To the Editor:
I read with great interest your recent column about the tourism industry in Western North Carolina. As a result of your insightful comments about the need for tourism research and based on my years of working as a consultant in the tourism industry in the area of destination development, I want to offer two suggestions for the industry.
An easy and inexpensive way for any entity in the region to get valid tourism information “in real” time is to use an intercept interview survey conducted by college students and/or senior volunteers. All that is needed is for a focus for the survey to be defined, e.g., why you selected this area, what you want most from a tourism visit, your rating of the value/friendliness of the destination, etc.
The survey could then be developed with the help of a professor/class in marketing or statistics at an institution such as WCU, HCC or SCC OR all three.
Then the interview team (with proverbial clipboards in hand) fan out across the region for an extended period of time or on a regular cycle, i.e., the first week of every third month to adjust for seasonality until a few hundred surveys have been completed. Merchants could provide discount/free coupons as an incentive for the person to take 3 to 5 minutes to answer the survey conducted by the volunteer interviewer.
This is not brain surgery. They could just walk the streets of Sylva, Dillsboro, Waynesville, etc. and/or attend events such as art/craft shows, Folkmoot and/or visit local campgrounds and/or just be stationed at the visitor centers in these respective communities and ask folks who stop to get visitor information a few (8 to 12 questions) and move on.
If a standardized survey to be used in the intercept interviews was developed, it could also be added to Web sites of entities in the region, made available at the front desk of hotels, given at restaurants at check out time, etc. An incentive could be offered to complete the survey, i.e. name entered into a contest for a free ... whatever.
In short order and with little money, the tourism industry would have a baseline of valid statistical data that could be culled through for insights that might drive change in how the destination presents itself to the nation. If the entities who launch this effort make a long term commitment to making data-driven decisions about how best to market WNC as a region, we could have a leg up on most any other area of the Southeast that does not have a single focus.
Even without this type of “real time” research, there is another golden opportunity the region could leverage and the target market is easy to find. It is called “grand” tourism by some, not unlike developing a specific niche market such as eco-tourism, Grand tourism is a focus on GRANDparents. Free demographic data on the aging Baby Boomers travel preferences is everywhere. Guess what they want... to enjoy time with grandchildren.
However, amplified by the recession, these same millions of Boomer grandparents are looking to get out in nature, have a safe destination, be in close proximity to a wide variety of activities appropriate for grandchildren, and save money. They want value for their vacation dollar. Just think of WNC as a single destination, depending on the time of the year... we have whitewater rafting, fly-fishing, mountain climbing, festivals, Corvettes, Harleys, train rides, snow skiing, the Biltmore, WNC Nature Center, shopping, museums, the highest mountain in the Eastern U.S., Ghost Town, REAL Cherokee Indians, waterfalls. All of these “themed” parks are less than a two-hour ride in most any direction from a central location such as Maggie Valley or Waynesville.
John Curtis, Ph.D.