Main message at conference: Marketing outdoor tourism requires innovation, collaboration

A regional conference addressing outdoor tourism and recreation presented by Western Carolina University on Tuesday, Feb. 28, featured several speakers stressing that success in attracting visitors results from more than just selling the scenery.

Organized and facilitated by WCU’s Hospitality and Tourism Program and held at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in Cherokee, the “Growing Partnerships with Outdoor Tourism and Local Communities” conference drew a record 177 attendees from across North Carolina, as well as eastern Tennessee and northeast Georgia.

The mix of participants included outdoor recreation and travel industry representatives, chamber of commerce officials, economic development leaders, private sector outdoor tourism business owners and operators, tourism development authority officials and regional tourism marketing representatives. Topics included outdoor tourism trends for the coming decade, generational marketing, regional partnerships and the role of tourism in local economic development.

The keynote address was given by Berkeley Young, president of Young Strategies of Charlotte, who spoke on outdoor travel trends and how the future of outdoor adventure tourism fits into market demands. Young has worked with more than 100 travel destinations in 26 states on strategy and planning for the travel industry, and serves on the advisory board for WCU’s Hospitality and Tourism Program.

Marketing amenities and working with regional partnerships for common goals builds economic success, Young said. “Pay attention to all the segments and niches within your market,” he said. “Here in the mountains, there is plenty of whitewater adventure opportunities with rafting and paddle sports, for example. You may even have a kayak strapped to the roof of your car right now. But you know you don’t have a lock on the whitewater market. What’s down the road? What can visitors do when they come off the river? Are you catering to and being competitive for the whole market, from newcomers and first-timers to the occasional participant to the hardcore adventurer? What about the family and friends along for the trip who may not be interested in whitewater?”

Steve Morse, director of WCU’s Hospitality and Tourism Program

Steve Morse, director of WCU’s Hospitality and Tourism Program and event organizer, introduced students in a senior-level tourism business analysis class who have prepared detailed county-specific fact sheets on the impact of tourism on local economies and job creation and the impact of spending by tourists and travelers on the state and local tax base. During a conference break-out session, students manned booths to answer questions on specific counties and economic data.

“This is a tool you can use to show folks who need to know the impact of tourism on economic development, job creation and payrolls,” Morse said. “Tourists are, as I often refer to them, ‘temporary taxpayers’ whose local spending means that local folks will pay less in local ― and state ― taxes,” Morse said. “Tourism jobs in your town can never be outsourced. Plus, tourism creates jobs for more than just that single destination or attraction. Travel and tourism jobs and dollars extend well into the whole community.”

The students’ analysis showed that in 2015 tourism spending in the 26 counties of Western North Carolina was $3.34 billion, a 3.5 percent increase over the previous year, and generated 31,540 jobs that netted $672 million in income and worker paychecks.

Tourism data for Jackson County, home of WCU’s Cullowhee campus, was compiled by Joao Kasprzak, a hospitality and tourism student originally from Curtiba, Brazil. “The Blue Ridge Parkway, the national parks and forests around our area, certainly they play a huge role in Jackson County’s tourism popularity,” he said. “As a seasonal trend, October is the most popular month because of the fall colors. None of this is a surprise, but what may be a surprise is how important tourism can be to the overall economy.”

Kasprzak cited that tourism in Jackson County in 2015 generated $175.92 million in direct tourist spending, 1,710 jobs and produced $41.43 million in worker income. Because of tourism, each of the 26,709 households in the county paid $667 less in local and state taxes, he said.

Christina Parker, a hospitality and tourism student from Dunn, profiled Polk and Mitchell counties. The trend for tourism-related jobs in both counties is on a steady increase, she said. “Polk increased 11.8 percent in 2015 over 2014, which was more than I anticipated. I think the economic impact of tourism is generally underestimated,” she said.

Corporate sponsors for the conference were Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, Duke Energy, Nantahala Outdoor Center and Smoky Mountain Host. This was the most well-attended of the four tourism conferences and part of a series of “spin-off events” from the inaugural LEAD:WNC one-day summit convened in 2014 by WCU to discuss solutions leading to sustainable economic and community development. Launching an annual conference 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.

For more information and a copy of county-specific fact sheets, call 828-227-3386 or email scmorse@wcu.edu.