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.
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.”
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.
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.
In 2017, the county’s tourism board launched the Transylvania Always initiative, which has since invested thousands of occupancy tax dollars into everything from hiking trail restoration to French Broad River cleanup. “I really don’t know of anywhere else, particularly anywhere else of our small size, that is doing anything similar,” says Clark Lovelace, the TCT’s executive director.
Last year, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority contributed $75,000 to Chow Chow through its event development incubator fund. Planning is underway for the festival’s second year, which has a projected budget of $700,000. The event is tentatively scheduled for Thursday-Sunday, Sept. 10-13, with final dates to be confirmed in November.
The target audience for a new $11.5 million marketing campaign developed by Atlanta-based ad agency 360i includes 20 million more people than were reached by last year’s advertising for Asheville. New cities where ads will be shown include New York, Chicago, Birmingham and Columbus, Ohio.
“We recognize that the impacts of tourism are creating some experiences in our community that residents don’t like, and there are feelings that we’re being overwhelmed by tourism,” said Stephanie Brown, president and CEO of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, in a Sept. 3 presentation to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
Leadership Asheville pulled in some high-octane local speakers for the final installment of its summer Buzz Breakfast series held on Aug. 14. The composition of the panel reveals some key trends shaping the power dynamic that’s emerged over the past year.
As the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority unanimously passed its nearly $19.36 million operating budget for fiscal year 2019-20 on June 26, Brown noted that the authority had begun engagement around its Tourism Management and Investment Plan.
As annual hotel occupancy tax revenues approach $20 million, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority on May 29 considered how to divide that increasingly juicy pie to continue to drive tourism to the area.
“We are continually amazed by the philanthropic nature of our culinary and hospitality community here and how generous they are to the local community,” says Mary Nesbitt, chief development officer of Asheville-based hunger relief nonprofit MANNA FoodBank.
Community members took the opportunity to discuss the issues surrounding the tourism industry in Asheville and hear a presentation from the WNC Green Party about restructuring of hotel occupancy taxes during an April 24 “Re-Imagine the TDA” public meeting.
The local hospitality industry got together for a look back at 2018 and forecast of industry conditions for 2019 on Feb. 22. Buncombe County announced it has named Diana Sierra family justice coordinator and Mike Mace general services director.
The four-phase, roughly $440,000 project is set to begin this spring and conclude in April 2020. Those funds will come from occupancy tax revenue in the Tourism Product Development Fund budget. Funding for community projects will then resume at a time yet to be determined after the planning is complete.
Jim Tolbert of the Citizen’s Climate Lobby encouraged members of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to support the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, a bill that aims to reduce carbon emissions through a tax on fossil fuel companies.
Plans for the Beaucatcher Greenway are on hold, and the city released a $975,000 grant awarded by the Tourism Product Development Fund of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to partially fund the greenway’s construction back to the TDA.
Local tourism operators are sensing a shift in the racial makeup of visitors to the Asheville area. Though the data don’t definitively support that conclusion — at least not yet — efforts to make Asheville a more welcoming and inclusive destination continue, as do fledgling initiatives to give minority tourism entrepreneurs a bigger piece of the industry’s pie.
With an annual economic impact of $2.6 billion, tourism is a critical industry in Western North Carolina. But politicians and local residents are increasingly asking whether the tourism industry is paying a fair share of the cost of providing everything from sidewalks to roads to public safety to tourists. Now, City Councilman Gordon Smith is pushing for a new study to consider the local tourism industry’s impact and sustainability.