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Tourism Officials Report Great Summer and Fall in High Country, Some Record Months

By Jesse Wood

Officials in Avery and Watauga counties say that tourism in the High Country this past year has been excellent with double-digit, year-over-year growth. In some cases, occupancy tax numbers for some of the summer months surpassed record territory.

“June saw record numbers. As did July and August,” said Nancy Owen, a town-liaison to the Banner Elk Tourism Development Authority. “Everyone is having huge weekends and even midweek. All the restaurants are slam-packed every weekend. The Best Western Hotel had the best June ever in its existence.”

For year-over-year numbers, Owen said that increases for June, July, August and September were the following: 20, 10, 19, and 10 percent YOY increases. “Even in the spring, which typically can be down time, saw over 10 percent in April and May months,” Owen said.

Owen contributed some of the positive numbers to the unveiling of a new branding and marketing campaign of the Banner Elk TDA more than a year ago. Nearly three years ago, the TDA started working with Charlotte-based marketing consultant Craig Distl.

With the partnership, the Banner Elk TDA created a media tours, a new website, new logo and new mantra: “Escape, Unwind and Indulge.” Owen said the Banner Elk TDA has focused its advertising in places within five hours of the High Country, such as Charlotte, Spartanburg/Greenville and Raleigh.

Owen said the message was for folks to travel to the mountains, put down their smart phones and iPads and enjoy the small-town atmosphere of the Banner Elk, where they can hike, ski, grab a Christmas tree and dine at some of the wonderful restaurants in downtown Banner Elk.

“We want them to escape the hustle and bustle of the city,” Owen said. “That’s what we are aiming for.”

On the other side of the High Country, Blowing Rock TDA Executive Director Tracy Brown said that summer and fall were both “great” in terms of tourism and occupancy tax figures.

Blowing Rock’s occupancy tax totals have increased this fiscal year by more than 14 percent.

“And last year was a record year, so if that tells you anything, we are doing pretty dog-gone good in terms of occupancy tax collection,” Brown said. “We actually have a survey out to our businesses right now that will close probably next week, but ‘word on the street’ is it’s been a great year. The traffic has been really strong, and the sales have been good.”

However, Brown noted that there are concerns for what numbers October and November bring because of the forest fires throughout Western North Carolina, in particular the Horton Fire.

Though the Horton Fire was about 4 to 5 miles as the crow flies from Blowing Rock, Brown noted that media outlets in the Piedmont had headlines like “Blowing Rock is on fire.” Brown said that some cancellations occurred and others likely chose not to stay in Blowing Rock for a smoky Thanksgiving weekend. 

“That weekend in particular probably wasn’t as good as it could have been,” Brown said. “But all in all, it’s been a fantastic year.”

Brown said that the Blowing Rock TDA is continuing its focus on mobile advertising and also working with promoting the High Country with neighboring communities like Banner Elk and West Jefferson.

“As a whole, the more people we bring up here, the better we are all going to do. We think taking that kind of approach is certainly helping,” Brown said.

Watauga County TDA Executive Director Wright Tilley said that Watauga County’s occupancy tax collections are up nearly 13 percent year-over-year and the Town of Boone is up nearly 25 percent.

“Part of [Boone’s increase] has to do with the students housed in hotels from the Standard development,” Tilley said. “But overall, we had a really strong summer and fall.”

Tilley said that tourism in the High Country continues to trend in an upward direction and that even in the face of a presidential election, where historically tourism sees a slowdown.

“We really didn’t experience any of that this year,” Tilley said. “We are encouraged by that and hope the upswing will continue through the winter and spring and on into next summer.”