The tourism authority spends about $85,000 a year on the visitor centers in Maggie Valley and Waynesville, which includes salaries for front desk staff, rent, utilities and related overhead.
“How much should we be spending on the visitor centers, which clearly takes money away from advertising?” asked Lyndon Lowe, a tourism board member and owner of the Twinbrook Resort in Maggie Valley. “Is this the right mix? Is this not the right mix?”
The writing appears to be on the wall already, however. At the first meeting of an ad-hoc visitor center committee this week, tourism board members spent little time talking about whether to close the visitor centers.
Instead, they jumped straight to the reasons for closing them. No counterpoints were offered in defense of visitor centers, nor were any reasons brought up for keeping them open.
Visitor centers were at one time a ubiquitous role of tourism bureaus. But many are phasing them out or scaling them back. The most common trend: replace live people with digital kiosks.
“It’s all going digital,” said Ken Stahl, a longtime tourism board member and retired major hotel operator.
Instead of two visitor centers, interactive kiosks could be placed in numerous places all over the county.
“You get more coverage that way,” said Stahl.
Of course, it would cost money to create the interactive displays of digital kiosks and new travel apps, but the cost of the kiosks themselves could hopefully be covered, at least in part, by business sponsors, with a net savings at the end of the day, Stahl said. And besides, the development of better digital technology is needed regardless, since the world is moving that direction, Stahl said.
Some tourism members said the traveling public would actually prefer a digital kiosk over a real person serving up advice and tips on things to do during their stay.
The advent of smart phones has liberated travelers, giving them the lowdown on things to do, places to see and where to eat, all at their fingertips. As a result, they simply don’t stop in at visitor centers like they used to.
“The numbers are dropping,” said Beth Brown, a tourism board member from Maggie Valley, citing a steady decline in visitor center numbers over recent years.
But the real motivation for closing the visitor centers came down to bang for the buck.
“Ultimately, our number one goal is to get people here,” said Lowe. “Are the visitor centers only servicing the visitor who is already here?”
Haywood, like other tourism bureaus that are forsaking their visitor centers, could be better off putting those dollars into marketing, according to a tourism consultant and strategist hired by the Haywood tourism authority to assess its strengths and weaknesses.
The consultant, Magellan Strategy Group, recently delivered a long-term strategic plan to help Haywood’s tourism industry out of a prolonged rut. Among the recommendations: can the visitor centers.
“Nothing can replace a smiling face and friendly advice on where to go and what to do,” states a section of the strategic plan. “But the Haywood County tourism authority plays in a highly competitive category.”
The strategic plan suggests that simply measuring visitor center traffic misses the mark. The real question is how many visitors who come in are actually walking out with a richer, more informed picture of attractions and activities in Haywood County.
“How many are only seeking directions to the nearest public restroom?” the report asks. “At the very least, the TDA should begin measuring the effectiveness of the visitor center by assessing both the volume of visitor traffic and the reason for the visit.”
Tourism bureaus nationwide are “questioning their investment in visitor centers,” the report states.
A moving target
The status of visitor centers in Haywood County has been in flux for the past several years. Who runs them, who funds them, where they’re housed and how many the county needs has been a continual source of discussion and debate in tourism circles.
As recently as three years ago, the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority funded five visitor centers — running some of them itself and merely making a financial contribution to others.
Now, it funds only two, both operated in-house. The change caused an uproar initially. The tourism authority decided it would no longer pitch in financially toward the visitor centers run by the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce, the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce and the town of Canton. It also closed its visitor center in Balsam.
Instead, the Haywood County Tourism Authority chose to open its own in-house visitor centers in Waynesville and Maggie Valley rather than subsidize ones run by other entities.
Since then, the Haywood County chamber has continued to run its own visitor center in downtown Waynesville at its own expense.
If the tourism authority nixed its visitor centers, that role would once again fall solely back to the chambers, but without the benefit of funding support from the tourism authority as in the past. The strategic plan by Magellan consulting group made a case for that model.
“Local chambers may in fact be better positioned to service visitor needs,” the strategic plan report states. “The tourism development authority is responsible for driving guests to the destination, and the chamber is responsible for meeting their needs once they arrive.”
The Haywood Chamber is obviously ready to fill the visitor center void.
“That’s one of the things chambers of commerce do,” said CeCe Hipps, the executive director of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber has kept its own visitor center open, even after the tourism authority opened its visitor center three blocks away.
“We didn’t miss a beat. We continued to operate like we have always done in Haywood County,” Hipps said.
Hipps said any community as tourism-oriented as Haywood needs a visitor center to greet and receive travelers.
“They still want a friendly face to talk to and they want the detailed insider information and customized advice,” Hipps said.
The chamber’s visitor center is actually used by local residents, too.
Teresa Smith, executive director of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce, said it is too soon to predict whether the Maggie Chamber would pick up the visitor center torch in Maggie. The Maggie chamber closed its visitor center two years ago when the tourism authority ended financial support.
She said visitor centers do play a role by convincing visitors to stay longer after learning how much there is to do here, or plan return trips.
The discussion of closing the visitor centers is still in the very early stages. The ad hoc committee tasked with exploring the visitor center issue represents only a portion of the tourism board. Any final decision is months away and would be made by the full board.
“We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t constantly examine the best strategy and use of our tourism dollars,” Lowe said.
By the numbers
The number of walk-ins at visitor centers run by the Haywood County Tourism Authority has declined.
July 2013: 5,101
July 2014: 4,063
July 2013: 1,212
July 2014: 2,055