Study predicts fall tourism increase in Smokies region

Although many of us still may be shaking the sand out of our bathing suits from summer’s final trip to the beach over Labor Day weekend, a few students and faculty members at Western Carolina University have turned their attention to autumn and the mountains.

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 a noticeable increase in hotel occupancy rates in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park gateway counties of Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee.

The students analyzed October hotel room demand trends since 2009 using data supplied by Smith Travel Research, a leading source of information for the hospitality industry, to develop the third annual October tourism forecast for 21 counties in WNC. New for this year’s forecast is the inclusion of three counties on the Tennessee side of the park.

“The class took into account factors that influence travel demand during October in the area including dramatically falling gas prices, an expanding array of fall festivals and events, new attractions and venues, new destination marketing and promotion programs, and, best of all, predictions of a vibrant fall color show in the Smoky Mountain and Blue Ridge region this year,” Morse said.

“Gas prices in the Southeast are about 22 percent lower now than at this time last year,” he said. “The lower gas prices in 2015 means that the average family has an additional $1,100 to spend in disposable income that they are not spending on gas.”

Among the fall foliage forecasters cited by the students is Kathy Mathews, WCU associate professor of biology, who is calling for one of the best leaf-looking seasons in recent years because of drier-than-normal conditions in 2015.

In the tourism study, the WCU students divided 21 WNC counties into five groups, adding a group for the Tennessee counties. The students examined the total number of hotel rooms sold and the overall occupancy rates for October 2014; 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 for North Carolina regions:

Region 1 – Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon counties: A 5.2 percent increase in October 2015 tourism compared to last October. Among the reasons for the increase, the students said, is the opening this fall of the new Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino in Murphy.

Region 2 – Haywood, Jackson, Transylvania and Swain counties: A 4.4 percent increase in October 2015 tourism compared to last October. Among the factors, the students said, are increased entertainment options this fall at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort and three home football games at WCU this October.

Region 3 – Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Caldwell, Watauga and Wilkes counties: A 5 percent increase in October 2015 tourism compared to last October. Contributing factors include proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway coupled with falling gas prices, the students said.

Region 4 – Burke, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell and Yancey counties: A 5 percent increase in October 2015 tourism compared to last October. The students again cited proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway and cheaper gasoline as reasons behind the expected increase.

Region 5 – Buncombe and Henderson counties: A 4.2 percent increase in October 2015 tourism compared to last October. “A 4.2 percent increase for this October over last year is a very significant uptick for an already-strong tourism market in the Buncombe and Henderson areas,” Morse said. “They have launched new destination advertising and promotions programs and have extended their media reach into new feeder cities, with an increase in festivals and events around the growing craft beer industry.”

The students’ predictions for the three Tennessee counties:

Steve Morse initiated a study among his students to predict regional tourism trends for this fall.

Steve Morse initiated a study among his students to predict regional tourism trends for this fall.

Sevier County: A 4.2 increase in October 2015 tourism compared to last October. The students cited the strong tourism market in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville supplemented by new attractions and restaurants including Dollywood’s new four-star family resort hotel called DreamMore, the Jimmy Buffet-themed Margaritaville hotel and restaurant in Pigeon Forge and the Rocky Top Sports World complex in Gatlinburg.

Blount and Monroe counties: A 4.1 increase in October 2015 tourism compared to last October. Contributing factors include the expected vibrant fall colors and lower gas prices, prompting more travel along Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and along the Cherohala Skyway from Tellico Plains in Tennessee to Robbinsville in North Carolina.

The October tourism forecast is part of a series of reports about travel trends in the mountain region 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 or email Steve Morse at scmorse@wcu.edu.