Town of Lake Lure
Lake Lure Dam forms Lake Lure on which the town of the same name is nestled, on the Rocky Broad River in western Rutherford County. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

In Western North Carolina, as retail stores and restaurants have closed or limited operations for the foreseeable future and some counties have mandated lodging closings with few exceptions, the local hospitality and tourism industry has come to a nearly complete halt.

It’s especially devastating for tourist-dependent communities like Chimney Rock and Lake Lure in Rutherford County. According to Laura Doster, director of The Chamber of Hickory Nut Gorge, the area draws 13 times more tourists in the summer than there are full-time residents.

The impact is forcing county tourism leaders across Western North Carolina to redirect their focus toward helping preserve local businesses, rethink budgets and adopt drastic messaging.

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County tourism leaders react

While Jackson County doesn’t yet have an official count of the number of closed businesses, Nick Breedlove, county Tourism Development Authority executive director, looks to occupancy numbers for insight.

“In March, our occupancy is typically at 60%,” he said. “As of last week, it was 41%, but you have to take into account that the major restrictions didn’t go into effect until March 25, so it’s not really an accurate comparison.”

He estimates the real occupancy numbers to hover around 10%-15% and is predicting little to no revenue through June.

“We’re planning for a worst-case scenario,” Breedlove said, and noted Jackson County is making painful cuts in next year’s fiscal budget.

In response, the Jackson County TDA’s focus has shifted from the visitor to supporting the community.

“At the end of the day, we need the small businesses and restaurants for people to come back to,” he said.

The Jackson County TDA created the website (as well as a corresponding social media hashtag), which provides updated information on area restaurants, including hours and takeout/delivery options, and also serves as a resource hub for local businesses, sharing information such as emergency loan and other relief opportunities.

Asheville, too, reported a 15% occupancy at the Buncombe County TDA meeting on April 2 and doesn’t anticipate an increase until at least July.

The Buncombe County TDA took steps similar to Jackson County’s, creating the Asheville Cares COVID-19 Response website, which in addition to takeout dining listings and resources for businesses, presents a guide to virtual opportunities for experiencing the city, from a 360-degree view of Biltmore Estate to a gallery tour to livestreaming local concerts.

Similarly, the newly created hashtag #AshevilleStrong and corresponding website from local publicity firm Bright Planning is both a call for solidarity and a one-stop shop for purchasing gift cards from Asheville businesses.

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In Brevard and Transylvania County, five economic, business and tourism entities formed a task force to evaluate community needs and action steps.

“While it’s helpful to have all the information available,” explained Clark Lovelace, executive director of the Brevard/Transylvania Chamber of Commerce and TDA, “we learned from doing a survey that businesses wanted instruction on how to. How do I get started? What steps do I need to take? Questions specific to their situation.” So a town hall meeting on April 1 brought together recovery loan experts, accountants, attorneys and the public health director to address those needs.

Lovelace reports the TDA has stopped all advertising and promotions. It’s money, he points out, that will be needed during recovery time and a budgetary step that is echoed by other area tourism entities.

Marketing messaging, too, has taken unforeseen turns.

In early March, “our first message was ‘Proceed with caution,’” Lovelace said.

“But over time, as our public lands closed and things turned more serious, we moved to something we never would’ve imagined being our message: ‘Please don’t come right now. We look forward to having you in the future.’”

The Buncombe County TDA, which had earmarked 60% (or $11.5 million) of its 2020 budget toward advertising Asheville to the world, has frozen its advertising for now and adjusted its strategy.

“We want to inspire people to plan for the future, but our commitment is to our people right now and stabilizing the local economy,” announced Angie Arner, strategy director for the TDA’s contracted marketing agency 360i.

The messaging was unveiled during the April 2 Buncombe County TDA meeting, along with Explore Asheville’s revised slogan: Together in Spirit. The new strategy is to use social media to organically promote local restaurants and businesses and offer inspirational content that could influence future travel.

Looking ahead

Amid the deepening crisis, there is a silver lining for Western North Carolina’s tourism industry.

“Rural destinations will bounce back quicker than cities because leisure will be what people will be seeking after this is all over,” Breedlove said, sharing his takeaway from the many webinars and industry reports he’s been poring over lately.

“We’re well-poised in the mountains. … We’re known for being the Great American Road Trip. We’ve got the Blue Ridge Parkway and a free national park. We have affordable rates. Gas is affordable right now.”

Lovelace, too, sees glimmers of hope, noting that Transylvania County’s new task force will continue. “We’re learning a lot of lessons that will benefit us in the long run,” he said.

In Hickory Nut Gorge, Doster also takes a positive approach. “This COVID-19 is unprecedented, and we are in uncharted waters … but our communities have also weathered other unbelievable situations,” she said. “People are pulling together to get through this, and we are learning new ways to hold each other up.”

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Melissa Reardon is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer based in Buncombe County. Email to contact the Carolina Public Press news team.

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