By David Rogers. March 19, 2016. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Although the U.S.321 widening project continues to pose near-term challenges for travelers to the High Country region, Blowing Rock’s all-important tourism sector showed significant continued growth in 2015, the Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority (TDA) reported last week to the Town’s Board of Commissioners.
Why is this important? The TDA is a quasi-local government agency that is funded by a 6% occupancy tax paid by visitors who stay overnight in Blowing Rock at various lodging establishments. By statute, one-third of the occupancy tax revenue is retained by the Town of Blowing to address infrastructure needs, such as street repaving, parking decks, signage and Town “WiFi” that sustains the attractiveness of Blowing Rock as a tourism destination. The balance is used by the TDA to promote tourism in Blowing Rock through advertising and various other marketing strategies.
In 2015, TDA budget items (some would say investments) included:
- Direct Tourism Promotion – $284,036 (36.65% of budget)
- Tourism Infrastructure – $261,963 (33.80%)
- Administrative – $176,322 (22.75%)
- Support to Organized Groups/Events – $36,154 (4.66%)
- Central Services – $16,583 (2.14%)
Tourism, especially in scenic North Carolina, is a highly competitive industry. Many competing mountain and beach tourist destinations in North Carolina have a TDA for the same purpose, including Asheville, Hendersonville, Atlantic Beach, Boone, Watauga County, New Hanover, Sugar Mountain, Maggie Valley, Murphy, Buncombe County, Mount Airy, Franklin County, Wilkesboro, Granville County, Banner Elk, Transylvania County, Smoky Mountains, Pilot Mountain, Brunswick County and Beech Mountain, among many others.
The U.S. 321 road improvement project will pay dividends later in 2016.
Since the recession low in 2009, occupancy tax revenue to the Town of Blowing Rock recorded an average annual increase of 6.9% over the most recent seven years, aided by a 10.03% jump when looking at 2015 vs. 2014, the 2015 annual report by the TDA.
Longtime Blowing Rock TDA Chairman Kent Tarbutton, who stepped down from his position at the end of 2015, reported to the Town Council, “The Blowing Rock TDA has completed another good year as the economy and the area’s tourism sector continued to advance in 2015. Even with the lack of snow in the last quarter and poor showing in December tourism tax dollars, the year-end demonstrated that the upswing continues, setting new records for Blowing Rock.”
In addition to the impact of weather on what the tourist is able to do in Blowing Rock once he or she gets here, Tarbutton acknowledged that the U.S. 321 widening project continues to have a dampening effect on tourism, but is optimistic about the future once the project is completed.
“I believe that the Highway 321 road improvement project will be paying dividends in 2016 as a new, faster, and well-landscaped route from our major markets will result in an increased traffic flow later in the year.”
The Blowing Rock TDA uses a dynamic mix of promotional strategies to encourage overnight stays in Blowing Rock, according to the 2015 annual report published this week. Earned media coverage included articles in Our State magazine, the North Carolina Official Travel Guide, AAA Go magazine, North Carolina Business, Epicurean magazine, and the New York Times, among others, as well as had a mention on CBS Sunday Morning, a national television show.
Earned media in 2015 was valued at more than $100,000
In total, the annual report indicates, there were 74 confirmed media placements during 2015, representing an estimated “earned media” value of more than $100,000.
Marketing and advertising, or direct tourism promotion, represents the largest segment of the TDA budget. Major advertising campaigns support various events, such as the Blowing Rock Charity Horse Show, Savor Blowing Rock (formerly the Blue Ridge Wine & Food Festival), Winterfest, and the Blowing Rock Music Festival. In 2015, ads were placed in publications like Garden & Gun, U.S. Airways, The Meeting Professional, Winston-Salem Monthly, Charlotte magazine, and Blue Ridge Outdoors, among others.
Co-op advertising allows the TDA to “stretch” advertising dollars “…and make a bigger splash in a given market” the annual report suggests, noting that in 2015 the Blowing Rock TDA partnered with High Country Host and VisitNC on placements with Outside magazine, Pandora and WBTV, among others.
Partnerships are, in fact, a key component of the Blowing Rock TDA’s strategy, including alliances with the Blue Ridge Parkway Association, Inc., Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, VisitNC, National Park Service and High Country Cost.
Partnerships allow the TDA to stretch advertising dollars
Blowing Rock TDA, whose Executive Director is Tracy Brown and Assistant Director is Amanda Lugenbell, operates its Visitor Center inside the lobby of the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum (BRAHM). During 2015 there were (% change vs. 2014):
- 20,417 walk-ins (-3.3%)
- 3,064 phone calls (-5.8%)
- 36,582 guides distributed (+8.1%)
The TDA distributes a “Blowing Rock, North Carolina Guide” that highlights dining, shopping, lodging, and recreation opportunities, including attractions, as well as other content.
Blowing Rock’s top “feeder” markets for tourism include Charlotte, Greensboro-High Point-Winston Salem (the Triad), and Raleigh-Durham-Cary (the Triangle), the annual report outlines.
The TDA’s Facebook page has more than 30,000 fans.
During 2015, the www.blowingrock.com website maintained by the TDA saw a 20% increase in users and a 252% increase in mobile sessions, aided by a “responsive” design that was updated in 2015 to be viewed across all mobile platforms, as well as PCs.
Social media and online strategies have become an important part of the TDA’s promotional program. According to the 2015 annual report, the TDA’s Facebook page currently has over 30,000 fans and Blowing Rock’s Instagram feed has attracted more than 1,300 followers in its first full year (2015). Over 6,000 active contacts comprise the Blowing Rock TDA email database. Eight email blasts were sent in 2015, ranging across seasons, events and topics. The report says that the average open rate for the TDA email blasts is approximately 31%, well above the open rates for travel and tourism mailers that are typical within the industry (16%-21%).
At the end of his introductory letter to the annual report, Tarbutton — an owner of Chetola Mountain Resort & Spa — noted that he is leaving the TDA board “..for a break this year and head on to other boards…,” but thanked the Town Council members for the opportunity to serve “…in a great village with a tremendous spirit of cooperation and unity, and for your support on the majority of the tourism related efforts we have made. It has made my years on the TDA both productive and rewarding.
Current Blowing Rock TDA board members include:
- Dean Bullis, Chairman
- Lianne Mattar
- Rob Dyer
- Doug Matheson
- Lorry Mulhern