Haywood tourism leaders critical of state’s response to rockslideWritten by Bibeka Shrestha
State officials have not turned a blind eye to the economic pain caused by the rockslide in Western North Carolina, but Haywood Tourism Development Authority officials say their strategy is off the mark.
First off, the state’s tourism division is devoting $110,000 to a radio campaign in the Raleigh and Charlotte areas informing potential travelers they can still visit WNC despite the Interstate 40 closure.
The campaign was driven by a survey conducted by the state commerce department in the wake of the rockslide.
After polling 1,000 prospective travelers in Atlanta, Charlotte, Columbia, S.C., Knoxville, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Greensboro, state officials concluded that misconceptions about the road closure reigned in Raleigh and Charlotte.
“Unfortunately, that’s not our markets for this time of year,” Collins said. “I know innkeepers are concerned about the Florida market. They would like to see additional advertising [there].”
During the holiday season, Collins said most travelers to Haywood County hail from Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina.
According to the research, however, people in Raleigh and Charlotte seemed most likely to change their travel plans to avoid WNC, said Wit Tuttell, spokesman for the state Division of Tourism.
Tuttell said the state had to look at the entire region, not just Haywood County, even though the rockslide occured there.
“We have to represent everybody,” said Tuttell, adding that the state does help promote skiing in WNC, including at Cataloochee, with an annual $75,000 marketing campaign that targets the Southeast.
In partnership with the North Carolina Ski Association, the state funds television advertising in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida.
From Thanksgiving until Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the radio campaign will direct listeners to the state Division of Tourism’s Web site for further information.
That Web site has already gotten 12,000 hits on its rockslide advisory page, which includes ample maps and directions.
“We know we’ve got people’s attention with that,” said Tuttell.
Meanwhile, Haywood’s TDA has dedicated $15,000 toward its own marketing campaign.
Part of that money helped the TDA buy Google Adwords for “Western North Carolina” and “rockslide” to direct Internet searchers to its Web site, which prominently displays multiple detours to the region.
Wrangling over signs
Haywood tourism officials are also miffed with the North Carolina Department of Transportation for not putting up more signs indicating that WNC is still open for business.
Collins said the TDA worked with N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, to coax the DOT to change its wording on electronic road signs. Signs initially warned drivers upon reaching Asheville that Interstate 40 was closed ahead and lured drivers to take a detour around WNC. New language was incorporated to list which exits were still open beyond Asheville
But since then, Collins has heard reports that that language isn’t consistently visible.
Reuben Moore, division operations engineer for DOT’s Division 14, which includes Haywood County, said the signs cycle through the messages, so drivers can miss part of it.
“If you miss the message the first time, you might get part of it the second time around,” said Moore. The letters are two feet tall, which allows people to begin reading the signs six seconds away.
Joel Setzer, division engineer for 10 western counties, said the DOT had to be careful not to direct truck traffic across the Great Smokies with the new signage.
“The DOT is trying to get out accurate information out that does not promote commercial and high volumes of traffic to U.S. 441 because that would be unsafe,” Setzer said.
Collins said even if the signs haven’t changed, she hopes the DOT will put up more signs that state WNC is open for business, ideally capturing the attention of drivers upon first entering the region as far out as Hendersonville on I-26 and Hickory on I-40.