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Swain urged to tap into motorcycle tourism

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

The roar of motorcycles is a familiar sound in the mountains of Western North Carolina. And for many business owners, it’s music to their ears.

Bikers mean warm bodies to occupy beds, eat in restaurants, and shop in stores. This means dollars for the local economy. So why aren’t counties doing more to advertise to this fast-growing segment of the population?

That was the topic of discussion at a recent meeting of the Swain County Tourism Development Authority. Brad Talbott, co-owner of Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort, spoke to board members and explained why they might be missing out on a money-making opportunity by failing to advertise to motorcycle riders.

“More and more motorcycles are coming to Western North Carolina,” Talbott told the TDA. Talbott said his resort, located along the North Carolina and Tennessee borders, is at close to 90 percent capacity on weekdays and 100 percent on weekends. Deal’s Gap is currently booking reservations as far ahead as 2009.

Talbott said his numbers are just an example of how popular Swain County and Western North Carolina are becoming with motorcyclists.

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Swain County is near several nationally known biking destinations. Graham County boasts the Dragon, an 11-mile stretch of road along U.S. 129 named the number one twisty road in the United States in a 2002 poll at motorcycle brand Buell’s Web site. The same poll listed the Blue Ridge Parkway as the second best twisty road to ride. The top featured road on Harley Davidson’s Web site this week is the Cherohala Skyway, a 36-mile scenic byway that ends in Robbinsville, only minutes away from Swain County.

Talbott also said that riders who attend rallies in close proximity to Swain County often make a trip through the Carolina mountains. These include bikers attending one of the largest Harley Davidson rallies in the nation in nearby Knoxville (more than 160,000 people attended this year) and the Cherokee Survivor’s rally, which had the biggest attendance in its 20-year history, said Talbott.

Also, the Wheels Through Time transportation museum in Maggie Valley has become a favorite stopping place for motorcycle enthusiasts dues to its collection of vintage bikes.

It appears, though, that counties in Western North Carolina are largely overlooking these numbers. Swain County has never advertised in a magazine geared toward the motorcycling population, and it’s not alone. Jackson County has never devoted any money to placing ads in a motorcycle magazine, said Julie Spiro, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. Neither has Macon County, according to chamber executive director Linda Harbuck.

Haywood County has placed an ad in a BMW publication, but doesn’t any longer, TDA Executive Director Scotty Ellis said.

Motorcyclists, though, have evidently already found their way to Swain. Of four local Swain County hotels randomly called — Sleep Inn, Two Rivers Lodge, Relax Inn and Mountain Laurel Motel — all said, without hesitation, that motorcyclists make up a good portion of their clientele.

“We have quite a few motorcyclists. They get along very well with other clientele,” said Barbara Hindman, owner of Two Rivers, who said her lodge also caters to families. She said the mix has never posed a problem.

At Mountain Laurel, owner Kathi Butman has developed a relationship with certain groups of bikers that return again and again to stay at her motel.

The return rate of motorcyclists to the area doesn’t surprise Talbott, who said Bryson City is an ideal town for them.

“Bryson City really has the mystique that they’re looking for. It has a clean Main Street, little shops,” and more, Talbott said.

In Graham County, which borders Swain and also shares proximity to some of the most popular roads for motorcyclists, tourism officials have caught on and are reaping the benefits.

“We do have a lot of visitors who are motorcycle riders,” said Judy Jones, a host at the Graham County Visitor’s Center. Jones said the county spends about 10 to 15 percent of its tourism dollars advertising in motorcycle magazines.

Jones also said she’s sure the motorcyclists in Graham County pass through Swain. That’s because most riders leaving Graham County must pass through Swain to get to a major interstate like I-40, said Jones.

Talbott’s presentation prompted the TDA to look more closely into a population the county may be ignoring. Talbott will work with the TDA’s advertising agency, Kelso, at picking out a motorcycle magazine where an ad will possibly be placed.

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