With the area’s formerly booming tourism industry mostly on hold as COVID-19 infection rates in nearby markets remain high, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority faces an uncertain future. Add in a leadership transition, potential changes to the legislation that controls the distribution of local occupancy tax revenues and public hostility to the industry, and more questions than answers emerge.
Buncombe County’s Tourist Development Authority began advertising for tourists to visit Asheville again — on the same day that the county’s top public health official said coronavirus cases were “rising at an alarming rate.”
Restaurants, brewers, hoteliers, tour companies and retailers were all among the 449 named Paycheck Protection Program beneficiaries with headquarters in Asheville. At least 46 of those entities also received help from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to fill needs unmet by the federal loan effort.
A bill that would have changed the distribution of Buncombe County’s controversial hotel tax to better benefit local government is likely dead until at least next year. The change would have reduced the share of room tax money to market and advertise Asheville as a tourist destination.
Masks are required, bars are closed and isolation fatigue is setting in. As Buncombe enters this new phase, Xpress took a look at the COVID-19 stats — both in Western North Carolina and in some likely points of origin for short-term visitors.
“Compared to its peers, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority doesn’t do a particularly good job.”
During a June 24 meeting, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority board heard a presentation from marketing firm 360i about a new advertising campaign, scheduled to start in July, designed to attract a “responsible tourist audience” to the region. Ads will target visitors whose behaviors agree with “psychographic statements” about “willingness to conform.”
Since March 16, local government boards and commissions meetings have been canceled, meaning citizens have largely been shut out of formal policy discussions as Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners manage the tandem economic and public health crises caused by the coronavirus.
“Our objective is to safely and responsibly encourage travel, working hand-in-hand with our local health officials and government, as we move toward that direct invitation of visitors to our community,” said Marla Tambellini, Explore Asheville’s vice president of marketing.
Funds supported with tax money from Buncombe County, the city of Asheville and the Tourism Development Authority are being managed by the nonprofit Mountain BizWorks. Because of this arrangement, government and TDA officials say they will play no direct role in determining what area businesses and nonprofits receive public dollars.
Coronavirus relief is just the latest topic in an ongoing debate over whether the Tourism Development Authority, with its mission to bring ever more overnight guests to Buncombe County, is good for county residents — or just good for the hotel industry that has controlled it since its inception nearly four decades ago.
The legislative change allows the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to use $5 million from its Tourism Product Development Fund — which previously had to be allocated to nonprofit entities or local government and spent on capital projects — for grants of up to $50,000 in support of tourism businesses other than lodging.
Local businesses are bringing creativity to bear on pandemic-related closures and plans for business revitalization following the end of restrictions. They could get some help: Sen. Chuck Edwards of Hendersonville announced he will introduce legislation to the N.C. General Assembly to allow the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to make grants to tourism businesses to support their reopening.
In the first weekend of March, said Explore Asheville’s Marla Tambellini, hotels throughout the county were at roughly 90% occupancy. By March 27-28, only about 15% of rooms were filled, and the average price for those accommodations was approximately half its usual rate — $80 instead of $160.
“The good news — if you’re someone who wants to see the hotel tax law changed — is that all parties seem to be in agreement,” Newman told Xpress. “They want to see the law changed, but at this point, we’re not on the same page about how to change it.”
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 […]
“Other than a new roof, the exterior shell and a few walls here and there, we’re looking at a brand-new facility,” said Chris Corl, general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee Center — Asheville, as he displayed concepts for the auditorium developed by the Nashville-based Earl Swensson Associates. He described the plan as “not a renovation, but a transformation.”
“Sounds like Asheville/Buncombe struggles with the TDA and HCA. Unsolved city problems spread to regions.”