By Jessica Isaacs | [email protected]
Photography by Todd Bush.
Escape. Unwind. Indulge.
That’s the new tagline adopted by the Banner Elk TDA, and that’s exactly what you can expect to do when you visit the charming mountain town.
Tucked away in the hills of Avery County, this peaceful community is home to less than 1,100 full-time residents. But don’t let its small size fool you — it’s also home to a four-year university, close to popular attractions, located between two of the region’s best known ski resorts and offers an array of options for shopping, dining, lodging and outdoor adventures.
The town has long been known in the southeast as a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life; but today, thanks to the work of its Tourism Development Authority, Banner Elk is reaching new markets through a comprehensive new branding strategy.
Banner Elk TDA
The Banner Elk TDA is a five-member board of local leaders who work year-round to show out-of-towners the beauty, convenience and value of a getaway to this secluded walkabout village.
It’s funded entirely by tax dollars spent on overnight stays in the area, which are used to promote the town in other cities and states.
“It’s funded 100 percent by occupancy tax dollars,” said Nancy Owen, an administrative employee for the town who serves as a liaison for the TDA. “Every time someone spends the night in the town limits, in a bed and breakfast, hotel, rental unit, cabin, condo, house or whatever, they’re charged an occupancy tax of six percent.
“The innkeeper is acting as a tax keeper. They collect that tax and then turn it over to the town. The money is to be spent on promoting tourism in Banner Elk.”
TDA members, town employees and just about anyone who’s ever been there will tell you that Banner Elk is a special place. Over the years, it has organically earned regional attention as a popular escape from the hubbub of life in nearby metropolitan cities and, in the summer, from the sweltering off-the-mountain heat.
However, the board members, who are already busy with important roles in the community, recently recognized a need for the TDA to step up its game. A few months ago, it hired a team of marketing and design professionals to help up the ante and tap into new markets.
“We have tried many in-house attempts at doing this in the past, but everybody that works on the board does so in a volunteer capacity,” said TDA Chairman Mike Dunn. “We all have jobs of our own that require our attention, so nobody really had the full-time attention to go out there and do what a professional can do.”
Under the guidance of a new marketing consultant, the team realized that an overhaul of its branding strategy would require an array of advertising campaigns and outreach projects, as well as the development of a solid online presence to give out-of-towners easy access to information on the town.
It would require hard work and careful attention to detail on a variety of ventures, but the board knew that alone wouldn’t be enough. They agreed that each undertaking needed to incorporate the same modern design elements and the same primary objectives in order to create a truly cohesive brand.
The first step in developing a new strategy was to create a website dedicated entirely to promoting tourism in Banner Elk. The TDA hired Asheville’s Boomer Sassmann and his team from Big Boom Design to bring its vision to fruition, and the new site, BannerElk.com, went live about three months ago.
“The town has never had a site like this before, and you had to go to the Chamber of Commerce to get information about it online,” Owen said. “The Chamber is great, but we are 100 percent tourism-driven, and we needed a website to fill that void. This site is for any visitor who needs information on Banner Elk or any other events going on in the High Country.”
The new site features a complete directory of lodging facilities, restaurants, local events, activities, maps and helpful information on organizations including the Banner Elk Chamber of Commerce, the local government and the nearby Lees-McRae College.
BannerElk.com features a full gallery of images captured by local photographer Todd Bush, who has been hired as part of the TDA’s professional team to document the people, the businesses and the natural beauty that can be found within the town.
Changing the Game
With the new site up and running, the team launched a comprehensive new advertising campaign designed to reach target audiences in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida that are within a five- to six-hour drive from the High Country.
The TDA adopted its new slogan — “Escape. Unwind. Indulge.” — to help potential visitors better understand the type of experience they can expect from a trip to Banner Elk.
“I came down here almost 15 years ago from the metropolitan area of Washington D.C. and I worked in that rat race for most of my life,” Dunn said. “Coming down here to a much smaller, quieter, friendlier place, for me, was a dramatic change. It can change your outlook on life, on people and on everything else.
“Even if it’s just for a weekend, it’s an opportunity to refresh and renew.”
The team also hired Greensboro’s Hue & Tone Creative to create the fresh, new design you’ll now find in the TDA’s logo, on its website and throughout its advertising spots.
“We saw the need for a comprehensive identity,” said Owen. “We needed a new logo, a new tagline. We want people to know that our branding is cohesive when they see an ad for Banner Elk.”
The TDA is also working closely with VisitNC.com, the state tourism website, to develop a stronger online presence.
A Culinary Hot Spot
The Banner Elk TDA and its new team are also promoting the town’s diverse selection of restaurants, wineries and breweries.
“We’re marketing Banner Elk as the culinary hot spot of the High Country,” Owen said. “To be such a small little town, we offer 13 restaurants and 11 of them are open year-round. It’s quite the phenomenon, really, and they cover such a wide range of foods — Mexican, Japanese, Italian, true American, Cajun and more.”
Thanks to the work of the TDA, the town was recently featured in the January-February edition of Epicurean Charlotte Food & Wine Magazine. The six-page spread features many of the town’s restaurants, the people behind them and some of their best dishes.
“Whether you’re seeking five-star white linen dining, upscale casual cuisine, down-home cooking or delicatessen favorites, Banner Elk has something special to offer,” the article reads.
Epicurean Charlotte Publisher/Editor Linda Seligman traveled to the High Country with her writer to check out the local restaurant scene before the article was published, and they worked hand-in-hand with the TDA while they were in town.
“It was fabulous and Nancy was great. I couldn’t have asked for better — and trust me, I work with a lot of them,” Seligman said. “It had been many, many years since I’d been there, and I had forgotten what a quaint little town you guys have up there.”
Seligman agreed that the town’s culinary variety paired with its convenient location make Banner Elk a perfect getaway for folks in the greater Charlotte area.
“The restaurant scene was the whole reason we did this. I just couldn’t believe the culinary scene in that area — I was quite impressed,” she said. “You’re just two-and-a-half hours away and there’s quite a few skiers in our area. That’s why we targeted Banner Elk — we just felt it was the perfect venue for the Charlotte market.”
With a purposeful, unified brand an a fresh new marketing campaign underway, the Banner Elk TDA looks forward to drawing in a new crowd of visitors who are sure to love the town’s charm and endless amenities.
“You can leave your high-pressured city job and come to Banner Elk to enjoy the food and unplug from your phone and the day-to-day bustle of your life,” Owen said. “You can escape all of that in the mountains and reconnect with yourself.”
Dunn said he hopes the new campaign will give the town better exposure in out-of-state markets.
“It’s an opportunity to reach out to people that don’t know we’re here,” he said. “They don’t know what it’s like to come up here and experience the hospitality and that fresh, clean mountain air.”
Banner Elk TDA members are busy folks for sure, but they make time to invest in the future of the town because they love the community and the people so much. In fact, on top of the hard work they’re putting into this new branding strategy, they’re also setting aside funds to bolster local programs and events, including the recent Christmas in the Park events and the annual Woolly Worm Festival.
“I remember driving the moving truck down here when I moved from D.C. As I looked at the mountains coming down U.S. Highway 421, I was just thinking, ‘Wow,’” Dunn said. “It’s a special place and a neat place to go. There’s something magnetic about this area, and people kind of get hooked on it.”
The professionals working alongside TDA members say the cohesive new brand and the success it’s already seeing are a testament to the organization’s leadership.