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Tourism task force rolls up its sleeves

A task force charged with inspecting the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority is attempting to reshape the county’s approach to tourism promotion.

Factions within the tourism community have long been at odds over the best way to get tourists here. Dissatisfaction with the tourism authority reached a critical mass this summer, prompting the formation of the task force.

The task force began its work three weeks ago. At times the meetings took on the air of an inquisition, scrutinizing the performance of Tourism Development Authority Director Scotty Ellis. At times the meetings were like a mediation session, with blocs historically at odds sharing their feelings. Sometimes they merely needed to vent.

In the best moments, the task force behaved like marketing researchers, probing the philosophical and sociological forces that inspire Americans to visit beautiful places.

The task force is broken into two groups and each is meeting individually. It is too early to tell just how much change the task force will recommend. Final recommendations aren’t due for another month at least. The decision rests with county commissioners on whether to use those recommendations for a tourism authority overhaul.

This week, we offer a snapshot of some of the questions being probed. While far from complete, the synopsis covers some of the more important issues on the table.

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Real life Monopoly

Question: Are there too many lodging owners on the tourism board?

Background: Six of the nine seats on the tourism board are reserved for lodging owners. The other three seats are reserved for people in a “tourism-related” business. The model gives more wieght to lodging owners than other tourism boards in the region.

Some in the tourism industry feel disenfranchised by the disproportional representation of lodging owners on the tourism board. Art galleries, restaurants, gift shops, attractions and real estate professionals feel like they deserve an equal seat at the table.

“Mast General Store is just as much a reason to come to Haywood County as enjoying your time at Jonathan Creek Inn,” said Greg Boothroyd, president of the Downtown Waynesville Association and a member of the task force. “Are people coming to the region to stay in a hotel or to enjoy all the amenities the region has to offer?”

Then perhaps these other businesses should pay the tax also, replied Mike Nelson, owner of the Abbey Inn in Maggie Valley.

“I’m just following your logic,” Nelson said.

But that would ensnare locals, said Boothroyd, advertising director and part-owner of the Smoky Mountain News. The only way to ensure tourists are the ones tagged by the tax is capturing them at overnight lodging.

“The whole object is to pass the tax on to the non-residents,” Boothroyd said. “The hotel is just the collecting entity of that tax.”

Nonetheless, lodging owners have long felt entitled to control the tourism board since they collect the tax.

“We have to be cautious of the proprietor,” said Dawson Spano, a contractor from Maggie Valley. “We can’t divorce the fact that we are taxing a product and they have the first right to decide how the tax is spent.”

That notion is not applied to any other tax, however. Gasoline tax pays for roads, but gas station merchants don’t decide where to build highways. Wal-Mart doesn’t choose how to spend the state’s sales tax. And smokers don’t dictate how to spend the cigarette tax.

Haywood County’s tourism board is more weighted toward lodging owners than any other tourism entity in the region, according to the survey of surrounding counties. In most communities, one-third of the seats are reserved lodging owners — one-half at the most — compared to Haywood County, where lodging owners control two-thirds of the seats.

Expect some movement on this question as the task force moves forward.

Musical Chairs

Question: Is the tourism board membership too restrictive?

Background: All nine members on the tourism board must be in the tourism industry. Six seats are reserved for lodging owners and three for people in a “tourism-related” business. Again, it’s more restrictive than most tourism boards.

Conflicts of interest seem inevitable on a tourism board stacked with tourism business owners.

“Part of the reason we are here today is you have to check your personal hat at the door and look at the best use of tourism money for the county and not what’s in it for me,” said Roy Gass, a regional manager for Mast General Store and former TDA board member.

Scotty Ellis, Haywood tourism director, said there has been a problem with board members not “checking their hats at the door.”

Gass suggested that a different make-up on the board could “achieve putting personal interests aside.”

Sybil Mann, an attorney in Waynesville, posed the same question.

“Is the board perceived as too insular?” Mann asked the task force. “Or is it perceived that these are the experts making the decisions?”

Some in the tourism industry weren’t wild about the idea of appointing people to the tourism board who don’t have a working knowledge of the tourism industry.

“I just can’t figure out what they could bring to the table,” said Austin Pendley, owner of Maggie Mountaineer Crafts. “It’s no skin off their fanny one way or the other. It’s the people laying awake at night figuring out how they will pay their insurance that care.”

Mann disagreed, citing herself as an example of someone not in the tourism business but who is nonetheless deeply concerned about tourism.

“I clearly know about the importance of tourism in our economy. People who are interested in the community thriving and business thriving would possibly be a benefit to the board,” Mann said. “This is the life blood of this county now.”

Some counties set aside a seat or two for at-large members who don’t necessarily work in the tourism field. Many counties also set aside a seat for a county commissioner or town council member. In Haywood County, the county commissioners make all the appointments to the board. In some counties, the chamber of commerce gets to make an appointment or two.

Expect some movement on this question as the task force moves forward.

The big drawing card

Question: Why do tourists come here?

Background: Why tourists come here is critical in deciding how best to use tourism dollars. Do they come here to golf, shop, ski, ride motorcycles, fly-fish, or eat funnel cakes at festivals? If we knew this answer we could target that tourist audience more efficiently.

This one’s easy, right? The mountains, of course. Plop Maggie, Waynesville or Lake Junaluska down in the Midwest and they wouldn’t be nearly the same tourist magnet.

Last year, the tourism authority paid for research aimed at figuring out why people come here. A marketing firm did a random poll of 309 people who requested information from the tourism office and subsequently visited. Scenery, mountains and beauty were their top reason for visiting.

But why here instead of Black Mountain, Boone or Gatlinburg?

“There’s a question we get hit over the head with all the time, which is, ‘What is there to do here once we’ve looked at the scenery?’” said Austin Pendley, owner of Maggie Mountaineer Crafts. Pendley said festivals and events have been relied on to fill that void. Pendley believes more tourism dollars should be spent on festivals.

“They might not come here for a festival, but once they’re here if they have something to do they might stay longer,” Pendley said.

Bill Yarborough, a farmer who works for the state agriculture office, said Haywood County isn’t capitalizing on its Appalachian culture and heritage enough and should recruit clubs looking for convention sites. Yarborough cited fans of antique tools, quilting clubs, knitting conventions, farm supply groups, even mason jar collectors as targets for niche markets.

“There’s a lot of groups out there that are looking for a place to put something on, and we just got to get the word out that we are the best place to do it,” Yarborough said.

Chuck Worrell, owner of High Country Furniture, said people come here because the place itself is a general destination.

“Do people come here because of a motel? I don’t think so. Do they come here because of a restaurant? I don’t think so,” said Worrell. “They come here because of the beauty of Haywood County. It is a destination.”

Worrell thinks tourism dollars are too fragmented and watered down. The best use of dollars is a marketing campaign that focuses on image and branding.

Greg Boothroyd, president of the Downtown Waynesville Association, asked whether tourists who’ve already landed in the mountains are being pulled into Haywood County.

“When they are at Harrah’s and they are at Biltmore, are they seeing our message and making it over the hill?” Boothroyd asked.

The upshot is the task force has lots of creative ideas on what draws tourists here. The tourism board has never made a concerted effort to involve the larger tourism community in brainstorming. When the tourism board held a workshop last year to develop a new marketing brand, they did not seek input from others in the tourism industry.

This task force is providing one of the first roundtable settings for ideas from the tourism community to filter back to the tourism board.

Outside the box

Question: Is the tourism board too narrow- minded in how it spends tourism dollars?

Background: The tourism board has adopted a litmus test over the years when deciding how to spend money. Will it put “heads in beds?” By state law, the lodging tax can be spent “to promote tourism,” not merely put “heads in beds.” The “heads in beds” litmus test is a side effect of a tourism board controlled largely by lodging owners, however.

The “heads in beds” mantra has become so pervasive over the years that the limited view of tourism solely as overnight stays has kept the tourism board from pursuing new ideas, according to some task force members.

What about a tourist staying at Harrah’s Casino and Hotel in Cherokee who comes to Maggie Valley and Waynesville to shop, wine and dine for the day? Do they not count?

“They definitely spend tourism dollars here,” said Greg Boothroyd, president of the Downtown Waynesville Association.

In fact, a downtown Waynesville shopper who drops $1,000 at art galleries puts more into the economy than an overnight guest at a $40 mom and pop motel who eats a $10 supper and complimentary breakfast. But under the tourism board model, the cheap overnight guest is considered a success, while the wealthy shopper isn’t on the radar.

Sybil Mann, a task force member, questioned whether the tourism board is being hamstrung by the notion of having to put heads in beds. Under the current model, the majority of tourism dollars are spent putting ads in magazines and major newspapers to generate inquiries, and then mailing tourism literature to folks who inquire.

Mann questioned whether there is room for tourism-related projects and amenities that make Haywood County a nice place to visit.

Maggie Valley Mayor Roger McElroy agreed. This year, the town did not receive money for July Fourth fireworks. While it might not specifically put heads in beds, tourists expect fireworks on the Fourth, McElroy said. Maggie Valley could also use lights at the festival grounds.

While it might not specifically put heads in beds, it will improve evening performances, which in turn rounds out the tourism picture in the county.

Here are some creative ways other counties in the state have applied tourism dollars.

• One county built boat ramps at a lake, which is that county’s top tourist draw.

• One county pays the electric bill for street lights at the entrance to town.

• A coastal county hauled in more sand to bolster the eroding beach.

• Transylvania County devotes part of the budget to “tourism enhancement,” which could range from a fountain downtown to trails.

• Buncombe County devotes 1 percent of the tourism budget each years for tourism related projects, like a major soccer stadium that hosts major tournaments bringing hundreds of families to town.

But some lodging owners would rather see the money spent targeting tourists who will land on their doorstep tomorrow. Lodging owners claim since the money is derived from overnight stays, it must be spent luring more overnight stays.

The “heads in beds” litmus test continually poses a problem for the tourism board and crops up nearly every meeting. It is nearly impossible to tell for sure whether any one effort has put heads in beds.

The tourism board funds festivals, but it is unclear whether tourists come here specifically to attend a festival or merely go to it once they are here. TDA board member Ken Stahl said the tourism board can’t quantify what puts heads in beds and what doesn’t. “It’s very subjective,” Stahl said.

The task force asked Stahl whether the visitor centers funded by the tourism board put heads in beds?

“It is a tool,” Stahl said. “If you don’t have the tools to give people the opportunity to stay here, that’s one of the things you have to do in this business.”

When the task force questioned Stahl, a tourism board member who has attended all the task force meetings, about the tourism authority’s function, Stahl’s answer was broad.

“What are we here for? To increase tourism,” Stahl said. But everyone has a different idea of what tourism is, Stahl said.

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