An overhaul of the county’s tourism strategy was launched last year. Tourism had declined during the recession and then stubbornly flatlined rather than rebounding as quickly as hoped.
So a new countywide tourism agency was formed last year with marching orders to ramp up the county’s marketing game.
The first step was a new logo and brand billing Jackson as a trip destination, with the winning slogan of “Play On.”
Now, the still-fledgling tourism board has to figure out the best vehicle to lure visitors with the new image.
“The opportunity to have an integrated comprehensive plan is a very, very exciting time,” said Stephanie Edwards, executive director of the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce and tourism board member. “Equally important is the evaluation of it. Are we getting the biggest bang for our buck?”
The Jackson County Tourism Development Authority has $650,000 at its disposal raised through a 4 percent tax on overnight lodging. Tourists pay the tax, which is then pumped back in to luring more tourists, a sort of self-perpetuating cycle.
The tourism authority hired a marketing firm for $10,000 to develop a new broad-strokes strategic marketing plan, which is now the center of the tourism board’s discussions.
“A strategic marketing plan would give direction and focus to the execution of Jackson County tourism,” said Robert Jumper, chair of the Jackson tourism authority.
What that strategic marketing plan should look like is the top question facing the tourism authority.
How much should be spent on billboards versus brochures? Internet campaigns versus visitor centers? Festival underwriting versus wooing travel writers? How much should go to magazine ads, and in which magazines — fly fishing magazines, golfing magazines, outdoor magazines, travel magazines?
A sample marketing plan developed by the Brandon Agency presented to the tourism board late last year is now under review.
“We are massaging it and will go back to them and massage it again until we think it is right,” said Clifford Meads, marketing chairman for the tourism board and manager of High Hampton Inn and Country Club in Cashiers.
Another big question to be addressed is who will carry out the various pieces of a strategic marketing plan.
“How do you implement a comprehensive marketing plan on the ground?” Edwards said. “There are options on the table as we move forward, and the execution is yet to be determined.”
The Jackson tourism authority has no executive director or paid staff of its own but instead outsources the various aspects of its work.
On the tactical side — answering phone and email inquiries from the prospective travelers, printing and distributing visitor guides, managing web site content, and so on — the daily boots-on-the-ground operations are carried out under contracts with the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce.
The tourism authority also contracts with an outside advertising agency to design ads billing Jackson County as a travel destination and place them in magazines, newspapers, radio, billboards and other avenues. Outside consultants also handle web site development and publicity.
The tourism board must decide whether to continue farming out these various roles to multiple consultants and firms or consolidate them with a single agency.
Or, in the future, the Jackson tourism authority may need to have a director and in-house staff of its own.
“At some point in time this thing is going to be big enough that it will need an executive director to marshal all these initiatives,” Meads said.
But Meads and other tourism board members agree they aren’t there yet.
“There is currently no plan to hire staff,” Jumper said.
The new countywide tourism agency formed last year was charged with thinking and acting cohesively. Historically, there were two tourism entities: one for Cashiers and one for Jackson as a whole.
But the idea was tourism marketing would be more effective under one banner. The forced mash-up had a few hiccups its first year — from political to logistical.
But progress is being made.
“We are barely walking. We are still crawling,” said Meads. “The idea is to take this thing in bites.”
By the numbers: Jackson tourism budget
A 4-cent tax on overnight accommodations will bring in about $650,000 this year for Jackson County tourism efforts. That’s more than anticipated, thanks to an increase in tourism over last year. The tourism authority conservatively budgeted for $600,000 in spending this fiscal year.
Here’s a breakdown of the budget.
• $261,000: advertising and marketing campaign
• $74,000: Cashiers Visitor Center operations and overhead
• $81,000: Jackson County Visitor Center operations and overhead
• $28,000: printing, mainly for brochures
• $22,000: postage, mainly for sending travel guides to prospective visitors
• $8,000: 800-number phone line for visitor inquiries
• $15,000: grants to support special events and festivals
• $32,000: public relations/media outreach
• $15,000: special projects and contingency
• $38,000: financial and accounting services through the county, including billing and tax collection
• $26,000: general overhead, including insurance, travel, office supplies, insurance, and audit