between 6 and 8 stops!)” Helm wrote. “We had breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks, and dessert in about 3 1/2 hours from Baba Nahm, Nani’s Piri Piri Chicken, Huli Sue’s BBQ, The Rhu, Manicomio, White Duck Taco Shop, Sovereign Remedies, Zambra, Rhubarb, and Cultivated Cocktails.”
Moss posted TikTok videos and the “Ultimate Guide to Asheville” on her website with recommendations for many of the places she visited. She did not respond to a request for comment.
Helm questioned the value of Explore Asheville footing the bill for Moss’ trip. “I don’t know that there’s much, to be honest,” he told The Watchdog.
The Londoner had “some pretty big numbers” for followers, Helm said. “I don’t know how I would gauge how effective that was. It’s not like they had a lot of people with English accents looking like tourists or anything after that.”
$2,238 dinner at Curate, planners hit the town
Another marketing target is professional travel planners who book group events. Explore Asheville’s business development budget of $2 million includes sending sales teams to travel trade shows and conventions. This year’s travel schedule lists more than 50 events, including four in November in Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic, Monterey, Calif., Shreveport, La., and Chicago.
Meetings and conference planners also come to Asheville on Explore Asheville’s dime for 48-hour “Familiarization” or FAM visits. “Two full days will be dedicated to exploring Asheville as a meeting destination — at no cost to you!” a website description says.
The itinerary for a November 2022 visit included an opening reception at a rooftop bar, breakfast at the Biltmore, lunches at the Kimpton Hotel Arras and the Omni Grove Park Inn, drinks at the Foundry Hotel, and dinners at the Market Place, Posana and the Grand Bohemian Hotel. Options for afternoon activities included golf at the Grove Park Inn, a visit to the Asheville Salt Cave and walking or bike tours.
About 20 planners attend each event. “This initiative has been very successful in acquainting buyers with Asheville as a meeting destination and every meeting property in the area benefits with the overall increased exposure,” a group sales report says.
Explore Asheville has budgeted $150,000 this year for three 48-hour events. Receipts for one in August include $2,238 for an opening dinner at Curate; $1,079 for “cookbook/amenities/gift bag for opening dinner;” $2,828 for transportation; $2,070 for catering; $1,024 for an e-bike tour of the River Arts District; and $4,275 for spa appointments at the Grove Park Inn plus $350 in tips.
The $4,110 dinner at the Market Place in March, which included $1,357 for wine and liquor, was the closing event of a 48-hour FAM tour. “As a result of hosting this event, Explore Asheville has confirmed five events that will be held in Asheville that will generate $460,200 in direct spending for local businesses and another three tentative groups that have the potential to generate $126,375 direct spending for our community,” said Herrington, the Explore Asheville spokeswoman.
FAM tours are “a standard practice of destination marketing organizations,” she said.
Giveaways: mugs, tumblers, blended oils
Explore Asheville has purchased thousands of dollars in merchandise and gifts to give away in the past three years, including:
- $3,500 in branded bags from ENO for “client giveaways and tradeshows.”
- $750 for branded magnets as welcome gifts.
- $4,820 in gifts for VIPs of the Southern Conference basketball championships.
- $818 for apparel and items for the 2022 U.S. Open, where Explore Asheville paid $1.3 million to be a sponsor. The expense included Asheville branded T-shirts and hats for “US Open street giveaway team.”
- $12,175 for engraved tumblers.
- $3,906 for East Fork mugs.
- $2,364 for 30 client Christmas gifts.
- $4,280 for 16 custom denim, Western-style shirts at a cost of $250 each. Herrington said the shirts are “team uniforms for representing our community at events, trade shows and conferences.”
- $2,000 for Billie Jean King Cup tennis tournament gift bags.
- $13,199 in gift cards for “milestone anniversaries” and for staff, journalists, models and others.
- $712 for 300 “bottles of blended oils” as giveaways at a trade show.
- $706 for 60 bags of Grind AVL coffee for an event in New York.
- $575 in “wine for client gifts.”
Paying for publicity
The recipients of some of that largesse include journalists. Many news outlets, including The Watchdog, have strict policies against reporters or editors accepting anything of value from a source or potential source to ensure stories are not unduly influenced.
Explore Asheville has not only pitched stories to travel journalists but paid for their stays in Asheville, including amenities such as spa treatments and meals. The agency has given journalists Visa gift cards, receipts show.
Explore Asheville makes no secret about its goal to generate buzz and publicity.
“National media brand consolidations have left editors with small staffs and little time to research stories,” a TDA annual report noted. “Explore Asheville’s PR team leverages longstanding media relationships through a constant flow of proactive outreach. … The team uses marketplace and networking events to pitch media one-on-one and facilitates immersive research trips for writers, photographers and influencers.”
The arrangement creates objectivity problems for the writer and trust issues for the reader, said Kelly McBride, senior vice president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Florida-based Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
“Travel journalism is fraught with these kinds of conflicts of interests,” McBride said. “There are very few publications that are truly willing to pay their own freight, so it’s absolutely common for travel writers to get freebies.”
Readers can evaluate the credibility of travel stories and “best of” lists, she said.
“The ethical publications disclose what they get for free and what policies they have in place to protect their independence and credibility. I always look for those disclosures,” McBride said. “If I don’t see them, I assume that the writer had agreed to do a story that would make the hotel or the city or the theme park happy in exchange for the free stuff.”
Borden of Destinations International said that paying travel journalists is “something that the industry honestly has struggled with over recent years. There are some journalists who do not accept gifts, and they’ll tell you upfront,” he said, but many who work for travel and trade publications are freelance journalists who “write for a multitude of publications.”
“A lot of consumers understand that it can be in some instances, a pay-to-play situation,” Borden said. “That’s why now you’ll see destinations that will use digital influencers because ‘Yeah, I am paying for them to write the story,’ but they’ve experienced it, and now they’re going to tell you what their experience is from their own perspective, which has some trustworthiness to it.
“Yes,” Borden said, “the destination brought them in, but at least it’s upfront.”
$80 million in community projects
The promotional expenses come from the portion of the TDA’s budget requiring two-thirds of the occupancy tax collections to be spent to further travel and tourism.
The remaining one-third goes to major capital projects that “increase patronage of lodging facilities” and promote economic development. The Tourism Product Development Fund has funded about 45 community projects totaling more than $80 million, including improvements to Pack Square Park, Harrah’s Cherokee Center ‒ Asheville and Asheville Community Theater.
This year’s award of nearly $23 million over several years to upgrade McCormick Field is the largest yet and will allow year-round events at the City of Asheville-owned facility. It also allows the Asheville Tourists, who warned they would have to leave town if the stadium was not brought up to new Major League Baseball standards, to remain in Asheville.
As a result of a change in Buncombe’s occupancy tax law last year, half of the one-third required for capital projects now goes into a Legacy Investment from Tourism fund for projects that also “benefit the community at large.” The TDA will have more flexibility to spend the money to include maintenance, restoration, “enhancement of natural resources or expansion of necessary infrastructure.”
MTV stars, VIP rides
The TDA has adopted strategies for “charting a new course for tourism aligned with broader community priorities.” They include “balancing resident and visitor needs,” encouraging tourists to respect and preserve natural resources, and attracting more diversity in travelers.
Explore Asheville sponsored the Skyview Golf Tournament, the longest-running Black-owned tournament in the U.S., held at the Asheville Municipal Golf course in July, and brought in three stars from MTV’s “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta”: hip-hop artist Lil Scrappy, rapper Yung Joc and entertainment manager Mendeecees Harris.
The tourism agency spent $88,720 on the golf tournament, including $3,588 for flights for the stars, two talent managers and an influencer; $25,000 to the stars; $300 for a golf lesson at the Omni Grove Park Inn; and $360 for Harris’ visit to Still Point Wellness massage and saltwater flotation spa, records show.
The three celebrities agreed to play in the tournament and promote it on social media. Lil Scrappy received $8,500. A “hospitality rider” in his contract required Explore Asheville to provide him with bottles of tequila, cognac and sparkling wine, a fruit tray and chicken wings.
Yung Joc received $10,000 and stipulated that his drinks should be “ready and in assigned VIP area when artist arrives to the venue. Artist’s security will inspect VIP area before artist arrives.”
Mendeecees Harris received $6,500. Explore Asheville agreed to provide the stars with first-class airline tickets, security and ground transportation.
Explore Asheville also contracted with content creators Kimberly Barnes and Garrison Hayes “to produce deeper storytelling on Black history and travel to their 502K combined followers on Instagram and TikTok,” spokeswoman Herrington said. Garrison also produced a video about E.W. Pearson, the first president of the Asheville branch of the NAACP.
A TDA report described the golf tournament support as “a multifaceted approach to engage and invite more diverse audiences and connect them with the community.”
Explore Asheville promoted “Skyview to a new generation resulting in significant placement in national media outlets, including Golf Digest and Black Wall Street Times,” Herrington said. “Content created before, during and after the event reached an estimated audience of 73.6M with 338K engagements.”
Staff writer John Maines contributed to this report.
Asheville Watchdog gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Lawyers for Reporters, a project of the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice providing pro bono legal assistance to local and mission-driven journalism organizations in the United States.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. As a free, nonprofit, volunteer-run news team, The Watchdog’s in-depth coverage of local issues depends on support from the community. Please donate here.