By Dave Russell
A look at license plates around Jackson County reveals many out of state visitors, but what are they doing here? How long are they staying? What do they like? Dislike? What can we do better?
And in particular, what can we do to lure more visitors during what are currently “down” times?
Those were the questions posed by the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority to Young Strategies, Inc., a Charlotte-based company specializing in research and strategic planning for the travel industry.
The process started with a survey of 3,783 people – 2,358 of whom had visited Jackson County in the last three years, 483 who had not, 505 Jackson County residents and 267 part-time residents, 161 from a neighboring county and nine Cherokee residents.
Berkeley Young, owner of Young Strategies, presented the study’s findings at a meeting in the Jackson County Public Library Community Room Sept. 3.
Travel-related tax relief for Jackson County residents increased from $383.94 per household in 2012 to $462.46 in 2017, Young said. Jackson ranks 26th in the state in visitor spending.
Young pointed to occupancy rates in the county’s 769 hotel rooms as an indicator of tourist numbers and where the county can improve. He used the 60 percent occupancy as an indicator.
“The 60 percent occupancy rate is a very positive indicator of a healthy lodging economy,” TDA Director Nick Breedlove said. “It’s the point at which demand is high enough for new hotel properties to come online.”
Jackson hotel occupancy hits that mark 150 days per year, or 41.1 percent, Young said. On 21 of those days, the rate is between 90-100 percent. Those would be the dates during leaf season and when something is happening at Western Carolina University, he said.
“That’s graduation, homecoming, football games,” he said. “Universities have the power to be huge drivers.”
In the four years from 2014-18, the occupancy rate stayed above or right at 60 percent from the end of May through the beginning of December.
Events are also a big driver of tourism, Young said.
For example, New Year’s Eve, the Outhouse Races in Sapphire Valley, WCU open house and graduation weekends, Greening Up the Mountains, Sylva’s Brew Hop, and the opening day of fishing season all surpassed the 60 percent threshold in the early months of the year.
For those not visiting for a WCU or other function, Jackson’s mountains and streams were the biggest draw.
“Both daytrip and overnight visitors report natural and scenic beauty followed by outdoor recreation and parks as the most important attributes when selecting a getaway,” Young said. “You have the things people are looking for. Overnight visitors come to Jackson County to immerse themselves in the local experience by partaking in local, unique dining, driving and sightseeing, shopping, waterfalls and hiking.”
Overnight visitors were asked to check a list of attractions they visited while traveling in Jackson County.
The top five were:
The Blue Ridge Parkway (56.3 percent).
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (47 percent).
Biltmore Estate (28 percent).
State Parks, such as Gorges (23.7 percent).
Nantahala Outdoor Center (22.9 percent)
Among daytrippers attending events, the Dillsboro Lights and Luminaries scored highest, at 11.3 percent, followed by Mountain Heritage Day and the Cashiers Leaf Festival, both at 10.5 percent.
On a scale of one to five, with five being the most satisfied, overnight visitors rated Jackson 4.74; daytrippers 4.62.
The work ahead is to focus on what Young called the “shoulder seasons,” when tourism numbers drop.
Leaf season doesn’t need more promotion, Young said.
TDA Director Nick Breedlove pointed to Valentines Day promotions, possibly working with hoteliers and restaurants to offer special packages as a way to bring visitors in the quieter months.
The strategic plan, designed to guide the TDA for the next three years, lays out seven directives:
Maintain and support the highest-skilled and most dynamic sales and marketing team.
Promote and expand the active-lifestyle brand based on market research.
Maintain and expand a comprehensive research/tracking program to guide all decisions. Connect visitors with memorable experiences, including improved cellular and Wi-Fi service.
Support improved and expanded access to traveler experiences, such as better access to trails and waterfalls.
Encourage and support unique mountain dining, shopping and entertainment that sets Jackson County apart from other mountain destinations.
Focus all plans, marketing and events on-brand – deliver on the active mountain lifestyle experience.