Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Destination NC: Travelers head for urban counties, short-term rentals

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The big news in leisure and corporate travel in North Carolina is, well, big.

With large metropolitan areas topping the destinations list, visitor spending rose 15.2% in 2022, reaching a record $33.3 billion, according to a N.C. Department of Commerce report released last August.

Leisure trips are the main influencer.

“From our perspective, leisure travel is back in North Carolina at record levels,” says Wit Tuttle, executive director at tourism and travel’s VisitNC. “Business travel still hasn’t returned to where it was pre-pandemic, but it is on its way. Meetings and events are doing great, but individual business trips have not returned fully yet.”

VisitNC reports visitor spending reached $91 million per day in 2022, its latest figures, and direct tourism employment rose from 178,685 in 2020 to 216,890 that year.

Forty-five of the state’s 100 counties had double-digit increases in visitor spending. Eight of the top 10 – Cabarrus, Davidson, Durham, Forsyth, Guilford, Mecklenburg, Orange and Wake – are regarded as urban or regional city/suburban. Caswell and Granville, the other top 10 counties, are classified as rural.

Asheville is home to Grove Park Inn (above)and a countless number of outdoor activities.

“We know that more than half of our 30.6 million visitors are coming to visit friends and relatives, approximately 52%, which is no surprise when you look at population growth, corporate relocations and overall quality of life,” says Karen Brand, director of communications for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

In Buncombe County, where visitors spent $2.88 billion in 2022, Asheville and the mountains lure travelers seeking a blend of outdoor activities intermingled with restaurants, museums and the performing arts. “Destination storytelling has evolved over the years from focusing on what we have, to what you can do, to who we are as a community,” says Vic Isley, CEO of Explore Asheville. “More and more, we find visitors searching for places and spaces where they feel they belong and that align with their values. That translates into finding personal experiences to engage during shorter or extended periods of time – from a glass-blowing class and a sound healing session to classes at UNC Asheville’s The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute or themed conferences and gatherings.”

Tourism is the top industry on the coast, where the string of Outer Banks barrier islands stretches from the Virginia line 120 miles south to Ocracoke Island and draws 5 million visitors a year, according to the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce. Dare County’s visitor economy generated $1.97 billion in spending in 2022, according to the Island Free Press, with 12,303 tourism-related jobs equaling 45% of all county employment.

Overall numbers could go up. A article, “The 2024 Traveler,” notes that following COVID-19, “Sixty-four percent of global travelers say they aim to reduce other areas of their personal spending to prioritize leisure travel in 2024. This is especially true for Gen Z and Millennials, who also plan to spend more on travel.”

Mecklenburg has the state’s largest number of employees in tourism-related roles, at 33,627, an 18% increase from 2021, and led all counties with $5.3 billion in travel expenditures in 2021, a 31% rise. Charlotte Douglas International Airport counted 53.4 million passengers last year, a 12% jump from its 47.8 million in 2022, according to the airport. In 2020, leisure travel claimed 76% of Charlotte’s business, as business travel dropped to 17%. In 2022, business travel rose slightly to 22%.

“We know nine-in-10 visitors arrive via car to Charlotte, so we are very much a drive market that visitors seek out for a sophisticated urban getaway,” Brand says. “We also know we have a tremendous asset in Charlotte Douglas International Airport, which serves as a vital Southeastern hub, but also recognize that more than 80% of those travelers are connecting and not staying in-market. Because of these reasons, we knew expanding our geographic reach to
new markets in a 400-mile drivable radius would be the next step in our marketing efforts.”

The 2024 Milken Institute Best-Performing Cities Index released in February ranked the Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia metropolitan area as 10th  nationally, a jump from 20th in 2023. The report noted that “This year’s top-performing cities had several common themes: a vigorous and growing high-tech sector, rebounding leisure and hospitality sectors and community resilience.”

In its description of Charlotte, the report states: “Recovery of the hospitality industry has been a major theme of the top-performing cities over the past two years, with many high-performing metro areas benefiting from the rebound of tourism. However, growth in Charlotte has been well-balanced, with the metro area experiencing five-year job growth and wage growth in many segments of its economy.”

Asheville’s natural resources lends itself to experience travel, rounded out by restaurants, performing arts and museums.

Getting There

The N.C. Department of Transportation’s “NC Moves 2050 Plan” explores the state’s transportation vision as it relates to the tourism industry. The report, initiated in 2018, says: “Recently, travel and tourism has received recognition within the federal transportation planning process. Considering tourism in transportation investment decisions can impact economic growth and overall project development.”

An accompanying map shows N.C. sites across the state and whether they’re accessible by plane (airports in Asheville, Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh, Wilmington), train (Charlotte, Gastonia, Greensboro-High Point, Raleigh-Durham-Cary, Greenville) and ferry (coastal attractions in Fort Fisher, Pine Knoll Shores, Kill Devil Hills and along the Outer Banks).

It notes that the state’s growing tourism industry is “inherently dependent on the state’s multimodal transportation system, which delivers visitors to destinations across the state. Providing a vision for future transportation that is inclusive of tourism can foster unified policies and objectives that best serve the needs of the state.”

One topic in which the DOT can work with local tourism offices, officials say, is the construction of EV charging stations.

The 1,300-acre U.S. National Whitewater Center 12 miles west of Charlotte has rafting, rope courses and 50 miles of trails for mountain bikes and hiking.

“On average about 85 to 90% of our visitors are traveling to and within the state for leisure purposes, and the majority of them drive to the state,” says Marlise Taylor, VisitNC’s director of tourism research. “Recent research tells us that travelers interested in North Carolina find unique identity and sense of place important when choosing a destination. Beautiful scenery continues to be the most influential vacation motivator for these travelers.”

Where do travelers stay?

“Probably the biggest change we’re seeing post-COVID is that short-term rentals have become a huge force in the industry,” Tuttle says. “They’ve always been important in the mountains and on the coast, but they have grown across-the-board as many people experienced them for the first time during COVID. And it doesn’t look like they are slowing down.”

Twiddy & Co., a family owned, Outer Banks vacation rental company in Corolla, in Currituck County, says its mission “is to provide superb property management to our homeowners and an exceptional Outer Banks vacation experience to our guests.”

“Twiddy & Co. currently represents over 1,100 private homeowners and welcomes hundreds of thousands of guests annually to the Outer Banks,” says President Clark Twiddy. “For some context, that is about 7,200 bedrooms – nearly as many hotel rooms in Asheville and just under half as many as Greater Raleigh, to put that into perspective. Those are data points, though. More importantly, we have learned over almost a half-century in business that the best way to deliver an experience is one person, detail by detail, over time. Those numbers are all outcomes of individual trust built over time.”

Using AI data-driven information is helping the company with decisions such as pricing strategies for homeowners, mapping how homes have performed in past years and follow-ups with potential guests who may have initiated a reservation but not completed it.

“We’ve found a hybrid approach to work well for us, as it automates certain aspects of our business while maintaining the human element,” Twiddy says. “For example, our AI-powered chatbot helps answer common guest questions, while freeing up our customer service team to focus more on strengthening relationships with guests and owners. We call that combination ‘digitizing Southern hospitality,’ and by leveraging the power of machine learning that would, in many cases, take days or weeks to sort through data, we are able to make quicker decisions based on data-driven insights. 

“Above all, though, we have two charges: Be critical consumers of data on behalf of clients, and to make AI a complement, rather than a competitor, of our team’s own effort.”

Explore Asheville, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, reports visitor spending exceeded 2021 in every category. Of that, $902 million was spent on lodging, according to its fiscal year 2023 annual report. The report notes that “Hotel room night demand grew 7.5% from 2019 to the end of 2022. Vacation rental room night demand grew 62% during the same period.” In 2019, the Asheville City Council passed a hotel moratorium that paused new hotel development for two years, “driving visitor demand into housing stock,” Isley says.

However, Buncombe County’s tourism authority reports a shift for 2023, with hotels declining by 1.9% and short-terms rising by 3.5%.

“Changes in travel behaviors due to the COVID pandemic further impacted that trend,” she says, “as visitors opted for accommodations that allowed them to spread out and occupy their own space, and smaller corporate and executive retreats as well as social-milestone gatherings opted for more intimate settings. Vacation rental growth has continued through 2023.”

Taylor adds: “While most overnight visitors stay in hotels/motels while in the state, vacation rentals continue to be a very popular choice for lodging. These properties continue to have large increases in supply as well. We are seeing a shorter booking window, both in North Carolina and nationwide, so while that can be frustrating for individual properties, it opens up more opportunities to continue to get in front of potential travelers.”

Where do visitors want to go?

“Behind visiting friends and relatives as a visitation driver, people are coming to experience timely things to do,” Brand says. “Whether those are sporting events, festivals, concerts or performances, not to mention mainstays like the thriving culinary and brewery scene, we strive to tap into those seasonal and timely things to do within our marketing efforts to reflect the four-season destination Charlotte has become.”

Tourism growth was not limited to just big cities, the mountains or the coast. Caswell County’s population is about 23,000, yet it ranked in the top 10 for percentage increase in visitor spending in 2022. Its website promotes “the peaceful tranquility of our rolling hills and rural nature while still being within an hour’s drive to the bustling cities of Raleigh, Durham and Greensboro.”

The county promotes its many neighborhood parks and historical sites, along with Hyco Lake for boating, swimming and water skiing, and S.R. Farmer Lake, favored by bass anglers.

Visitor spending in Caswell reached $18.42 million in 2022, according to the Department of Commerce.

The Buncombe area is promoting a cultural emersion experience for 2024, the Asheville Black Cultural Heritage Trail. “The trail passes
by several Black-owned businesses, including Noir Collective, an art gallery and boutique, and Grind AVL, a coffee shop and community space,” Isley says.

“Visitors and groups can explore the trail to learn how Black people from all backgrounds built resilient communities and fostered social change in Asheville. The nation’s oldest Black community center, the YMI Cultural Center, is also slated to reopen from renovations this year. Located downtown, the historic auditorium and event space will be available for private bookings.”


Where next?

THE QUEEN CITY “If you haven’t been to Charlotte in the past three to four years, you haven’t been to Charlotte! The Queen City is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. While the region continues to grow, we remain true to who we are as a destination: Welcoming, inclusive, and full of southern hospitality.” – Karen Brand

The west continuously promotes leisure adventures such as hiking, kayaking, state parks and arts venues, and lists several hundred short-term rentals throughout. New, themed hotels are appearing.

“New lodging options are opening around Asheville,” Isley says, “from intimate boutique spaces in historic buildings like The Blind Tiger Asheville, The Radical Hotel, Zelda Dearest and soon to open Flat Iron Hotel, to modern properties with communal meeting areas, spacious suites and elevated F&B concepts, such as The Restoration Hotel and Embassy Suites Downtown Asheville with a 4,700-square-foot ballroom.”

On the ocean, visitors primarily seek family time, with water activities, shopping, Jockey’s Ridge State Park, five lighthouses and wild horses. “The great majority of our larger groups tend to be extended family,” says Twiddy, whose company’s accommodations extend through Corolla, Duck, Southern Shores, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head.

   Meanwhile, the Charlotte area is already planning for a major visitor impact three years away.

“Our ability to successfully host large, strategic events has earned national and international recognition,” Brand says.“In 2027, Charlotte will host the American Society of Association Executives Annual Meeting & Exposition, considered to be the ‘Super Bowl of meetings.’”

— Kathy Blake is a writer from eastern North Carolina.

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