Tourism Task Force discusses initiatives for promotion at first meeting

Published 9:32 am Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Tourism Task Force
Increasing and improving promotion of activities, eateries, lodging and events in Carter County is the shared goal of members on the newly-formed Tourism Task Force. The group was created to generate ideas and input for tourism, which is facilitated by the Chamber of Commerce, and met for the first time Monday night.
The task force formed following debate over a proposition during a County Commission meeting to house the Visitors Center at Sycamore Shoals State Park and to organize promotion through Milligan College, stripping these responsibilities from the Chamber, which has overseen tourism for decades.
Its members include one representative from the Chamber of Commerce, eight county commissioners, and a representative from both Elizabethton and Watauga.
County Commissioner Cody McQueen chairs the task force and opened explaining tourism is the county’s biggest asset and growth should be focused in that direction.
During the meeting, members asked questions regarding the Chamber’s current promotional activities, enumerated hindrances that detract from tourism and outlined some areas for goal setting.
In light of the recent proposition to discontinue tourism activities through the Chamber in favor of Milligan and Sycamore Shoals, Chamber Director Tonya Stevens explained the existing relationship with these entities.
With Milligan, she said the college provided interns and statistical analysis, while the Chamber promotes some events like the Milligan cycling team’s event. She said they are also fortunate to work with East Tennessee State University, Northeast State Community College and Tennessee College of Applied Technology.
Both Sycamore Shoals State Park and Roan Mountain State Parks are key assets for tourism in the county, Stevens said, noting the events, historical and natural resources they provide, and the promotion which the Chamber does in return.
The group asked her about promotions. “What markets are you targeting?” “Are you using print and digital media to reach those audiences?” “How can events cater better to visitors and residents?”
Based on state and local demographics, Stevens said the average age of people visiting the area is between 30 and 50 years old. Therefore, marketing targets those audiences including families traveling, individuals on vacation, and recreational enthusiasts in the Southeastern United States.
Before listing Southern Trout, Southern Kayak, Guest Quest, Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Tennessee State Guidebook as locations for print and digital advertising, she mentioned the crippling effect of having funding (approximately $90,000 annually from the hotel and motel tax) withheld for the past few months by the County Commission.
“Right now, since we didn’t know where our funding was going to be for the last several months, we didn’t take advantage of some opportunities because we weren’t going to make commitments that we might not be able to follow through on,” she said.
However, continued promotion that was already in place and planning for the 50th Annual Covered Bridge Festival is underway following funding-related delays.
Regarding this festival, the Carter County Car Club’s weekly Cruise Ins through the summer, Parks and Recreation events and others, Commissioner Robert Acuff recommended the creation of a master calendar.
Stevens said they post everything of which they are aware on their digital calendar already. Commissioner Charles VonCannon said a master calendar and appropriate organization of events could help prevent overlap and could encourage visitors to one event to stay for or attend another.
Jon Hartman, Elizabethton Director of Planning and Economic Development echoed this sentiment, saying many of the larger events take place in the city, and that perhaps a day travel plan for visitors could help steer guests to area restaurants, shopping and overnight accommodations.
“Other people are taking advantage of our natural resources; you know, we just don’t have the assets in place to build upon or quantify our own services,” said Hartman.
Commissioner Mike Hill said the community’s assets are small businesses, which keep money in the community.
“The problem is the business they’re bringing over here — they buy lunch — but the lion’s share of the profitability goes back to Avery County or Watauga County, whereas if we had some entrepreneurially-minded folks that wanted to set up here, then the bulk of the profitability would stay in Carter County, as opposed to just the pop and the Dr. Enuf and the sandwiches and gas and whatever they buy while they’re here,” said Hill.
One of the issues regarding accommodations is the lack of hotels that can compete with Johnson City and other area hotels.
McQueen said the town must be ready to welcome developers in order to accommodate more visitors.
“It’s common knowledge that they’ve been trying to get a new hotel here for a long time,” said McQueen. “The reason that hasn’t happened is anybody’s guess — ultimately somebody has to be an investor; someone has to be willing to come here; and we have to roll out the red carpet and welcome them. We have to show a united front; we’ve got to show that we want them here, and that we are a good investment, that we are a building community.”
To better promote the community, the task force began outlining its assets and proposing plans.
Some of these included opportunities for hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, fishing, hunting and boating. Additionally, they mentioned the abundance of bed and breakfasts, cabins, one-of-a-kind eateries and local shopping.
Stevens said better promotion of the location of the Visitors Center itself would be a benefit, as her staff directs people to the community’s recreation and local businesses and welcome more than 1,500 guests annually.
McQueen encouraged each member of the task force to take one or two objectives and research how the group can better network and promote on a limited income, and to bring those ideas back to the table next month.
The task force will continue to meet on the fourth Monday in March in Mayor Leon Humphrey’s conference room in the Carter County Courthouse at 6 p.m.

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