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fr jaxttaJackson County tourism leaders are weighing the best way to get their message to the masses.

fr jacksoncommissionersA festering disagreement over how to overhaul Jackson County’s tourism agency is coming to an end, but some lodging owners who have resisted the changes aren’t happy about it.

The state is forcing Jackson County’s hand when it comes to forming a single entity to oversee how tourism tax dollars are spent.

Jackson County has two tourism agencies — one representing the Cashiers area and one for Jackson County as a whole — that oversee room tax money collected by the lodging industry. Whether to merge the two into a single countywide entity has been a source of controversy since last year, prompting the formation of a task force to study the issue.

That may be for naught, however, since the county recently learned its current structure is out of compliance with state law.

It seems the county inadvertently triggered the mandate when it sought an increase in its room tax rate from 3 to 6 percent last year. Doing so required a special bill in the General Assembly. That same bill also required Jackson County to form a single tourism development authority.

While the county has held off on enacting the room tax hike, the county nonetheless was obliged to follow through on changing the structure of its tourism boards, according to County Attorney Jay Coward.

Cashiers tourism leaders have resisted attempts to do away with their separate tourism arm, which gets 75 percent of the room tax generated in the Cashiers area to spend on its own marketing. They argue that Cashiers needs its own tourism agency — with its own funding stream — to cater to its own unique visitor demographic apart from the county as a whole.

Those who supported a merger believe it would be more effective, eliminating the duplication and competition that currently exists between the two entities and putting the money to wiser use under a single tourism strategy.

It would seem the argument is now moot.

County Commissioner Mark Jones, who represents the Cashiers area and voted against the original proposal, said he does not believe the community will resist a unified Tourism Development Authority after all.

“But it’s going to depend on what the state recommends and what the makeup would be,” Jones said. “(There must be) a fair representation from all over the county.”

A county-appointed advisory group made up primarily of lodging owners has been meeting every two weeks to discuss this very issue. Jones said they are within two meetings or so of returning to commissioners with recommendations about the formation of a new group.

“There’s no template,” Jones said about statewide tourism efforts. “We thought we’d find something out there to serve as a good template to guide us, but it’s not out there.”

Instead, Jones said, each county in North Carolina more or less creates how to best manage tourism-generated tax dollars.

That is precisely why the legislation triggered the formation of a new unified tourism board: the state has sought uniformity in how tourism boards operate, a requirement that is imposed whenever counties come to the state seeking a tax increase.

“I hope you don’t mind some friendly constructive criticism of the bill,” Coward wrote Trina Griffin this week, a staff attorney for the N.C. General Assembly. “I understand that the plan is to legislate on a case-by-case basis a consistent statewide system of tourism promotion. The obvious suggestion for a change to save other counties and towns from being confused by future bills would be to pass one statewide law.”

Coward, as of late Tuesday, had not received a reply from the state.

David Huskins, who heads a consulting group that is helping Jackson County develop an economic development plan and who’s worked with them on this issue, said there’s no question Jackson County must put a single tourism development authority in place.

Huskins said Asheville and Buncombe County were the first in the state to seek occupancy tax legislation from the state. By the mid 1980s, the trend of enacting a room tax had pushed into the western end of North Carolina. But oversight in some cases was loose because of the varying structures of different tourism boards overseeing the money that was raised.

“Over the years, some of the local governments were diverting funds outside of tourism – the tax was originally conceived for tourism promotion and marketing. But, a lot of local governments were saying if they needed a new ambulance, well tourists get hurt, too, and we have to provide services for them,” Huskins said.

That interpretation diluted the intent of the room tax — namely to provide a stream of revenue to further tourism — and created such an outcry from the tourism industry, the General Assembly by the mid 1990s moved to set up uniform guidelines.

“If you want an increase, you come under the new guidelines,” Huskins said flatly.

Commissioners did not decide on when exactly to form their new tourism development authority. Chairman Jack Debnam indicated a required public hearing could be held as soon as the April 16 meeting. The advisory committee meets this Thursday. Coward is expected to detail more of his findings regarding the state legislation.

A group tasked with helping Jackson County leaders decide whether to merge two separate tourism entities or possibly hike the room tax is dominated by people who work in the lodging industry.

Four out of the six members currently appointed to study the controversial issues are from within the lodging industry.

“We’ll be asking them for their opinions,” County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam responded when questioned on what, exactly, commissioners hope to gain from forming the subcommittee.

Merrily Teasley, owner of the Balsam Mountain Inn and one of the subcommittee members, noted that the group hasn’t met yet and so she wasn’t prepared to discuss specific issues. The lodging owner did emphasize, however, that she believes “tourism dollars are very important to Jackson County” in general.

The 3 percent room tax raised $440,000 in Jackson County in 2010. That money underwrites county tourism promotions. Tourism marketing efforts funded by the room tax are intended to bolster the entire tourism sector of the county, not just increase lodging.

John Bubacz, owner of Signature Brew Coffee Co. in Sylva and a member of the town’s Downtown Sylva Association, said there’s no doubt that most tourism dollars enter the county via hotels and motels. Still, excluding other business interests from such an important-to-everyone economic topic isn’t a good idea, he said.

“The opportunity for other voices” should have been entertained when forming a tourism subcommittee group, Bubacz said.

“I just think other industries should have the chance to be represented,” he said.

 

A tangled web of like interests

Two of the six committee members both work at the High Hampton Inn in Cashiers. One is Commissioner Mark Jones, and the other is his boss at the inn, Clifford Meads. Jones defended the makeup and membership of the tourism subcommittee, saying one “might just be surprised” by the objectivity of the lodging industry to, for instance, recommend if needed a higher room tax than is now levied.

The room tax is paid by tourists, not by the lodging entities themselves, but lodging entities have come out against an increase fearing it would deter tourists from staying in Jackson.

Asked about the criteria for picking committee members, Jones cited geographic location (an attempt to have all parts of the county represented) and marketing and promotion skills and experience.

Jones, in addition to working in the lodging industry, is chairman of Cashiers Travel and Tourism Association. As a result, Jones has found himself wearing two hats as the tourism debate has played out.

At county commissioner meetings, Jones would literally get up and leave his commissioners’ seat to address his colleagues at a central podium wearing his other hat as Cashiers’ tourism leader. Specifically, Jones has defended Cashiers amid discussions of whether a single tourism entity would serve the county better than two separate ones.

Not surprisingly, the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Association has vigorously resisted the idea of merging with the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Association. Cashiers’ tourism agency traditionally has isolated itself from larger tourism efforts in the county. That could change with the recent retirement of longtime director Sue Bumgarner, who drew criticism for not sharing marketing strategy or advertising campaigns.

Cashiers representatives sit on the board of the Jackson Travel and Tourism Association. No one from greater Jackson County, however, sits on the Cashiers board.

 

One county, one tourism board?

Debnam and County Manager Chuck Wooten have advocated for a single tourism entity, with both men saying that would allow for the development of a countywide strategic advertising plan and eliminate duplication of certain overhead.

Wooten said late last week that he plans on recommending the subcommittee designation take place with a little more formality and discussion than was the case during commissioners’ Feb. 6 meeting. Jones simply announced the people he had selected and did not identify them or their affiliations until queried by the news media following the meeting.

Wooten said he would suggest the matter be listed as an agenda item for the upcoming Feb. 20 commission board meeting.

 

Who’s been appointed?

A taskforce appointed by Jackson County commissioners are expected to examine whether county tourism efforts should be merged and possible look at a room-tax increase.

This new tourism subcommittee is made up of commissioners Jack Debnam and Mark Jones, plus Merrily Teasley, Balsam Mountain Inn; Clifford Meads, general manager of High Hampton Inn; Vic Patel, Best Western River Escape Inn And Suites; and Robert Jumper, tourism manager for Cherokee Travel and Promotion and chair of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority. One more, as yet publicly unnamed member, will be asked to join, too, county officials said.

While a proposed room-tax hike in Jackson County has been sidelined at least for now, the idea of merging the county’s two tourism entities has been tapped for further study.

Jackson County commissioners plan to appoint a task force to study forming a single tourism agency for the county. Currently, Cashiers has its own tourism agency in addition to the countywide tourism agency based in Sylva. Each are affiliated with the chambers of commerce offices, too — one based in Cashiers and one in Sylva.

There are simply too many players involved in county tourism efforts, to hear Commission Chairman Jack Debnam tell it. He says that a single entity would be more effective and reduce costly and unnecessary duplication.

“I do believe in one (tourism authority) myself, and maybe some advisory boards,” Debnam reiterated to fellow commissioners last week. “I’d like to see us finally act like we are one county. With the people coming off the board, it’s the time to look at restructuring.”

Recent news that the long-time director of the Cashiers chamber and tourism agency, Sue Bumgarner, would retire could make such a restructuring easier. Bumgarner’s retirement will be effective in July and comes following of heightened scrutiny on how Cashiers was spending its cut of the tourism funding pie.

“It seems like an opportune time if we do want to make changes,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

In addition to Bumgarner’s retirement, there are four vacancies coming up on the Jackson County tourism board and two vacancies on the Cashiers tourism board, Wooten said.

Cashiers TTA board member Mike Henry said the board doesn’t know yet whether it will hire a replacement for Bumgarner or wait to see what the task force recommends about a merger.

“We haven’t met yet to form a plan,” he said.

While commissioners haven’t yet appointed task force members, Debnam recommended Julie Spiro, head of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, and Commissioner Mark Jones, who doubles as chairman of the Cashiers TTA; along with himself.

Jones enthusiastically endorsed Debnam’s olive-branch proposal. Jones constituents in the Cashiers area haven’t been happy about the proposed merger of the Cashiers agency into a single countywide one.

 

Room tax hike sidelined

Meanwhile, Debnam squelched the recent push for a room tax hike from 3 percent to 6 percent, however, saying it had been ill-considered.

“I would like to continue to spend some more time on this, to learn more about the impact we may have and exactly how we want to structure this,” Debnam said. “We made an error; we moved a little too fast, we were not informed enough to make the decision we tried to make.”

Debnam and his fellow commissioners faced a phalanx of outraged lodging owners in Jackson County when they passed, 4-1 with Jones voting no, to increase the tax. Commissioners subsequently rescinded that vote because they failed to hold a required public hearing.

Regardless of mistakes made and future plans to be made, finding the correct answers are critical to Jackson County’s economic wellbeing, Commissioner Doug Cody said.

“The decision was made years ago … to hang Jackson County’s economic health on travel and tourism — kind of deemphasizing” other forms of economic development, he said. “If we’re going to hang our hat on tourism, we’re going to have to get out and fight for those tourism dollars. We’ve got to make Jackson County a destination for people, not a pass through for other counties.”

Wooten said that commissioners would need to make their appointments promptly to the tourism committee to enable it to report back to them sometime this summer.

Cashiers could soon lose autonomy over its tourism marketing efforts if a plan to merge two separate tourism entities in Jackson County goes through.

While Cashiers tourism leaders are fighting to save this independent marketing arm, those in favor of a merger question whether the Cashiers solo approach has hampered overall tourism efforts in the county.

“This is a chance for the county to determine whether it is getting the best return on its investment,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said. “I just don’t believe there is a lot of cross communication going on. They are focusing on their one area of responsibility, and we are missing out on some opportunities.”

Dual tourism entities — namely the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authorities and the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authorities — are less effective than just one entity would be, according to Wooten.

“It appears to be if we had a single travel authority we would have an opportunity to develop a countywide strategic advertising plan and deploy our resources to focus on the specific areas of the plan,” Wooten said.

Cashiers’ tourism agency has isolated itself from larger tourism efforts in the county. Cashiers does not share its marketing strategy or advertising campaigns with the rest of county, leaving the larger Jackson tourism entity in the dark on how Cashiers spends its allotment of tourism tax dollars.

Although Cashiers representatives sit on the board of the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority, no one from greater Jackson County sits on the Cashiers board. The result is a one-way street, with Cashiers being privy to the tourism activities carried out by Jackson but not the other way around.

Sue Bumgarner, the director of the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority and the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce, was unable to provide basic information about their activities.

• She does not keep an accurate count of visitor center walk-ins.

• She could not provide information about how many web hits or telephone inquires the agency got.

• She said she did not have a list of how the Cashiers tourism authority has spent its advertising budget over the past year.

• Minutes from the quarterly meetings of the Cashiers tourism board were not readily available. They are kept in hardcopy format only in boxes at an off-site storage unit. Minutes have not been provided to the county despite a request to do so.

• A database of prospective visitors who have requested travel literature is not shared with the Jackson tourism agency, despite the Jackson tourism agency sharing all of its leads with Cashiers.

The heart of the issue is how best to spend tourism-tax revenue. A 3 percent tax on overnight lodging in the county raised $440,000 last year. The money is pumped back into tourism marketing and promotions.

Tourism revenue has declined in Jackson County by 12 percent since 2006. Jackson isn’t entirely alone. The recession-driven trend was mirrored across the mountains, although to a lesser extent.

Jackson fared worse than its neighbors, experiencing steeper declines. And while surrounding counties have since rebounded to their pre-recession levels, Jackson is still down.

To improve matters, Jackson leaders plan to double the room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent. The extra revenue will mean more money to spend on marketing Jackson County as a tourism destination and hopefully in turn, increase tourism.

A majority of Jackson County commissioners have voiced support for increasing the room tax, with four of the five in favor of the plan.

The debate has now turned to whether there should be a single tourism authority to steer marketing efforts and provide oversight for how the tourism-tax revenue is spent.

Currently, the room tax is split between the Cashiers tourism agency and the Jackson tourism agency. Cashiers gets 75 percent of the lodging tax generated in the Cashiers area — which amounted to $177,000 last year. The remaining $263,000 went to the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority.

By joining forces, the two could save on overhead and administration, freeing up more dollars to spend on marketing, Wooten said.

“Sometimes I think we get caught up in the ‘that’s way we have always done it’ mentality and this may restrict our opportunity to grow,” Wooten said.

Bumgarner would not say specifically whether she wants the Cashiers tourism agency to merge with a single countywide one, saying she would have to consult her board before sharing her views publicly.

“I would rather not get into it until we know for sure what is going on,” Bumgarner said.

But, she did say that a Cashiers-focused tourism agency is better positioned to market Cashiers than a countywide organization.

“Just being here and knowing the market and what people are looking for, it is a whole different area. We are looking for people to come up and buy million dollar homes,” Bumgarner said. “We are marketing to a whole different group I guess you would say. I felt in order to do that we needed to be able to place ads in different kind of publications.”

 

Shotgun advertising

Running advertisements — whether in magazines, billboards, or online — is a key component of tourism marketing.

Bumgarner was unable to provide a list of where she has run ads over the past year. She said she did not keep a list of which magazines she has run ads in or what months they ran. Cashiers spends close to $60,000 a year on advertising.

“I would have to go back and think of which ones I’ve done. I don’t have time to do that. I don’t have time to go back and look at all those ads,” Bumgarner said.

Bumgarner also does not share her advertising schedule with her counterparts at the Jackson tourism entity, despite a standing request by Julie Spiro, executive director of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority and the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. Knowing which magazines, billboards and other advertisements Cashiers has planned would allow the two entities to maximize their marketing dollars.

Initially, Bumgarner was ambiguous when asked whether she shared her advertising schedule with the Jackson tourism arm. She answered that “they have the same ad agency as us.”

When asked again whether she gave Jackson a copy of her advertising schedule, Bumgarner replied: “I am on the travel and tourism board in Jackson County also.”

When asked a third time, she said the two entities sometimes split the cost of ads in magazines. When asked a fourth time whether she shared her ad schedule with Jackson, she said, “They know our ad schedule.” When asked how, she answered, “because I sit on their TTA board.”

Finally, Bumgarner said she did not provide Spiro with Cashiers’ advertising schedule.

“I don’t give out our whole schedule … not unless they ask for it or want to see it,” Bumgarner said, adding, “It is no big secret.”

Spiro said she has asked to see it, but has never gotten one.

The Jackson tourism entity develops a marketing strategy and advertising plan for the year each spring. Bumgarner gets a copy and so does the county.

The need for niche marketing — marketing that caters to Cashiers’ unique tourist demographic — is the chief argument of Cashiers tourism leaders who want to hang on to their own tourism arm. Cashiers knows best how to market and promote Cashiers, they say.

However, Bumgarner could not provide a list of what that advertising is exactly.

About half of Cashiers’ advertising budget is managed by an ad agency. The agency is contracted to design and place ads on Cashiers’ behalf.

For the rest, Bumgarner places the ads herself. She is able to take advantage of last minute discounts on ad space or buy ads to promote special events that come up over the course of the year, she said.

Bumgarner referred questions about those specific ads to the county finance office, however, which pays the bills when invoices for the ads come in.

Most of the invoices, however, don’t include the name of the magazine, nor the month that an ad ran. The invoices are sent by publishing companies that usually have numerous magazines under their umbrella.

A review of advertising invoices from the ad agency for Cashiers show that it places ads in four magazines over the course of the year for Cashiers: AAA Go, AAA Going Places, Blue Ridge Country and Southern Living. The Jackson tourism entity ran ads in those same publications, according to a review of invoices held by the county finance office.

 

Nuts and bolts

When a prospective tourist requests information about the area, tourist entities mail out a packet of brochures and guides designed to seal the deal on coming to visit.

The Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority shares every inquiry it gets with Sue Bumgarner, the head of the Cashiers tourism arm.

That way, Cashiers can send out its own Cashiers-tailored literature and brochures to prospective tourists, in addition to what’s being sent out on behalf of the whole county, said Spiro. Spiro shares responses that come in from magazine ads, as well as a database of people who have called or emailed to request travel information.

“If I get leads from AAA Go, Blue Ridge Parkway, Southern Living, I just forward those to (Bumgarner) because I don’t know if she has those leads or not, so I just share the leads with her,” Spiro said.

Bumgarner, however, does not share inquiries coming in to the Cashiers office with the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority. Bumgarner was vague initially when asked whether she shared visitor inquires with Spiro. At first, she said “yes.”

But when asked specifically how she shared the inquiries, Bumgarner said that she actually did not share inquires that came in from magazine ads — she only shares inquires from people who call or email asking for travel information.

“Yes, we share those. We email them back and forth,” Bumgarner said.

However, Spiro said she has not received any leads or visitor inquires from Cashiers barring a few times in early 2010 from one of Bumgarner’s assistants. But that person left, and since then, Spiro has not gotten any inquiries from Cashiers despite asking for them from time to time.

Upon further questioning, Bumgarner said she shared inquires with members of the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce who pay an extra fee for the inquiry list.

“We send it out to our members that pay to get the inquiry list every week,” Bumgarner said.

Inns, cabin rentals, golf courses and the like can use the inquiry list to send out their own brochures, peppering the prospective tourists with a litany of travel literature in hopes of luring them to their particular establishment.

But, the list isn’t available for non-chamber members.

“You can’t have it, not from us,” Bumgarner said.

Other tourism entities that get tax dollars for marketing make the inquiry list available to all accommodations owners, since they all help collect the tax.

“The accommodation owners are provided it free of charge,” Spiro said of the inquiry list produced by the Jackson tourism agency.

 

Tracking visitor numbers

The Cashiers visitor center does not keep an exact record of how many walk-in visitors come through its doors.

Bumgarner pegged foot traffic at the visitor center as “close to 10,000” so far this year. Most visitor centers, including those in Maggie Valley, Waynesville and Sylva, use a clicker to count walk-in traffic.

Cashiers uses estimates. Bumgarner was initially vague about the methodology for tracking visitors.

“Just by, you know, daily counts,” Bumgarner said.

When asked specifically whether her office used a clicker to count each person, Bumgarner replied, “we just estimate at the end of the day. I just kind of check off at the end of the day how many we had.”

As for telephone calls or web hits?

“Oh Lord, I have no clue on those,” Bumgarner said.

The visitor center run by the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce in Sylva keeps an exact count of daily walk-in traffic, telephone calls, email inquiries, web page views and downloads.

“All those mediums are ways we can track how well marketing is and is not working,” Spiro said.

Tracking the number of inquiries and traffic from month to month and year to year also provides a picture over time of whether tourism is trending up or down. Bumgarner did not have tracking data accessible to share, saying that it was not saved on her computer but instead existed only on paper and was located in boxes at an off-site storage unit.

 

Meeting minutes

Bumgarner also was unable to provide minutes from past tourism board meetings. She said she does not save notes or minutes from the meetings on her computer. Bumgarner said she types up the minutes from hand-written notes, prints them out, then deletes the file, keeping only the hard copy.

Bumgarner did not have copies of back minutes readily available, however. They are kept in boxes at an offsite storage unit and would be difficult to pull out, Bumgarner said. They are all mixed in with boxes of magazines, Bumgarner said.

The minutes are supposed to provide a record of what the Cashiers tourism board discusses at its quarterly meetings.

The board is charged with developing and guiding a tourism marketing strategy — finding the best way to spend the roughly $180,000 a year in tax dollars allocated to promote Cashiers.

As a public entity, the Cashiers tourism board is required by law to keep minutes of its meetings and share them with the public upon request.

County officials asked Bumgarner to start providing minutes from the Cashiers tourism board meeting earlier this year, but still have not received any.

The Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority shares a copy of its meeting minutes with the county.

Doing so keeps the county apprised of the what the Jackson tourism entity is up to — spelling out its marketing strategy, plan and vision and a snapshot of its activities from the month.

Cashiers’ failure to do likewise is in violation of the county’s original legislation that first created the Cashier Travel and Tourism Authority. By law, both Jackson and Cashiers tourism arms are supposed to provide quarterly reports to the county of its activities. This mandate was included in the original legislation creating the two entities in 1987.

Shortly after county commission Chairman Jack Debnam took office in January, he asked both tourism boards to start making the quarterly reports. Spiro, who already provided copies of her board meeting minutes to the county, began producing quarterly activity reports as well.

Bumgarner does neither. County Manager Chuck Wooten believes Cashiers is not satisfying the county requirement for quarterly reports on their activity.

“It seems to be there would be at least some understanding or expectation they would at least update commissioners on what activities they are doing to try to improve and increase travel and tourism in the county,” Wooten said.

 

Chamber fate

The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and the separate Cashiers Chamber of Commerce get a cut of the tourism tax dollars to carry out the job of tourism promotion.

The Cashiers Chamber of Commerce gets $60,000 a year from the Cashiers tourism agency. It accounts for 40 percent of the Cashiers Chambers total budget of $146,000.

Jackson Chamber of Commerce gets $72,000 a year in room tax dollars, plus another $9,000 a year in rent to subsidize the overhead of the visitor center.

If the separate Jackson and Cashiers tourism arms were merged into a single countywide entity, the respective chambers of commerce would most likely continue getting their cut of the room tax money.

“There is no reason to think you wouldn’t continue to utilize the chambers to do those thing you have to do on the ground to distribute the brochures to answer the telephone to run the visitors bureau,” Wooten said. “Someone has to provide the services they currently provide, so my belief is the chambers would continue providing these services and receive support accordingly.”

Wooten said the county would like to see a formal contract outlining the arrangement with the chambers, however.

“There should be some kind of written understanding of what the expectations are in return for the funds provided,” Wooten said.

The Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority has not voted on a contract with the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce since 1987, Bumgarner said, despite the dollar amount awarded to the Cashiers Chamber increasing over the years.

If the plan goes through, the two tourism entities that oversee tourism tax dollars for their respective regions — the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority and the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority — would be dissolved and a single entity formed in its place.

Wooten has floated the idea of a nine-member countywide tourism board with cross-county representation.

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