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Wednesday, 02 April 2014 00:00

Growing a brand: New marketing plan offers the authentic

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coverLynn Collins has honed the art of eavesdropping. It began innocently enough, unavoidable even, since nothing but a cubicle separates her from the foot traffic of downtown Waynesville. 

SEE ALSO: A new paradigm

But her accidental eavesdropping soon became intentional. From her desk at the back of the busy visitor center on Main Street, Collins keeps one ear tuned in to the tourists who pour through the door. It became her secret weapon in the fiercely competitive game of landing the almighty tourist dollar in the mountains: what’s driving them to come here, and what are they looking for when they get here? 

 

“We listened to what people were saying, and the things they are asking for are the things we actually have to sell,” Collins said. “They want to go to the farmers markets. They want to experience our music and dance. They want to learn about the cultural arts and heritage when they come here.”

Collins had her own living tourism laboratory to carry out a never-ending thesis, and it eventually gave rise to a brand-new marketing campaign unveiled last year. The Homegrown in Haywood campaign brings together the five crown jewels of what tourists to the mountains want, and incidentally, what Haywood as to offer — food, music, art, heritage and outdoors.

Now, Haywood tourism leaders must rally those on the front lines of the travel industry to buy into the theme. 

Haywood’s official marketing mantra can play up the image of authentic Appalachia ‘til the cows come home. But those actually plying the tourism trade day in and day out need to echo the brand for it to really take hold.

The tourism industry is far from self-actualizing. Buying into an identity landed on the “wish list” during a strategic vision workshop held by the tourism board last week.

“I wish there was one tourism brand for the whole county,” said Ashley Rice, marketing manager with the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, when the group was asked to shout out their “wishes.”

 “And that everyone would buy into it,” Collins added.

Brands only work if they are reinforced at every turn, until they seep into the collective consciousness.

“Make it a bandwagon, not just one tooting the horn,” said Tina Masciarelli, the manager of the Buy Haywood initiative, which promotes agritourism and local farm products.

“This is the future of tourism,” she said. “This train is moving and I invite you to get on the bus.”

It could be a tough sell, but not because the brand isn’t spot on. Peddling Haywood as an authentic mountain destination is genuine. It is an image the county’s tourism industry easily delivers on.

“We have so may authentic aspects of our community. We aren’t in a dark room saying ‘Let’s remake ourselves. They’ll never know this isn’t who we really are,’” Masciarelli said. “This is who we are. We need to market that authenticity.”

Haywood’s lucky in that sense. So many places have to resort to gimmicks and veneers.

Over the past 50 years, Alice Aumen, the owner of the three-generation family-run Cataloochee Ranch, has seen a revolving door of marketing campaigns in the mountain tourism industry. None are perfect, but Homegrown in Haywood is the best she’s seen.

“Haywood has everything — everything that people like to do on vacation,” Aumen said. “The music, the arts, the heritage, outdoors and food. That’s what people are looking for.”

 

The big buy-in

Theoretically, the tent of Homegrown in Haywood is plenty big enough for everyone to fit under. Tapping into the broad spectrum of heritage, arts, culture, music and food shouldn’t be too much of a stretch, if any.

“It is getting those wheels to turn and figure out how that brand relates to them,” said Anna Smathers, communications director for the tourism development authority.

The challenge is more endemic: how can you organize the scattered mom-and-pop motels, shops and eateries that make up Haywood’s tourism landscape? Thinking and acting cohesively doesn’t always come naturally to them.

Carving out a tourism business takes a certain entrepreneurial spirit in the first place, and that seems to go hand-in-hand with a fierce independent streak.

“Being a marketing silo is economic suicide,” Masciarelli cautioned.

But it can be hard for tourism purveyors juggling the day-to-day and to see the long-term payoff.

“Whether you think it is a great campaign or a bad one, there is a lot of energy in it and we’d be crazy not to get on board. This is a big opportunity and we should embrace it,” said Mike Eveland, manager of the Rendezvous Restaurant and the Maggie Valley Inn.

Eveland was pumped up about the new campaign after a Homegrown in Haywood workshop in February. But fewer than 20 people in the tourism industry made the effort to come and hear about the new marketing brand and how they could tap into it.

“I feel there is a real need to get out there and spread this word. There is a tremendous need for everyone in our community to know this,” said Sue Knapko, a vacation rental property owner in Maggie Valley. 

Knapko, like Eveland, was inspired by the potential of Homegrown in Haywood after sitting through the workshop in February. 

Knapko said the Homegrown “roadshow” needs to be taken to the masses. She suggested the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce act as a liaison to get the crash course in front of the business community in the town. 

But the executive director of the Maggie chamber, Teresa Smith, hesitated. She said she doesn’t know if the business owners — let alone the front-line tourism workers — would come. Still, Smith admitted business owners should be more proactive.

“Business owners need to step up,” she said.

Smith said the Maggie chamber is continually reaching out to business owners, but the spark doesn’t always catch.

“Does it get to the front-line people? I don’t know. But I have provided the tools,” Smith said. “If you give someone a hammer and nails and say, ‘Here are the tools to fix the hole in your wall’ and they let them lay there, you have to pick them up and use them.”

Smith said some people in the tourism industry ask “What has the TDA done for me?”

They want to see the fingerprints of the tourism development authority on individual customers walking in their door, or some kind of tracking device that would trace that customer’s travel decision  to a single act of the tourism authority.

But it’s not that easy to quantify.

“People don’t realize they are responsible for their own destiny,” Collins said.

Collins said some tourism businesses are stuck in the past, during the glory days of Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park, which brought thousands to their doorstep without having to try very hard. Now, without a single cash cow pulling in the tourists, the industry must get creative, must diversify and must figure out a way to package what it has.

“Everyone needs to be motivated to market everything we have. We can’t do it alone. It is a community effort,” Seymour said.

 

Rank-and-file

Presenting Haywood as that authentic Appalachian destination takes everyone working together.

Artists can tell people visiting their gallery about the pick-your-own farm up the road. Waitresses can tell diners about where they could see elk the next morning. Hotel front desk clerks can tell guests about live music happening that night.

“Visitors will say, ‘OK, we drove the Parkway. Now what is there to do?’” said Rice.

The bartenders, the cashiers, the front desk clerks, phone receptionists — these are the people tourists interact with and so they have to walk the walk as well.

But turning the rank-and-file workers in the tourism industry into ambassadors is a challenge.

“Training for the front line is something we have talked about for years,” Collins said. “Unfortunately we have not cracked the nut on that yet, but we will continue to try. We will strive to get those folks educated on it.”

Masciarelli said frontline tourism workers need to have their “A-game” on every time they interact with travelers.

“We want folks to come here and have such a good experience they go back and tell everybody,” she said. “From that first phone call asking if there is a room available to the dining experience on the last night.”

Right now, that’s not happening, Masciarelli said. And bad customer service on the front lines is costing the county tourists.

Homegrown in Haywood is not only about getting new visitors to come, but about keeping past visitors coming back.

“From the first time they walk in the door, start looking at them as a return visitor,” Knapko said.

Talking up the galleries with handmade crafts, restaurants with local artisan dishes, venues to hear mountain music or cultural heritage sites to visit will put guests on notice that there’s more here than they can possibly soak up in a single trip.

“They say, ‘I am going back next year because I only saw three things and I want to see the other 50,’” Masciarelli explained.

 

It starts now

The Sun family strolling the streets of downtown Waynesville recently was the perfect case in point. A doctor in Winston-Salem, Yun Sun was cruising the internet for a nearby vacation spot to take the family during his son’s spring break week.

He turned to Trip Advisor, and found rave reviews of Waynesville. And who posts on Trip Advisor? Tourists who have been here.

“Everybody talked about if you come here you want to go to Waynesville,” Sun said. “It is so unique and so fun.”

He also liked showing his two kids what an authentic town looks like.

“The small, tiny town is just very personal,” he said. “They should shoot a movie here.” 

The tourism development authority has been doing what it can to help all the players that collectively make up the tourism landscape in Haywood County tap into the Homegrown network.

A new calendar of events on the county’s tourist web site compiles all the festivals, concerts and happenings in the county on any given weekend, so theoretically restaurants and hotels could print these out and post them on a bulletin board.

But the tourism authority isn’t omniscient, Rice said. 

“We want to be aware of anything going on in the community,” she said, explaining that they have put out a plea to people to call in with any tidbits.

The tourism authority has also started producing a series of short travel videos around the county, showcasing everything from local breweries to rural legends.

And they’ve rolled out a series of sample travel itineraries on their web site — a quick and easy way for tourism businesses to become travel guides on the fly.

“We are trying to give them enough tools so if they don’t have enough time to do it on their own they have access to the information, they can pull it off the website,” Collins said.

It also helps push visitors around the county.

“Whether they are taking the agritourism brochure and visiting the farms, or going on the music trail or going on the quilt trail, we are getting these people all over the county and seeing parts of the county they would not otherwise see,” Collins said.

 

Connecting the dots

Homegrown in Haywood is already helping tourism entities see each other as allies working toward a common goal.

“It will help all of us to connect,” said Evelyn Coltman, who’s worked with a myriad of heritage tourism initiatives over the years.

But those initiatives — Cold Mountain History Tours, the restored Francis Mill, the Shelton House museum, the quilt trail — don’t get touted like they should by merchants and hotel owners.

Homegrown in Haywood could move those attractions into the limelight.

“The value they bring is the packaging, being able to pump this out the door in a way people can understand it,” said Dick Coltman, president of the Bethel Rural Community Organization.

Besides, it’s what today’s tourists are looking for.

“It makes you feel good at the end of the day to walk away with an authentic experience,” said Smathers.

For Melinda Messer, the manager of the Shelton House in Waynesville, sharing Appalachian heritage with travelers is nothing new.

“We have been celebrating, preserving and promoting local history and heritage arts and crafts for more than 30 years,” Messer said. 

But the collection of quilts, antique farm implements and folk art housed in the N.C. Museum of Handicrafts is often overlooked by the greater tourism community. 

“I think this Homegrown in Haywood is exciting,” said Messer. “We are thrilled that under its auspices we will be developing new relationships and partnerships with other tourism vendors who are also homegrown.”

That could be one of the biggest strengths of Homegrown in Haywood: getting those in the tourism business to get outside their own box.

“It’s all about connecting,” Knapko said. “We need to support each other. It benefits all of Haywood.”

Rice witnessed this after one of the Homegrown workshops.

“There were people exchanging business cards saying, ‘I am a restaurant, you are lodging, let’s do packages,’” she recalled.

Rice suggested accommodations partner with concert venues to offer ticket deals. Or partnering with golf courses, spas, fishing outfitters to come up with “girl’s getaways” or “man-cations.”

Festivals, music venues, restaurants, shops, attractions, farms, museums, art galleries, Civil War reenactment groups, fly fishing outfitters — they can all find a way to plug in.

“I feel a stronger industry partnership,” Rice said. “Now, people realize, ‘We fit into this. They are advertising for us.’”

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