Racing ahead: Successful athletic events bolster tourism
From paved 5K routes to epic trail runs and triathlons, Western North Carolina is rife with outdoor races of all types. But a peek at the history shows that the bulk of these events are new arrivals on the landscape, most founded in the past decade or so with new ones popping up each year.
“Sporting events seem to be growing across the nation, and people are interested in taking their families on these trips,” said CeCe Hipps, executive director of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce. “What better place to be in the great outdoors than Haywood County?”
It’s a realization that spurred the chamber to launch the Blue Ridge Breakaway — a bicycle ride with routes topping 100 miles and taking in views from the Blue Ridge Parkway — in 2009. Since then, the ride has attracted hundreds of bikers each year, generating an estimated $150,000 to $170,000 annually in visitor spending, according to a report on bicycle tourism commissioned by a coalition of area organizations.
This year, the chamber is adding a running race to its arsenal — the Gateway To The Smokies Half Marathon, scheduled for May 2. For the inaugural year, the Chamber hopes to bring in 200 racers from a four-hour driving radius, all of whom will start and end their 13.1-mile trek in the heart of Waynesville. As of last week, 113 had signed up.
“Typically in the past we’ve focused a lot on festivals, arts-and-crafts-type festivals which are very successful as well, but we have a whole different target now,” Hipps said of the chamber’s emphasis on races.
Racers and riders are active types, fit people poised to appreciate the multitude of outdoors activities in the Smokies region. They run the gamut of age and gender, Hipps said, but probably the largest segment of the group is people in their 40s and 50s, working professionals with families who are looking for an adventurous and active way to spend the weekend.
It’s a demographic that’s been good to Deb and Shell Isenberg, owners of Oak Hill on Love Lane Bed and Breakfast.
“We love the fact that our situation, our geographic location is perfect for people that like to do outdoor things,” Deb said. “There’s so much for them to do.”
If not for the races, though, they might not be pursuing those outdoor adventures in Haywood County at that particular time of year. The chamber schedules events like the Breakaway and Gateway To The Smokies to take over “shoulder season” weekends, times of year when tourism typically lags in Western North Carolina.
“That’s not a typical time of year for us to be completely booked, so we can definitely directly relate our occupancy over that time frame to the Blue Ridge Breakaway,” Isenberg said.
The Breakaway, held each year in mid-August, has “dramatically impact[ed]” her business, Isenberg said, with the bed and breakfast getting fully booked that weekend every year the event has been held, thanks to a group of out Knoxville that pays for next year’s reservations each year when checking out from that year’s visit.
“They say they will put it in their will that no one else can take their rooms,” Isenberg said.
The bed and breakfast also sees the effect from other races in the area, even those taking place as far away as Asheville and Nantahala Outdoor Center — though those impacts are much smaller than from races in Haywood County. The Lake Logan Multisport Festival, an event that features — among other race options — a half Ironman, always causes increased visitation at Oak Hill. According to the same report that estimated the Breakaway’s impact, the Lake Logan festival could have an economic impact of more than $500,000 to the area.
“We have been sold out for that event, and we’re fairly full for it this year,” Isenberg said of the race.
Races help out the bed and breakfast more than a typical arts and crafts show or some such festival in town, Isenberg said, and they attract a demographic that she’s eager to serve.
“It brings in the younger generation, the people who are more active, and it’s definitely a benefit,” she said.
Races are a fast-growing segment of outdoor recreation, according to a 2014 report from the Outdoor Industry Association. Between 2011 and 2013, adventure racing saw a 28 percent uptick in participation, and running, jogging and trail running comprise the most popular category of outdoor activity for youth and adults, the report said. Since 2003, the half marathon has been the fastest-growing race distance in the United States, especially among women, according to a 2014 report from Running USA. In 2013, nearly two million people finished a half marathon in the U.S.
Those numbers translate into more than just extra registration fee collections. The real benefit of the races, Hipps said, comes from the ripple effects to the community when racers stay at hotels and bed and breakfasts like Isenberg’s, eat out at restaurants, shop downtown — or even, unfortunately, wind up paying bills to the local emergency room when an injury occurs on the race route.
Jennifer Jacobson, a runner who’s also on the planning committee for the Gateway To The Smokies Half Marathon, knows from firsthand experience that those impacts aren’t made up. She regularly travels for out-of-town races, booking a hotel, eating several meals out — sometimes splurging for an expensive one to commemorate an accomplishment — and purchasing a souvenir or two. Often, she sticks around after the race to explore the area a bit.
“We usually have time to go to some attractions, whether that be shopping in the local downtowns or malls or visiting museums, sight-seeing,” she said.
An event like the Breakaway or Gateway To The Smokies might be a fundraiser for the chamber in the sense that a healthier economy means more membership and capacity for fundraising, but after accounting for expenses and staff time, the races don’t really wind up as moneymakers in terms of registration revenues — last year the Breakaway actually wound up losing money, Hipps said.
“The main intent of these events are not to be fundraisers for the chamber,” she said. “The main intent of these events are to bring people into our community and to promote tourism.”
By that measure, Hipps said, the Breakaway has been a success thus far. The hope is that Gateway To The Smokies will do the same.
“That’s why people come here, is to get outdoors,” Isenberg said. “They have cabin fever from the winter and they want to get outside and take advantage of what mother nature offers us in this area. Anything that we can do to provide an activity for them to reach that goal is a huge benefit to the area.”
Haywood half marathon coming up
The inaugural Gateway To The Smokies Half Marathon is a 13.1-mile race that starts on Waynesville’s Main Street, ends in Frog Level and winds through country roads around town. Runners can sign up until race day on May 2, and volunteers are also needed the day of the event.
• Runners can register at www.active.com for $60 or pay the $70 day-of fee, with a portion of the proceeds going toward the Haywood Greenway Initiative, a long-range plan to extend a greenway through Haywood County. The website, www.smokieshalfmarathon.com, shows the complete turn-by-turn route.