Jackson plans for growth
Last year was a good one for the tourism industry in Jackson County, with visitor spending in 2018 increasing by 5.3 percent over 2017 numbers, according to recently released figures from the state tourism office Visit North Carolina.
Visitor spending in Jackson County generated $205.81 million over the course of the last year, equivalent to an average of $563,000 daily. The travel and tourism industry employs 1,890 people in Jackson County with a total payroll of $50.87 million. Last year’s visitor spending resulted in $9.5 million in local sales and property tax revenue — saving residents $464.01 in taxes — and $11.34 million in state taxes.
“I think it’s impressive that every single North Carolina county grew last year — 100 percent of our state experienced positive growth, which I think is excellent,” said Jackson County Tourism Development Authority Director Nick Breedlove. “I think that’s really impressive, and I think that speaks to the great job that Visit North Carolina is doing.”
Jackson County’s visitor spending topped $200 million for the first time in 2018, exceeding 2017’s figure of $195.4 million by $6.99 million, which itself was a 3.7 percent increase over the $188.5 million in spending reported in 2016. The 2016 number came in 7.1 percent higher than the previous year’s level of $175.9 million.
“For me looking at those numbers, I think us growing $30 million in three years is pretty impressive,” said Breedlove.
Breedlove credited the dedication of the TDA’s many partners — ranging from accommodations to restaurants to outdoor attractions — with providing guests the quality experiences that keep them coming back. He also singled out the work of past and present members of the TDA Board of Directors to set Jackson County up for success.
“We’re able to create memorable experiences and provide gracious hospitality for our visitors and in return, sustain existing jobs and create new ones and keep the local economy thriving,” he said.
While significant, Jackson’s visitor spending growth came in behind the statewide average of 5.6 percent but in the top 50 percent in county rankings, at 44 out of 100 counties. Jackson is also at the head of the pack in both percentage growth and total revenue when compared to other counties in the far western part of the state.
In terms of percentage growth, Cherokee was far and away the leader among the seven western counties, its 7 percent increase over 2017 figures earning it the number four rank. However, the remaining five counties came in behind Jackson — Clay was 50th with 5.2 percent, Macon was 60th with 4.8 percent, Swain was 69th with 4.7 percent, Graham was 76th with 4.5 percent and Haywood was 80th with 4.2 percent.
Jackson also came in second among the far western counties in terms of overall visitor expenditures, holding onto the 26th place spot it earned in 2017 with $205.8 million in visitor spending. Trailing Jackson were 28th-place Haywood, with $189.9 million; 32nd-place Macon, with $178.4 million; 62nd-place Cherokee, with $52.7 million; 79th-place Graham, with $29.4 million; and 92nd-place Clay, at $14.02 million.
The only one of the far western counties to come in ahead of Jackson was Swain County, which drew $215.2 million in visitor spending and took 24th place. Swain has long been the far west’s leader in visitor spending, but in recent years the gap between its totals and Jackson’s has grown smaller and smaller.
In 2015, Swain County drew $17.29 million more in visitor spending than did Jackson, but that lead has shrunk every year since, by 2018 nearly halved to $9.36 million.
While Jackson County’s future looks positive, Breedlove noted that economists are predicting a mild recession in 2020, so growth could falter in the coming years. He also said that keeping Jackson’s numbers strong will require regional collaboration. The study showed that Jackson County’s top three attractions are the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Biltmore House — of the three, only the Parkway is actually located in Jackson County. A group of regional TDAs is now meeting quarterly to discuss how they can better support and enhance each other’s efforts, across county lines.
“While we would like the visitors spending in our counties, we realize that visitors travel all over Western North Carolina, so one thing we collaborate on it is what can we promote in your destination that’s unduplicated in ours?” said Breedlove.
Studying the average visitor
The Jackson TDA is making a concentrated effort to see its figures — and, consequently, its state ranking in tourism spending — continue to rise.
Over the past year, the organization has been working with Charlotte-based Young Strategies, Inc., to complete a study of tourism in Jackson County to better understand why people come to Jackson County, when they tend to visit and where the opportunities are for continued growth. The study — the first comprehensive research study the TDA had ever completed — was based largely on a survey that drew a total 3,783 responses, “well above” the necessary sample size, Breedlove told county commissioners during an Aug. 13 work session. Of those survey respondents, 2,358 had visited Jackson County in the last three years, 483 had not visited Jackson County in the past three years, 505 were Jackson County residents, 267 were part-time Jackson County residents, 161 were visitors from a neighboring county and nine were residents of Cherokee. The study also included a survey of 150 local elected officials and key stakeholders such as longtime business owners.
All that data was used to develop the TDA’s first-ever strategic plan since it was created in 2012. The three-year plan is set to carry the organization through 2022. The TDA paid $30,000 apiece for the study and strategic plan
“It takes in elected officials’ feedback, our visitors’ feedback, our residents’ feedback,” Breedlove told county commissioners when presenting the results at an Aug. 13 work session. “So we think that it will serve us well.”
The results, Breedlove said in a follow-up interview, confirmed much of what the county’s tourism leaders already knew but also introduced new information.
“For example, nationwide the average is that an overnight visitor spends two to three times as much as a daytripper, and we found in Jackson County our overnight visitors on average will spend $1,000 and our daytrippers will spend $200,” he said. “That’s a five-fold increase.”
Among the 1,669 overnight visitors who responded to the survey, the average travel party included 3.5 people. The average length of stay was 3.5 nights, resulting in total spending of $1,082. By contrast, the 533 daytrippers responding to the survey came with an average travel party of 2.9 people and spent $201.60 on their zero-night visit.
Respondents said that they were primarily interested in Jackson County’s offerings as an active outdoor destination, but they were also looking for nightlife, Breedlove said. By better promoting and developing Jackson County’s evening activities, perhaps more daytrippers would be tempted to stay overnight instead.
Boosting wintertime visits
In creating his report on the data, Young Strategies founder Berkley Young told commissioners, he placed considerable emphasis on lodging. Jackson County has 779 hotel and motel rooms in its boundaries, Young said, and while they’re only about 30 percent full around January, during the summer and much of the fall occupancy rates push above 60 percent.
“What that starts telling us is if we focus all of our promotion on summer and leaf seasons, we don’t have much room to grow, because when you hit a number that high what you’re not selling is Monday and Tuesday nights,” said Young.
Those nights are always harder to sell, but if you look to off and shoulder seasons — wintertime, and the August/September slump between the start of school and the beginning of leaf season — there’s plenty of opportunity to increase weekend visitation.
That could be hard, commented Commissioner Boyce Deitz, because some people have a pretty ingrained idea of what winter is like in the mountains.
“People really think it’s almost Antarctic up here,” he said. “Winter can be the most beautiful time.”
One challenge to wintertime visitation, though, is the fact that so many people come up here to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway — and the Parkway is closed for much of the winter, even on days when the weather down in town is pleasantly warm and sunny.
“When they do that,” replied Young, ‘How can we divert the people that show up at one of the crossarms that are down and say, ‘We’ve got all these roads that are just as beautiful drives, that are spectacular, that you can take your scenic drive and stay right here in Jackson County and hopefully end up at lunchtime or dinner at one of our restaurants?”
The TDA has already made adjustments to this year’s marketing plan to reflect the focus on bolstering shoulder season and off-season tourism, said Breedlove. While the organization will still promote leaf season, for example, it won’t do so as vigorously. Instead, it will put more marketing resources behind the winter season. In addition, it will work with Jackson County’s lodging providers to put together packages and specials to entice visitors to give winter a try.
It’s not just visitor spending that stands to grow from improved off-season offerings, said Young. The county could also realize more revenue from part-time residents who tend to vacate during the colder months.
Survey results indicate, said Young, that, “even though they’re not in the habit of coming in the winter, if we give them unique experiences they will come in the winter.”
In order to grow, said Young, Jackson County needs to concentrate on improving the visitor experience around its strong suits.
“Everything is about staying on brand, marketing this active lifestyle brand,” he said. “Then it’s about connecting the visitor with those memorable experiences.”
“Connecting the visitor” could mean developing apps and signage to make it easier for people to find their way between points of interest in the large, rural county. It could also mean improving access to the attractions people are already seeking out — like, for instance, developing parking areas for popular waterfalls that now require precarious roadside parking.
The long term
The survey responses from elected officials, large business owners and local government officials revealed other areas Jackson will need to work on. The surveys, part of a system called the Destination NEXT Future Study, looked at variables affecting the destination’s strength as well as its community support and engagement — 10 variables in each of the two categories — and had respondents rank the importance of each variable and then Jackson’s perceived performance on each variable.
Under destination strength, respondents ranked communication and internet infrastructure as the fourth most important factor but 10th in performance. Perhaps even more strikingly, respondents ranked workforce as the most important factor under community support and engagement but said it was 10th in perceived performance.
“We clearly have some work to do in that,” said Young.
Addressing the issues highlighted through DestinationNEXT won’t be a TDA-specific venture, said Breedlove, but the TDA will support other local entities in attacking them.
Despite these challenges, the study revealed strong enthusiasm from those who vacation or live in Jackson County. Overnight visitors rated Jackson a 4.74 on a five-point scale, daytrippers a 4.62.
Word clouds generated from all types of respondents — daytrippers, overnight visitors, residents and part-time residents — yielded a plethora of positivity. The word “beautiful” loomed large in all four categories, as did “mountains,” “friendly” and “scenic.” The words “relaxing,” “waterfalls” and “nature” were prominent in all categories except for residents.
“It’s all positive,” said Young. “We did this for an urban destination in California, and the words were like ‘murder,’ ‘crime’ and ‘death.’ So people are honest. They’re not sugarcoating it. They genuinely see these very positive attributes for the area.”
Over the next three years, the TDA will be working to meet seven goals laid out in the strategic plan resulting from the study.
These goals include: maintaining and supporting the highest-skilled and most dynamic sales and marketing team; promoting and expanding the active-lifestyle brand based on market research; maintaining/expanding a comprehensive research/tracking program to guide all decisions; ensuring all plans, marking, activities and events are on-brand; connecting visitors with memorable experiences; supporting improved and expanded access to traveler experiences; and encouraging and supporting unique mountain dining, shopping and entertainment that sets Jackson County apart from other mountain destinations.
The TDA has already accomplished much of that first goal with the Sept. 2 hire of Caleb Sullivan to a new sales and marketing manager position. Sullivan, a communication and public relations graduate from Western Carolina University, has been interning with the TDA since January.
“Two through seven are items that our board is going to work on in the coming months,” said Breedlove, work that will be accomplished with the help of committees formed from TDA board members as well as community members.