Finding ways to best market to the diverse interests of vacationers is one of the ways chambers of commerce, tourist attractions and others might use information in a 400-page report compiled by professors at Appalachian State University and Western Carolina University titled “Measurement of the Economic Vitality of The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.”
Business professors Mike Evans, Jim Stoddard and Dinesh Davé from Appalachian have looked closely at the demographics of those visiting WNC destinations, such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to learn about travel and spending patterns as well as preferred activities.
The study was funded by a $108,000 award from Blue Ridge National Heritage Area to gauge the impact of heritage tourism. “It’s a pretty good look at what’s going on in the region,” said Evans of the detailed report.
Tourism in the region was a $2 billion industry in 2004, according to the Travel Industry Association of America’s US Travel Data Center County Tourism Statistics.
Of that amount, more than $1.1 billion in direct tourism was spent at and around the Blue Ridge Host counties, according to the BRNHA report. A total of $466 million was spent in the High Country counties around the Boone area and $329 million was spent in the Smoky Mountains area.
“When you look at the big picture of the impact of travel and tourism all across the area, the travel and tourism industry has always been undervalued by other aspects of the economy,” said Penn Dameron, executive director of BRNHA.
Dameron said in the past, the travel and tourism industry was viewed as seasonal, low-wage adjunct to the region’s traditional manufacturing and agriculture economies.
“This study shows clearly that if that ever was an accurate description of the travel and tourism industry in Western North Carolina, it’s not any more. This study will help the industry to be taken seriously.”
Some 4,300 visitors to the BRNHA were surveyed as part of the study. “We looked at who’s coming to the area, what they spend, and what they do when they visit the area,” Evans said. “It’s really interesting to see how gender had a significant impact on what activities they participated in.”
For instance, the preferred activities of men were outdoor recreation, followed by attending festivals and events, and visiting farms. Women, as a whole, preferred craft activities, music activities and tourist sites in Cherokee.
Younger visitors to the area, those under age 25, preferred visiting farms and participating in outdoor recreation activities. Those over age 65 preferred music and craft activities.
“This study gives us a fascinating glimpse into the visitors to the region and tells us a lot about what they are like,” Dameron said. “It will help us adapt what we have to offer and fine tune the way we do business to make it a more enjoyable experience for the visitor and more profitable for the industry.”
Attracting visitors to the BRNHA, and finding ways to lengthen their stay, means big dollars to the area. According to the study, visitors spend an average of $90.24 per day per person when visiting the region. They come to participate in the BRNHA corridor’s heritage tourism offerings, such as music events, outdoor recreation, garden trails and craft activities.
Evans said the data in the report could lend to collaborative marketing efforts by the organizations in the BRNHA. “It’s an opportunity to brand the entire mountain region as one product, which could possibly help raise awareness of the region’s offerings nationally and internationally,” he said.
“One of our objectives is to eliminate some of the competition that may have existed within the travel and tourism industry in this area,” Dameron said. “This study will help us do that, as it shows visitors to these diverse areas have more in common than they have differences.”