WCU conference highlights economic importance of tourism, downtowns in WNC

Creating vibrant downtowns and a robust economy for North Carolina’s 26 westernmost counties was the focus of the LEAD:Tourism conference held at Western Carolina University on Tuesday, Nov. 10.

Presented by the WCU College of Business and held at the Ramsey Regional Activity Center, the conference drew some 100 attendees from across Western North Carolina, including government officials, business leaders and cultural heritage representatives. Topics included strategies for downtown revitalization, best practices for small town main street development, turning local assets into community pride and tourist spending, and the role of creative arts in downtowns.

WCU students’ analysis showed that in 2014 tourist spending in the 26-county area was $3.23 billion, a 4.9 percent increase over 2013, and generated more than 30,000 jobs that netted $623 million in worker paychecks.

“Tourism jobs in your town can never be outsourced,” said Steve Morse, director of WCU’s Hospitality and Tourism Program and organizer of the conference. “Those are local jobs that stay local.”

Morse presented the “Tourism’s Economic Impact on Western North Carolina 2014” report, containing detailed county-specific analysis on the impact of tourism on local economies. The report is designed to illustrate the impact of spending of tourists and travelers on the tax base and job creation throughout the region.

The report was compiled by a senior-level tourism business analysis class in hospitality and tourism taught by Morse. The students introduced themselves from stage to attendees, and later manned booths to answer questions on specific counties and data. Research conducted by the U.S. Travel Association for North Carolina’s tourism marketing group, Visit NC, was summarized by the hospitality and tourism majors as part of WCU’s emphasis on engaged learning activities that provide students with real-world experiences that also assist local communities.

The top five counties for tourist spending in WNC were Buncombe, $963 million; Henderson, $246 million; Watauga, $225 million; Swain, $186 million; and Jackson County, $171 million.
Also during the event, tourism and main street development experts discussed maintaining hometown authenticity while promoting an area to visitors. Authenticity was a repeated topic throughout the conference.

“The question is, who are you really as a community, what is authentic for you and how do you maintain that authenticity while you make tourism work for you?” said Becky Anderson, moderator of a panel discussion on best practices in tourism and small town main street development. Anderson was the founder of Handmade in America, a nonprofit community and economic development group that worked for a sustainable, thriving economy in WNC for 22 years until this July. She related how small towns she had worked with often received ideas and proposals for downtown themes, local festivals and seasonal events that, no matter how well-intentioned, “were not a fit” for the community.

“Things don’t work if they are not authentic,” Anderson said.

Keynote speaker Berkeley Young of Young Strategies, a Charlotte-based firm that specializes in research and strategic planning for the travel industry, also spoke about authenticity and its importance in attracting tourists to communities.

“There may be similarities, but there is no other town or county like yours,” he said. “So the challenge is to stand out to the visitor and determine why you stand out to them, what brought them here and why they will spend their money here.”

That starts with research, Young said, and continues with marketing. It means planning seasonal events based on local culture, local history and local arts and music. It is built upon partnerships and regional cooperation, “and Western North Carolina is a shining example of that,” he said.

The conference was sponsored by Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, Duke Energy, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, Nantahala Outdoor Center and Smoky Mountain Host.

The conference was the third in a series sparked by the inaugural LEAD:WNC summit to discuss solutions leading to sustainable economic and community development. Holding such conferences of regional leaders and thinkers to work collaboratively on solving regional issues was among the pledges made by WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher in his March 2012 installation address.

The next tourism conference will have a focus on outdoor adventure, outdoor recreation and public lands, Morse said, with date and location for the spring 2016 event to be determined.

For a copy of the “Tourism’s Economic Impact on Western North Carolina 2014” report or county-specific fact sheets, call 828-227-3386 or email scmorse@wcu.edu.