With everyone using variations of the same theme, it did little to set anyone apart.
“Everywhere in Western North Carolina has mountains,” said Ashley Rice, marketing manager for Haywood Tourism Development Authority.
The tourism industry was being vague by design. Keep it simple and you can appeal to anyone.
Or, appeal to no one.
“I think for a long time we were trying to be all things to all people and we sat down and said we really need to narrow our focus and we need to sell exactly what it is we have to offer,” said Lynn Collins, director of the tourism development authority.
Giving Haywood a unique brand and making it a destination unto itself is a huge turning point in how the county markets itself to tourists.
For the past two decades at least, Haywood hitched its tourism wagon to simply being in the Smoky Mountains. The slogan “Gateway to the Smokies” reigned in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
But Haywood’s tourism industry has long lived in the shadows of the Tennessee side of the Smokies, and the second-fiddle status was infuriating. The rivalry over which state can lay claim to the Smokies as being in “their own backyard” made Haywood rethink its Smokies pitch.
In 2005, the slogan was changed to “Where the Sun Rises on the Smokies.” It was supposed to show tourists Haywood was on the east side of the Smokies, and serve up a subtle snub to their Tennessee counterparts.
But in hindsight, even those who picked it admit it wasn’t that great.
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Within a few years, the itch to change the slogan came back. This time, the tourism authority didn’t want to rest solely on its laurels of being near the Smokies.
“We are all in the mountains and we all have hiking and we all have fishing, but what’s the one thing we have that no one else has. We want to be the one everyone else is trying to be like,” said Becky Seymour, the video marketing specialist with the tourism development authority.
And just flashing pretty pictures of mountains in travel ads was becoming passé.
“You can get caught in the past very quickly,” said Mike Eveland, manager of the Rendezvous Restaurant and Maggie Valley Inn. “We may want to send the same message as we did 20 years ago, but tastes have evolved.”
The tourism authority turned to its long-time marketing firm to come up with a new brand and slogan.
“We told them we wanted a brand that encompassed everything Haywood County has to offer, everything that is already here, but packaged together,” Rice said.
And by everything, they did mean everything. Music, arts, heritage, food and outdoors rolled up in one big ball of wax. It was a pretty tall order.
The marketing firm brought a few logos and slogans to the table but were sent back to the drawing board for another crack. They came back with more ideas, and Collins knew the perfect one when she saw it.
The logo has six layers of images that unfold one inside the other. An apple, a painter’s pallet, a fish, an instrument, a bottle, a quilting needle — standing for food, arts, music, heritage and outdoors.
“I think Homegrown in Haywood says what we are about,” said Alice Aumen, owner of Cataloochee Ranch and supporter of the Homegrown campaign. “We are changing the emphasis to show how rich it is here, how rich we are in so many aspects.”
The Homegrown in Haywood slogan goes against another long-held paradigm. Using the word “Haywood” in marketing materials was a no-no in the past. Use Maggie Valley, use Waynesville, use Lake Junaluska — but Haywood? Who’s heard of that?
To prove the point, tourism leaders would point out that no one knows what county Myrtle Beach is in, or what county Orlando is in.
But the new slogan clearly put that thinking to rest. Sure, Haywood might not have name recognition — at least not yet. But, one day it could if the campaign works. Start using the name Haywood, and people will learn it.
Still, some are reluctant to let go of their old identity. Maggie Valley has been hanging its hat on the same tourism pitch for decades: the idea of Maggie as a hub for exploring the mountains.
“We are the middle of a spoked wheel,” Smith said.
The concept has a downside, however. It plays up all the things that Maggie is close to and near to — rather than what Maggie itself has to offer.
Maggie tourism players aren’t the only ones with a lingering affinity for this marketing strategy, however.
Ken Stahl, a Haywood tourism board member, is still nostalgic about the slogan used in the 1990s: “in the center of it all.”
“It seems like we changed just for the sake of changing,” Stahl said.
Although Homegrown in Haywood is fresh off the shelf, some tourism players said they wished they could have “in the center of it all” back again. But it’s got a big flaw.
“Everybody could be in the center of it all,” Rice said. “People want to know what they are going to experience first, what exciting things are there for them to do. Then they drill down and see here you are and what you are close to.”
Touting Haywood as a conveniently located base camp in the mountains might help the hotels and vacation rentals land the all-important “heads in beds,” but how is it helping the rest of the tourism industry?
“You don’t want them to plan their trip around what’s around you,” said Seymour.