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Tourism office takes tech strides

In her nearly six-month tenure as executive director, Lynn Collins has been helping Haywood County’s Tourism Development Authority make strides — especially in using technology to be more effective for tourism operators and visitors.

As a prominent example, the tourism authority plans to implement a top-of-the-line booking system on its website. Visitors to the site will be able to get tickets to attractions and make reservations at local accommodations with just a few clicks of the mouse — making it simpler than the systems on lead booking sites such as Travelocity.com, Collins told the TDA board at its June 24 meeting.

Under the new system, “bookings can take only three steps versus five or six” with others, Collins said.

The system will be embedded in TDA’s website, but will connect invisibly and seamlessly to the ticketing or reservation system of tourism businesses, Collins said. The company offering the system will preview it for the board TDA and its members in the near future.

Other advances include installation of a new phone system in the TDA’s office — “with voice mail,” Collins told the board with a hint of mock exultation.

On the outreach and PR front, TDA’s monthly newsletter, “TDA Tidbits,” has gone digital, for the kind of immediate and ongoing accessibility sometimes compromised with a paper publication, which can get tossed aside or lost in piles of clutter.

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The TDA also previously launched a YouTube channel, where tourism operators can post short videos about their establishment. And it is leveraging so-called social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook to broaden its reach and appeal. According to TDA’s inaugural March edition of its newsletter, “This presence on these Social Media sites allows us to directly connect with potential visitors, providing interactive content, a blog, video, photos, quick responses to any questions, and more.”

Finally, TDA is grappling with helping tourism operators create and raise their profile with users of the “mobile web,” where people can access travel and tourism information from their cell phones.

 

Marketing plan

The board also adopted its new marketing plan, following a presentation on it by TDA board member and marketing committee chair Marion Hamel, in absence of Jay Sokolow of The Tombras Group, who developed it. The plan aims to concentrate advertising in what are believed to be the highest-value markets — namely nearby metro areas such as Charlotte and Atlanta. Generally considered the top sources of tourists in the region, Collins said that’s likely truer than ever, with more people vacationing closer to home in a tough economy.

The plan also seeks to be more selective and cost-efficient in how it spreads its advertising dollars around in national publications and other venues. The TDA’s revenue comes from a 4 percent tax on overnight lodging in the county and is pumped back in to tourism promotions. The marketing plan calls for spending $254,000 on advertising buys.

The difficult economy notwithstanding, Collins said tourist spending on overnight lodging in the county is only down about 6 percent so far for the fiscal year ending June 30, while many colleagues encountered at a recent conference reported double-digit declines. She said she believes that is because the area is rather central to key locales where the county draws visitors from, something of a crossroads.

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