Although tourists flock to the Western North Carolina mountains in the fall for the annual burst of orange, yellow and red foliage, this time of year there’s another color on the minds of students studying hospitality and tourism at Western Carolina University. That color is green, as in the color of money.
Students in a senior-level “Tourism Strategies” class taught by Steve Morse, economist and director of the Hospitality and Tourism Program in WCU’s College of Business, are predicting even more “green” this fall, as their analysis of October travel and tourism trends portends an increase in hotel occupancy rates across 21 WNC counties.
The students analyzed data supplied by Smith Travel Research, a leading source of information for the hospitality industry, to develop the second annual “October Tourism Forecast for Western North Carolina.”
In addition to travel data from previous years, the students’ forecast also is based on declining gasoline prices, new tourism marketing campaigns by the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau and by Smoky Mountain Host promoting WNC as an outdoors destination, improving economic conditions and “pent-up travel demand,” Morse said.
“The federal government shutdown during the first 15 days of October in 2013 resulted in little growth in tourism last year because of the closure of campgrounds and visitor centers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway,” he said. “Our analysis indicates those who did not travel to the mountains last October may have a stronger desire this year to feed their fall foliage yearning.”
Another factor, Morse said, is the improving outlook for leaf-lookers in the mountains, as WCU fall foliage forecaster Kathy Mathews, associate professor of biology, says the chances are increasing for a brilliant fall color season this year. “Brighter colors should attract even more tourists this year,” Morse said.
In the tourism study, the WCU students divided 21 WNC counties into five groups; examined the total number of hotel rooms sold and the overall occupancy rates for October 2013; compared weekday and weekend occupancy rates from last October; and determined the average change in the number of hotel nights sold for October during the previous three years. The students’ predictions, by region:
Region 1 – Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon counties: A 2.7 percent increase in October 2014 tourism compared to last October.
Region 2 – Haywood, Jackson, Transylvania and Swain counties: A 3.3 percent increase in October 2014 tourism compared to last October.
Region 3 – Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Caldwell, Watauga and Wilkes counties: A 2 percent increase in October 2014 tourism compared to last October.
Region 4 – Burke, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell and Yancey counties: A 1.7 percent increase in October 2014 tourism compared to last October.
Region 5 – Buncombe and Henderson counties: A 3.7 percent increase in October 2014 tourism compared to last October.
Ty Marion, a senior from Hendersonville majoring in hospitality and tourism, said the project provided a new perspective on the annual fall color show. “Since the leaves start changing colors in early October and continue for the rest of the month, tourists travel from all over, which increases everything from the demand of hotel rooms to revenue,” said Marion, a 2007 graduate of East Henderson High School and the son of Jim and Lisa Marion.
“I think this study is important because many people overlook how much of an impact is made from fall foliage,” he said. “Being from Hendersonville, I never thought much of the yearly change, but from a business standpoint October is the month you wait an entire year for. Tourists flock to see the colors of the leaves, which means they stay at a hotel, spend money in local businesses and help our economy.”
The “October Tourism Forecast for Western North Carolina” is part of a series of reports about travel trends in the mountain region to be provided by Morse and his students. For more information about WCU’s Hospitality and Tourism Program, visit the website hospitalityandtourism.wcu.edu. For a copy of the tourism forecast report, call 828-227-3386.