Niche marketing and regional cooperation were the reoccurring topics of this year’s Smoky Mountain Host meeting held in Cherokee last week, an annual forum that brings together the major tourism players of the Smoky Mountain region.
“Our greatest customers are our neighbors,” said Mary Jaegar-Gale, general manager of Chimney Rock State Park, during a panel discussion at the stakeholder’s meeting.
Matthew Pegg, head of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, agreed that Western North Carolina businesses should work together to attract people who live in the region to be tourists in their own backyards.
“There are a lot of people here who don’t know what we have,” Pegg said.
Throughout the meeting, David Huskins, the head of Smoky Mountain Host, encouraged those in the room to stop competing against each other for tourists and instead band together to help brand the Smokies region as a destination, in turn benefiting all the tourism in the region. By pooling their money for advertising, tourism attractions can get more bang for their buck, Huskins said.
Several panel participants discussed creating a map of activities or an a-la-carte itinerary that helps visitors pick and choose what they want to see and do.
“It is very important to get information into their hands before they plan their trip,” said Ed Phillips, executive director of the Burke County Tourism Development Authority.
An itinerary or regional events are a couple of ways in which businesses, towns and tourism authorities could work together to appeal to niche markets, including fishing and motorcycling.
Cherokee alone hosts six fishing tournaments. But, a regional fishing tour could keep visitors in the area, spending money at local businesses, for three or four days, Pegg said.
Speaker Berkley Young, a tourism marketing specialist, emphasized that towns should focus on their niche experiences to draw in tourists rather than trying to offer something for everyone.
People need to ditch their “build it and they will come” mentality and focus on unique experiences, said Young, president of Young Strategies, a tourism research and strategic planning firm based in Charlotte.
While “uncertain” has been the buzzword used to describe travel and the economy during the past few years, businesses are expected to see moderate, 1 to 3 percent, growth in 2012, Young said, and people have not stopped traveling or spending.
The need to get away will always trump other considerations, such as the price of gas, he said. People are taking shorter trips, closer to home and are participating in fewer but more engaging activities.
By promoting unique opportunities, regions are more likely to draw in those vacationers.
Businesses must also get back to the basics of hospitality.
The first words out of a hotel employee’s mouth should not be ‘Do you have a reservation,” Young said. A simple ‘Welcome! We’re glad you are here’ can improve the experience of a visitor, who is likely tired and annoyed from traveling, and increase the chance that they will return, he said.