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Festival frenzy fueling local economies

coverAs a tourism expert in the Southeast, Dr. Steve Morse has been asked to judge competitions at festivals all over the region.

His hectic schedule doesn’t allow him to participate in all of them, but he recalls one event he couldn’t turn down — judging entries at the National Banana Pudding Festival in Hickman County, Tennessee.

Tourism conference to focus on festival success
2015 Festival lineup

“I didn’t even look at my calendar — I just called my wife and told her we were going,” he said. “Where else are you going to find something like that?”

Why is a banana pudding festival so appealing? Because it’s fun, original and authentic — the three essential ingredients needed to make a festival successful. 

This is the message Morse hopes to drive home during the second annual Tourism Works Conference next Tuesday at Western Carolina University. The one-day conference will give tourism professionals the tools to organize and execute a success festival, which in turn will increase tourism spending. 

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Finding your festival

Morse, director of the hospitality and tourism management program at WCU, said communities have to find a way to distinguish themselves by organizing one-of-a-kind festivals and events. He pointed to the White Squirrel Festival in Brevard — a spring music festival that also celebrates white albino squirrels with a photo contest and other fun events featuring the unusual species that thrives in Brevard. 

Banner Elk is known for its Wooly Worm Festival. In its 38th year, the fall festival is centered around the woolly worm’s ability to predict the severity of the winter to come. 

Again, it’s something unique to the community that celebrates local flavor and piques tourists’ curiosity.

“We don’t need any more bluegrass and barbecue festivals — everyone has those,” Morse said. “And you don’t need a big committee to put it all together — have a few good people get together and come up with something different.”

Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, said she felt like Haywood County festivals do a great job of showcasing local heritage with signature events from the 27th annual Apple Harvest Festival and the 32nd annual Church Street Art and Craft Show to newer events like PlottFest and Appalachian Lifestyle Celebration. Each celebrates a part of Appalachian culture — music, agriculture, homemade crafts, local produce and the North Carolina state dog. 

Even though it’s not authentic Appalachian, Folkmoot USA has a major economic impact on the region. The weeklong festival brings in seven or eight international groups to perform around WNC. The most popular event, the Parade of Nations, is held in downtown Waynesville each July. Collins said the event is definitely one that tourists plan their vacations around.

“It’s hard to pick and choose the most successful ones — we have long-term festivals that people come to every year and plan their vacation around and we have new events generating a lot of buzz and publicity and a new type of crowd,” she said. “With the varied types of events we have, I think there’s something for everybody.”


Maintaining the momentum

For every festival that survives and thrives, there are just as many that fail. Organizing and promoting a festival is a large undertaking that requires a certain amount of risk. Even when a festival is able to pick up some momentum, keeping that momentum going year after year can be challenging. 

Mater Fest in Canton had been a beloved tradition in the community for a decade, but FOCUS on Canton, the volunteer group that put on the two-day event, called it quits last year. Volunteer participation was at an all-time low, and the group couldn’t continue to manage the popular event.

Collins said there are so many small details that go into planning a festival that people don’t always consider. 

“People who don’t do it don’t have a clue what a big undertaking it is,” she said. “If you have a situation where you have the same people over and over, they’ll experience burnout — you always need to recruit new volunteers.”

Stagnant ideas were part of the problem with Franklin’s Main Street Program — a nonprofit group responsible for putting on several of the town’s popular festivals and events. The Main Street Program board recently decided to go inactive until it could regroup with some new people and fresh ideas. Understanding the importance of festivals to the local economy, Franklin Town Manager Summer Woodard said the town decided to step in and take over the management of the four big events — Fourth of July, Pumpkin Fest, the Veteran’s Day parade and Winter Wonderland. 

Woodard hopes to keep the 19th annual Pumpkin Fest going strong because the signature event attracts locals and tourists from all over and kicks off the fall season in the mountains. She said the annual pumpkin roll is a good tracker of the event’s tourism draw. More than 700 pumpkins were rolled down Frogtown and the winners for the last five years have been from places as far away as Texas and New York.

Franklin is also looking to expand its Fourth of July event to two days and make changes to distinguish it from the chamber of commerce’s fireworks celebration held in the afternoon. 

“This will be the first year for the town taking over the festivals from the Main Street Program,” she said. “It will be a good trial run to see what works and doesn’t work.”

Doug Morton, chairman of the Taste of Scotland Festival committee in Franklin, said the four-day event held in June takes all year to plan and the process begins again the day after the festival is over. 

“It’s not just a little thing,” he said. “It takes a lot of hours and people.”

To keep the momentum going, the committee strives to make the Scottish and Celtic festival as authentic as possible by scrutinizing every performer and vendor who wants to be  part of the event. Morton said the festival had about five clans present last year, but this year 20 are already committed to attending, which he hopes increases attendance and interest. 

“The exciting thing for me is that more people are hearing about us,” he said. “I’ve received calls from music groups from as far away as Nova Scotia, California and Texas wanting to be a part of it. Word has gotten out.”

He said the biggest challenge, as with most festivals, is funding. Taste of Scotland receives grants from tourism organizations and the town of Franklin, but the committee volunteers raise a majority of the money. The event has always been free and Morton intends to keep it that way for the enjoyment of visitors and locals.


Tourism tax relief 

Morse said flourishing festivals lead to an increase in tourism dollars, and more tourism dollars mean locals are paying less in taxes. He likes to call tourists “temporary taxpayers.” They may not pay property tax, but they pay sales tax, gas tax and an occupancy tax. The occupancy tax visitors pay when they stay overnight at a hotel or bed and breakfast goes back to the tourism agency in each county and is spent on increasing tourism through advertising and events.

Every dollar spent by tourists lightens the tax burden of local households. According to Morse’s data, for example, Macon County’s 25,292 households pay $660 less in state and local taxes as a result of tourism spending. 

When comparing employment trends in 2003 compared to 2013, it is clear that tourism is the mainstay industry in the region. Manufacturing and construction jobs only make up 9.8 percent of total jobs in the seven westernmost counties — Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Cherokee, Clay and Graham — while tourism and hospitality jobs increased from 18 percent to 21 percent of the total jobs. Tourism spending in these counties adds up to $721.3 million, and the region is experiencing the fastest tourism growth of any in the state. 

“In Western North Carolina, tourism jobs will never be outsourced to another country like manufacturing jobs have been,” Morse said.

Some argue that most tourism jobs are minimum wage or temporary positions that don’t do much to benefit the overall economy, but Morse disagrees. Yes, many of the jobs — food service, transportation, lodging, retail, recreation and entertainment — can be seasonal and low-paying, but there is a ripple effect. Tourism-related businesses rely on other industries to keep them going — banking and finance, media and print design, services like HVAC and plumbing and much more.

“It’s like looking at a hospital. Sure, there are low-paid orderly positions, but there are also a lot of behind-the-scenes positions making the hospital run,” he said. 


Do businesses benefit?

When a festival rolls into town, most Main Streets shut down to vehicle traffic. Food vendors, arts and crafters set up their tents and musicians line the street. Many downtown merchants love the foot traffic created downtown during a festival, but others don’t see how their businesses benefit when tourists are buying food and other items from street vendors. Some business owners feel like their shops are only used for bathroom breaks during festivals. 

“I think a few would say it doesn’t help them, but a majority do seem very receptive of festivals and appreciate having them downtown,” Woodard said about Franklin merchants. 

The annual Taste of Scotland Festival, now in its 18th year, is held in downtown Franklin. Morton said the event attracted about 4,000 people to Franklin last year. 

“That’s a lot of people for a small town like Franklin. Shops were packed last year and the year before,” Morton said. “We know it has big impact on the businesses downtown.”

The Maggie Valley Festival Grounds hosts a different event or festival almost every weekend during from May through October. While multiple-day events like motorcycle rallies benefit the lodging industry, many restaurants and merchants feel like they don’t benefit from the events because people stay within the festival grounds for food and alcohol. 

Cabbage Rose Gift Shop in Maggie Valley is located just outside the festival grounds gates. Co-owner Troy Graves said some festivals benefit his business while others seem to only hurt business. 

“Some festivals help and some festivals absolutely kill us,” he said. “Craft festivals — we get traffic from that — but when it’s a barbecue festival or a motorcycle rally with food and craft vendors, people don’t venture off of the festival grounds.”

But whether it helps his business or not, Graves said he was supportive of any festival that brought people into Maggie Valley for a couple of days in hopes that they might return in the future. 

Morse said he has heard the same kinds of concerns from merchants everywhere. While it is difficult to measure the ripple effect festivals can have on businesses, he said merchants do benefit from festivals because the events bring in new people that hopefully will return again to shop. 

Morse has several suggestions for trying to improve business visibility during downtown festivals, including inviting local businesses to have a free booth to show festivalgoers what is in their stores and restaurants.  

“Some festival organizers have specific areas for food and craft vendors that are in a different location away from permanent stores, and organize the foot traffic to maximize exposure for the permanent stores,” he said. “Location of main festival activities has always been a concern for permanent stores that choose locations that are not in the mainstream of traffic … Overall, more traffic and customers are better than less traffic and customers.”


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