By Nathan Ham
Visitors flocked to the High Country in record numbers in the late summer and fall according to the latest occupancy tax data released by the Boone and Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authorities.
“Our August, September, and I’m certain our October numbers are going to be the best we’ve ever had in terms of occupancy tax revenue,” said Tracy Brown, Executive Director of the Blowing Rock TDA. “We’re hearing from some of our retailers that this is the best they’ve ever seen in the last couple of months. We did not see that coming, particularly when we had hotels and lodging facilities that were virtually closed, but once they started opening back up, folks were ready to get out of the house and go somewhere safe.”
Brown said that the major bounce-back began in August, although there were some signs of it starting in late July.
“Our traffic was over the top. We had folks that were ready to get out and explore, hike, and enjoy some fresh mountain air. This area has always been looked at as a safe place where you can get out and find wide-open space and you are free to roam. That has driven a lot of this traffic that we have seen,” Brown said. “When we really started to see the rebound in August, it was substantial. We were thrilled to see it.”
When COVID-19 first hit North Carolina and the High Country, the occupancy tax revenues in April were down 99% in Blowing Rock. As the state began to slowly reopen, hotels and short-term rental properties had to adjust to a new way of doing business with limited occupancy numbers and new protocols to keep rooms and common areas clean and sanitized.
“It has made it tough for hotels to try and turn these rooms over with the added procedures. Guests are realizing it and are very understanding and appreciative,” Brown said.
Blowing Rock was able to reopen to 100% occupancy at the end of May. Now all Watauga County short-term rentals, including in Downtown Boone, are able to be open at 100% occupancy now that North Carolina has entered Phase 3 of its reopening plan.
Brown noted that restaurants in Blowing Rock are still struggling with business due to limited seating availability.
“I just wish we had more occupancy in our restaurants so that they could fill those seats and that our visitors didn’t have to wait considerably for a table,” he said. “The staff has been out through a lot at different restaurants and they’re having to work really hard trying to keep people happy. That has been a challenge within itself.”
The story is a similar one in Boone, although it did take hotels a little longer to make it back to pre-COVID numbers.
“The Town of Boone chain hotels have been slower to come back. We had six months of being in the red in Boone from March through August. Our lowest point was April when we were down almost 77% in occupancy tax revenue. We finally came back into the black in September and we were up a little over six percent from last September,” said Wright Tilley, Boone TDA Executive Director. “Not having the typical home football game crowd coming in and without having Woolly Worm (Festival) and Valle Country Fair, we were a little concerned about revenue, but the second and third weeks of October were off the charts in terms of the number of cars, visitors and traffic.”
Areas in the more rural parts of Watauga County saw a quicker boost in revenue thanks to Airbnb and Vrbo short-term rentals. People felt safer being outside of town and having a house or condo to themselves.
“The county numbers for the unincorporated areas of Watauga County have done really well over the summer. That is mostly driven by cabin and condo rentals via Airbnb, Vrbo, and our local rental management companies. All of that has been up since June. We have seen increases ranging from 40% to 77%, which is amazing,” Tilley said.
Both Brown and Tilley acknowledged that a lot of visitors that were here on extended stays were able to work remotely and school-aged children were able to complete their school work online, so coming to the High Country allowed families to enjoy a vacation but also continue their work as if they were still in their homes.
“I think that drove the county numbers up. Families could come and rent a house or cabin up here and work or school remotely instead of being just a weekend stay. I’m guessing that our average length of stay was extended too,” Tilley said. “There was definitely an interest to get out of the larger urban areas to more outdoor and isolated areas.”
The TDA budget for the upcoming fiscal year 2020-21 started on July 1 for both the Watauga County TDA and the Boone TDA. Tilley says that the new budget was built with a 40 percent reduction in occupancy tax revenue. He said most other TDAs were building off reductions anywhere from 25 to 50 percent.
“When the pandemic hit, we worked remotely basically from March until the beginning of June. We cut our fiscal media plan between $150,000 and $200,000 out of our media and advertising plan for the new fiscal year,” said Tilley. “We could start adding some of that back in, but given the demand and what we are seeing right now, we are holding on to that. There is not a need for us to put more of that out there right now.”
Tilley said he is “cautiously optimistic” about ski season, thanks in large part to efforts from the North Carolina Ski Association to implement their plan for the upcoming winter season called “Be Well Sky Well,” which the TDA has endorsed. Much of these new protocols involve ski resorts transitioning a lot of what they do to touch-free and online such as lift tickets and equipment rental.
“We came roaring back and had a great summer, a great fall and we are hopeful that we will have a solid ski season. I think what hurts the most right now is losing the holiday events and festivities,” Tilley said. “We are still going to have people coming up and getting their Christmas trees. We are grateful that Tweetsie is going to be able to open in a limited capacity with Tweetsie Christmas. I know that the demand for those tickets has gone well. We think the demand for rental cabins and houses for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the week between Christmas and the New Year is going to be good numbers.”