The tourism industry for Buncombe County has brought in just 7% of what it normally would in the month of April. That means the county has lost over $150-million dollars in visitor spending this month due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a figure which will only grow as stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements head into May.
Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau President & CEO Stephanie Pace Brown says "it's a fairly reasonable assumption" the losses will top $300-million as the effects of the pandemic linger through May. The current statewide stay-at-home order for North Carolina lasts until May 8th. Even if it is not extended past that date, the three-phased approach Governor Roy Cooper outlined last week for re-opening the state's economy would still among other requirements have a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people for a minimum of two weeks. Speaking Tuesday during a Leadership Asheville forum which was moved online due to the pandemic, Brown said April is already a tough month for tourism-dependent businesses, as it comes after the first three months of the year when visitation to the Asheville area is at its lowest.
During the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority's regular meeting Wednesday, officials began to outline what the advertising campaign for the area could look like once visitors can return to the region. Paid advertising has been suspended, and instead the Asheville CVB is focusing on social media posting of its new messaging on its website, which uses the catchphrase 'Together In Spirit.' Virtual tours of the area's biggest destinations are offered, as well as links to funds and programs to support workers out of a job. Whenever paid ad campaigns can start again will be up to the re-opening plans set forth by state of local leaders says Brown. "The decision of when to begin to both promote Asheville for future visitation and when to welcome people back is a public health conversation," she said during Wednesday's TDA meeting.
The money to advertise the Asheville area as a tourist desitination is possibly the biggest political hot-potato in the city. The TDA uses money collected from the county's hotel occupancy tax for paid advertising, and community groups have long criticized the funding formula used to do that as not prioritizing residents who live in the city year-round. Supporters of changing that had hoped the General Assembly in its short session this year would approve changes, but the pandemic has pushed that to the backburner. But lawmakers this week in Raleigh will take up a bill that would set aside $5-million from the TDA's Tourism Product Development Fund to be awarded as grants to businesses 'that promote tourism and patronage of lodging facilities' in Buncombe County. Henderson County Republican Senator Chuck Edwards is the sponsor of the bill. Eligible busineses could apply for up to $50-thousand to be used to restart operations once it is determined to be safe to do so.