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All together now: Haywood Tourism Development Authority eyes countywide approach

The TDA has a handed in planning or funding numerous festivals throughout the year in Haywood County. File photo The TDA has a handed in planning or funding numerous festivals throughout the year in Haywood County. File photo

It’s been a little under a year since Corrina Ruffieux took over for longtime Haywood County Tourism Development Authority Executive Director Lynn Collins, but Ruffieux’s wasted little time bolstering the TDA’s destination marketing strategy with robust and insightful data meant to show the county’s relative strengths and weaknesses while also hedging against uncertainty with new initiatives designed to keep the money flowing into Western North Carolina’s tourism-based economy — especially in post-mill Canton. 

Prior to Ruffieux taking the helm, the TDA’s media was fragmented — sometimes even competing against itself — but since mid-2023 has started to become more focused on driving visitors to tourism infrastructure on a countywide basis. 

“It’s our job to promote the entire county, but we’ve had to do it in very segmented buckets. We’ve been working really hard to consolidate. Social media is one of those ways we’ve done it,” she told Canton’s governing board during a presentation March 14. “And you can see it works.”

By reducing its Instagram channels from four to one, and its Facebook channels from four to three, the TDA was able to increase post frequency by 43% and overall audience by 18%. Critically, engagement on Instagram and Facebook surged by around 100% each.

Last July, the TDA launched a new landing page,, featuring the Wander app — an interactive map that integrates trailhead locations with dining, lodging and retail establishments. Ruffieux said the app has nearly 18,000 users through December 2023.

Analytics for the website also show growth after strategic tweaks to the site’s SEO, with increases in pageviews (118%), user engagement (37%), total users (35%) and visitors from organic search (46%).

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In August, a new email newsletter strategy began to customize content based on self-selected areas of intertest from potential visitors. Since then, according to the TDA’s 2023 annual report, they’ve sent almost 218,000 emails, have nearly 44,000 subscribers and an open rate of 29%.

The TDA’s partnership with MMGY-NJF, a globally-recognized firm  specializing in travel and tourism, also seems to be paying dividends.

Within the first few months of the open-ended $7,000 monthly contract with MMGY, the TDA earned nine media placements garnering an estimated 89 million impressions that would have cost about $1.36 million to buy.

Probably the biggest of these was an October 2023 story on Fox News that listed all five TDA jurisdictions in Haywood County — Canton, Clyde, Lake Junaluska, Maggie Valley and Waynesville. That story alone is thought to have attracted more than 50 million sets of eyeballs across the country.

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The TDA has topped $3 million in collections for the second straight fiscal year ending June 30, 2023, capping a steady escalation that began as the Coronavirus Pandemic ebbed. File photo

Who comes, from where and what they do while they’re here have all been topics of discussion among the destination management community, but now a hi-tech partnership with market research firm Zartico is finally producing some useful data. Zartico defines a visitor as someone who came more than 50 miles away from their home or place of work, stayed for more than two hours and visited at least one “place of impact,” like a hotel or restaurant. It does so by anonymously analyzing geolocation data on smartphones.

From March 1 through May of 2023, roughly 79% of Haywood County visitors came from another state. More than half stayed at least one night, as opposed to a day trip.

The greatest number of visitors came from the Charlotte metro area, followed by upstate South Carolina and Atlanta. On average, those visitors spent relatively small amounts of money compared to the smaller number of visitors who came from the Florida towns of Jacksonville, Miami, Port St. Lucie and Tampa and spent more.

The location data shows that the greatest number of visitors were headed to the Soco Road corridor in Maggie Valley, specifically the Comfort Inn and the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds — the county’s top two “places of impact,” according to Zartico.

Seven of the county’s top 10 places of impact are hotels. In Canton, it’s the opposite. Only two of Canton’s top ten are hotels, the rest being outdoorsy spots like Pisgah National Forest, Graveyard Fields and Chestnut Mountain.

As most of those destinations are free, the average visitor spends only $48 in the Canton area, lowest in the county. Lake Junaluska boasts an average spend of $158, with Waynesville and Maggie Valley both around $115 and Clyde at $79.

“They’re playing in Canton, they’re staying in Maggie and they’re shopping and dining in Waynesville,” Ruffieux said.

Starting in fiscal year 2016-17, TDA collections showed slow growth but lingered around $1.5 million through the Pandemic-influenced 2019-20 fiscal year. The next fiscal year, from July 2020 through June 2021, collections grew to more than $2.5 million. 

Currently, the TDA has topped $3 million in collections for the second straight fiscal year ending June 30, 2023, capping a steady escalation that began as the Coronavirus Pandemic ebbed.

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Overall, total revenue funded by a 4% room occupancy tax has nearly doubled since 2019, but the TDA will need every bit of that sophisticated marketing strategy and analytics if it intends to continue to demonstrate its value not only to businesses and visitors but also to locals increasingly affected by the negative impacts that come with tourists.

The TDA’s annual report shows that for 2023, the county’s 1,975 short-term rentals had a 53% occupancy rate at an average daily rate of $235, compared to hotel/motel occupancy of 47% at an average $111 daily rate. The current number of available STRs is more than double that of February 2021’s 899.

The most recent credible report on the region’s affordable housing crisis, released by Dogwood Health Trust in 2021, estimated a 1,459-unit deficit of long-term rentals needed by local families and workers.

In 2022, for the first time, the TDA announced plans for a one-time special projects fund for capital improvements that would generate overnight stays as well as local utilization.

Subsequently, the TDA has invested in 25 capital projects totaling more than $436,000, including the Dahlia Ridge Trail at Haywood Community College, the mural on the Waynesville Soda Jerks building, the Treehouse overlook at Chestnut Mountain, the Lake Junaluska connector trail and enhancements to both the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds and the Richland Creek Greenway.

The TDA also put more than $330,000 into marketing initiatives that support local events like the Canton Labor Day festival, Plott-Tober Fest and the WNC Jeep Fest.

All told, in 2022 visitors spent more than $336 million in Haywood County, supporting 2,063 jobs representing $86 million in payroll and contributing $11.4 million in taxes to local governments.

But economic uncertainty and record corporate profits — a major contributor to inflation — may foreshadow flat occupancy collections on the horizon.

During the first six months of 2023, the county, as a whole, posted decreases in year-over-year monthly collections in half of them — March, April and May. Clyde proved most resilient.

During the last six months of 2023, the county as a whole rebounded somewhat, posting year-over-year increases in occupancy tax collections every single month, ranging from a modest 1.3% that July to a whopping 12.3% that August.

Canton, however, posted substantial declines in occupancy taxes collected in its zip code for four of those six months, including a 27.5% decline in July, a 14.7% decline in September, a 3.5% decline in October and a 21.5% decline in November. Overall, Canton is down 5.8% during those six months.

“I’m imagining some of that probably does have to do with the mill closure, because I believe the mill would bring in subcontractors and they would stay in some of your local properties, and those aren’t getting filled up by visitors,” Ruffieux said.

In response to a question by Canton Alderwoman Kristina Proctor, Ruffieux noted that lodging inventory has been increasing, not decreasing.

Tourism juggernaut Maggie Valley posted minor decreases over that same period, less than 4%, in three of those six months. Lake Junaluska reported declines of 1.2% and 13.8% in September and December, respectively, with Clyde noting a decrease only once, 13.2% in September.

Waynesville was the only area to increase year-over-year collections for each of the last six months of 2023.

Monthly sales tax collections, often associated with visitor spending, remained mostly flat year-over-year in Buncombe, Jackson and Haywood counties from January of 2024 back through August 2023, although a decline in visitor spending may be masked by increased spending from locals due to inflation on taxable everyday items.

Whatever the reason, the red-hot growth of tourism in Haywood County may be cooling off, leading the TDA to push for new ways to maintain growth by bringing people in and bringing people back.

The Pigeon River has been historically underutilized as a recreational resource and of late is known more for its destructive power than its placid beauty, but in collaboration with the county and Canton the TDA is now looking at ways to increase access, which could be a boon to Canton’s nascent outdoor recreational economy.

For the slower parts of the year, the TDA was encouraged by a new event meant to make a dent in the winter doldrums.

Last year’s first-ever Maggie Valley Ice Festival saw a long line of cars on Soco Road waiting to get in, a sight not regularly seen since the glory days of Ghost Town.

Almost 2,500 tickets were sold, including 555 day-of; many visitors sought out other attractions in other parts of Haywood County, from Canton’s ice rink to Clyde’s drive-through winter lights display. More than 70% of visitors spent one or two nights, more than 60% were from outside the immediate area and the same number said it was likely or very likely they’d be back.

According to numbers just released by the TDA, Canton did see a massive spike in room occupancy tax collections for January 2024 — on the order of 35% compared to January 2023 — however, Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers lauded the TDA’s new countywide approach as a rising tide that will lift all ships.

“It took a lot to get this cooperation in effect and I think for a long time … it was understood that we’re just different towers out there,” Smathers said. “But I think that we’re slowly taking next steps and I think as we look at the mill, our job is to provide an experience where people can come to Haywood County not as a side trip, or just passing through, or got lost, but this is where they’re going.”

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