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Consultant: County should rebrand tourism promotion

Berkeley Young presents a report on Henderson County tourism. Berkeley Young presents a report on Henderson County tourism.

Henderson County should amp up its tourism sales pitch, target a younger segment of the market and train its employees and Visitors Center volunteers to sell sell sell, a consultant says.

Consultant Berkeley Young, of Young Strategies of Charlotte, on Tuesday spent 95 minutes showing a 100-slide report to the Tourism Development Authority, the public agency with the mission of getting people from near and far to visit Hendersonville and spend money. The TDA has an annual budget of $1.32 million. Just over $1 million of that comes from 4.5 cents of the county's 5 percent occupancy tax; a half cent of the hotel tax proceeds —  $125,000 to $150,000 a year — goes to the Heritage Museum.
Young recommended that the county hire an ad agency to create a new brand image and redesign its marketing materials. The TDA also should restructure its staff to focus more on group sales and marketing and it should develop a new advertising strategy for both traditional and digital media, the consultant said.
Tourism development agencies can spend money on inviting people to the party or throwing the party, he said. The TDA runs the annual Garden Jubilee, the unofficial kickoff on Memorial Day weekend of Hendersonville's busy festival season, and the Friday night Music on Main series.
"You've got a lot of emphasis on giving the party," Young said. "We need to spend more on inviting people to the party. We got to get those room nights up."
Room nights are the holy grail of tourism because visitors who spend one or more nights spend money on shopping, dining and entertainment. Hendersonville's mix of tourism is tilted a little too much toward the older baby boomers and "the silent generation" — ages 71 to 85 — who tend to be thrifty in their spending.
"Right now we're doing really great in the 60s and 70s," he said. "We just want to push that a little more into the 40s and 50s."
"You don't want to compete with Asheville and try to be edgy," he said. "But at the same time you're a long way from 'down home.'"
Hendersonville has sophisticated restaurants and upscale shops, he pointed out, and is not just a hiking boots and backpacking kind of destination.


The board took no action on the report. Young said he would come back next month and take questions and help the board embark on the next steps for a new strategy.
The report contained numerous other facts and survey results:

  • Henderson County has plenty of hotel, resort and bed and breakfast rooms. Sixty-three percent of the county's rooms are in hotels at one of the three I-26 interchanges. "Buncombe County has over 7,000 rooms and they're building a lot of luxury products," he said. "We have to be concerned because they could be skimming the cream off your crop and leaving you with the discount visitor."
  • The figures for Flat Rock Playhouse or "live theater," while not among the largest factors drawing people here, substantiated a sizable economic impact of the theater. The report had no specific figures for the value of the Playhouse as a draw. At 7 percent of respondents, the Playhouse ranked fourth as the reason for their visit behind general vacationing, visiting family and friends and outdoor recreation. The four-day Apple Festival was mentioned by 2.1 percent. If Playhouse visits accounted for 7 percent of the total tourism spending, its impact would be $14.6 million, which is more than the $10 million the Playhouse claims.
  • Among visitor activities, shopping ranked first — typical of any destination, Young noted — followed by walking downtown and sightseeing. Live theater ranked 14th, behind buying fresh apples, which ranked 11th. "Apples are more than a crop," he said. "That's your heritage." Visiting wineries was mentioned by about 2 percent of respondents. "I'm impressed that this is as strong as it is as new as it is," Young said.
  • Once they had been here, tourists left with a positive impression. Ninety percent said they would come back and 99 percent said they would recommend that others visit. "So they love you, they want to come back," he said. "Let's just sell the experience."
  • Geographically, Henderson County's natural markets are South Carolina and Tennessee. The problem with luring the Tennessee traveler is "they're going to drive past a lot of places that have the same product as you," he said. From South Carolina, on the other hand, "all these folks will come straight up and we're the first place they get to."
  • Occupancy rates underscore Henderson County's seasonal nature. They drop to as low as 38 percent in January and climb to 60 percent in July. "Anything below 55 percent is painful to a hotel," he said. Occupancy rates nationally and here suffered greatly from the recession. Nationally they fell from 63 percent in 2007 to 55 percent in 2009, rebounding to 61 percent in 2012. Locally, they sent from 57 percent in 2007 to 48 percent in 2009 to 50.7 percent in 2012.
  • Although it funds the TDA, occupancy tax revenue ought not be viewed as a measure of success, he said. Hotels may be driving up rates and thus paying more when they send in the check for 5 percent of their room rentals. "What was the demand this October and how did it compare to last October," he said. "Demand needs to be your obsession. How many room nights did we sell?"