Haywood TDA names new executive director
Haywood County’s Tourism Development Authority will enter a new era with the announcement of an executive director to replace the retiring Lynn Collins.
“I am extraordinarily excited to move to Haywood County, learn more about what makes the destination special and immerse myself in the community as I work to bring national attention to the region,” said Corrina Ruffieux (pronounced “roof-E-air”).
The TDA is the authority that collects, tracks and spends the room occupancy tax, currently set by statute at 4%. The TDA’s board evaluates ways to spend the money, which must be used to further the county’s tourism industry. Some of the revenue must be spent in the zip code from which it was collected, and the rest is unrestricted.
Last May, Collins announced that she’d retire by the end of 2022, but she ended up sticking around to help with the hiring and transition process. Collins joined the TDA early in 2009,and presided over a period of prolonged and expansive growth.
In 2016, Collins lobbied unsuccessfully for an increase in the 4% room tax rate. Most recently, Collins guided the TDA through the shutdowns and disruptions associated with the Coronavirus Pandemic. Last year, Haywood’s TDA had its biggest year in the organization’s 39-year history.
As of November 2022 — the last month for which data are available — all reporting zip codes listed collections of 118% to 151% above year-to-date projections. Those collections come from 1,726 units across the county.
Originally from Connecticut, Ruffieux graduated from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, with a degree in biology and minors in both vocal performance and paleontology. Her career in tourism began, appropriately enough, at a Connecticut attraction called The Dinosaur Place, where she served as general manager and director of marketing for 12 years.
Ruffieux also served on the board of an organization called Mystic Coast & Country, a tourism bureau covering the eastern third of Connecticut. After that it was Visit New England and Colonial Williamsburg, and then on to Elizabeth City, where she currently serves in the same executive director that she’ll assume in Haywood County in early April.
“I think my favorite part about this industry is the opportunity to always be learning,” she said. “Each community has its own unique nuances and challenges, and you have to kind of dig in and figure out what those might be, and then how can you make the best of them.”
Indeed, Ruffieux’s lifelong love of learning is one of the things that pushed her over the top in the interview process, according to TDA Board Chairman Chris Corbin.
“She’s got extensive experience in the industry. She had some really positive energy in our interview. The enthusiasm came across, as did the amount of research she did ahead of time,” Corbin said. “She was very prepared.”
Pasquotank County, where Ruffieux currently works, is about two-thirds the size of Haywood County in terms of population.
Annual room occupancy tax collections there total around $800,000 — far lower than Haywood’s annual $3 million figure — but Ruffieux has worked to increase them with events like the popular Coast Guard Marathon, which takes place this year from March 2-4.
One of the first things Ruffieux will do when she arrives in Haywood County, according to Corbin, is help with a strategic plan that’s already underway.
“I’ve done a few strategic plans,” Ruffieux said. “I actually did one when I first arrived here in Elizabeth City, because they had never done one, which is always a very different approach. And we actually just refreshed it. I’ll be leaving the community with a brand-new tourism strategic plan. I’m looking forward to looking at [the forthcoming Haywood plan] — it’ll be a great way for me to really deeply learn about Haywood County, by being involved in that process.”
Corbin also has another task for Ruffieux.
“One of the things that we talked about was really getting the TDA out there doing some public advocacy for the TDA locally, to let folks know what we do and how the TDA is working to keep folks coming here, and how the tourism industry in general contributes to the betterment of everyone’s life here in Haywood County,” Corbin said. “It’s a big industry, it’s a big driver for tax dollars, and for jobs.”
Haywood’s TDA took a big first step toward that effort last summer, when the so-called “ one-time special project fund” doled out $500,000 to five local projects that would enhance tourism offerings while also providing recreational opportunities for locals.
In Western North Carolina, TDAs and the tourism industry in general have come under scrutiny for enabling the affordable housing crisis through the proliferation of short-term rentals like AirBnbs. Some have also questioned the ongoing need for TDA marketing efforts, as the region is clearly a well-known tourist hotspot.
Ruffieux cautioned that the calls to justify the usefulness of TDAs like Haywood aren’t limited to the county, the state or even the nation.
“Destinations International, which is an organization that works with DMOs [destination management organizations, like the Haywood TDA], essentially has a whole group of people that focus on what they call ‘advocacy,’” she said. “I would propose we start by developing an advocacy plan. A big part of that is cultivating relationships and partnerships and helping people understand that what tourism brings to a community is way more than ‘heads in beds’ and occupancy tax.”
Corbin also mentioned that the Haywood TDA may again revisit a controversial initiative that failed at least twice in the past decade — increasing the 4% room occupancy tax rate.
“I think it’s probably a little too early to say, just knowing the climate and history behind it,” he said. “It’s never something that I would say, ‘Hey, that’s probably on the horizon,’ but I anticipate that it’s possible that it would happen again.”
If that’s to happen any time in Ruffieux’s tenure here, she’ll need significant leadership skills to push it across the finish line.
Fortunately, Haywood’s TDA has hired not just a highly qualified non-profit executive but also a proven community leader who recently showcased her skills in a most unexpected way.
“They had that police-involved shooting a couple years ago, and that was a very divisive time.” Corbin said. “She felt like it was one of her duties and responsibilities to try to unite as much as possible and help city through that. It was a trying time and we were impressed by that, too.”
In April 2021, Andrew Brown Jr. was shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies who were serving warrants for drug trafficking. Protestors marched each day for more than a month, and Elizabeth City’s mayor declared a state of emergency. The shooting was ruled as justified, but Brown’s family accepted a $3 million settlement from their $30 million civil suit.
“The community got very divided. City council stopped talking to county commissioners, the mayor stopped talking to the chair of the county commissioners and city manager and the county manager,” Ruffieux said. “It was just an extraordinarily difficult, emotional time and tourism was impacted. You can’t run a marketing campaign that says ‘Pack up the kids and come to Elizabeth City,’ when you’re in the national news for a police-involved shooting.”
Ruffieux called her tourism industry peers in places that had experienced similar incidents — in Charlottesville, Virginia, Louisville, Kentucky and St. Louis — and asked them what to do. They suggested hiring a diversity consultant.
“We adopted a diversity, equity and inclusion plan specific to tourism. And that will be a work in progress probably forever. I don’t think that when a tragedy like that happens it goes away, but you can always look at it and make it better,” she said. “That was what I hoped we could do, leveraging the power of tourism to do it.”