In pursuit of tourism dollars, Haywood festivals asked to prove their mettle

More than 50 grant requests totaling $450,000 poured into the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority for the coming year. But with only $225,000 to go around, most will only get a fraction of what they ask for and a few will get nothing at all.

The criteria for doling out money seems obvious enough: which ones are more likely to land “heads in beds?”

It’s a long-standing catchphrase in tourism circles. But figuring out the festivals and niche campaigns with the most alluring calling card — one that will nudge prospective tourists to pack their bags and head to Haywood County — isn’t an exact science.

SEE ALSO: Folkmoot and Haywood tourism authority do annual tango over grant funding

Is the festival mostly a local affair? Do tourists attend, but only because they happen to be visiting here anyway? If out-of-towners do come expressly for a festival, are they day-trippers, weekend warriors, or staying a whole week? 

These are some of the questions tourism board members and grant funding subcommittees wrestled with in recent weeks as they met to hash out who would get what.

The Haywood County Fair won’t be getting the $14,000 it asked for, but instead will get a token $250 after being deemed local, not touristy.

Most festivals were given some portion, but not all, of what they asked for. The Labor Day festival in Canton, the Waynesville Apple Harvest Festival, Church Street Arts and Crafts fair, the Whole Bloomin’ Thing garden festival and the Western Carolina Dog Fanciers Association competition, to name a few, all got half of their request, seemingly a nice compromise, with awards ranging from $1,500 to $4,000.

But a few lucky festivals got the whole shabang, like the WNC BBQ Festival in Maggie or the Melange in the Mountains culinary weekend.

A strike often cited against a festival that got denied is how long it’s been around. Long-running festivals, however big they may be, can become victims of their own success when it comes to landing grants year after year.

“The original intent of the money was seed money to get new things off the ground and then wean them off to free up funding for other new things,” Collins said. “Sometimes it is just hard to get rid of.”

Indeed, there were plenty of big grants given out to tenacious events that have been around for years: the Smoky Mountain Folk Festival, Art After Dark strolls in Waynesville, Maggie Valley Fall Days, the Lake Logan Multi-Sport Festival and the Fines Creek Bluegrass Jam showed no sign of funding trouble despite their  tenure.

But, the tourism authority has shown preference for brand-new events with promise over old standards. The Shining Rock River Fest got $2,000 for the first time as a startup event, a new farmer’s market in Canton got $1,500 and a new half-marathon race got $3,500. 

One of these new initiatives that came out a winner is a feasibility study to market Haywood County as a road cycling destination, which landed $5,000.

“We know this is a cycling destination. We just don’t have a specific plan,” said Jennifer Jacobson, a representative from the Bicycle Haywood club.

Laura Leatherwood, a tourism board member, said the gamble of going after cyclists could have real payoff down the road. 

“The question you have to ask is ‘Does this help us reach the goal of where we want to be?’ You can’t get toward your goal if you don’t fund projects that help get you there,” Leatherwood said.

Another relatively new initiative to score grant funding is the Buy Haywood campaign that promotes agritourism — from farm-to-table restaurants to farms that welcome visitors on-site. It got $4,000 to publish a brochure.

“It is an invitation to explore a community through its culinary delights,” said Tina Mascarelli, the director of Buy Haywood. “This guide says ‘Pack your bags. We are going to go and have a really wonderful experience and do something special,’” 

But then came the kicker.

“How do you know if it has brought in tourists?” asked Ken Howle, a tourism board member.


Adding it up

In the end, it comes down to guesswork. And that’s something the tourism authority hopes to change. Starting this year, festivals applying for tourism dollars will have to quantify their impact on the tourism scene.

“In the past, we asked them to do a final narrative report, but that was basically how good you could B.S.,” Collins said. “We need better data to track this stuff with.”

This year, festival organizers will have to survey a sample of the crowd during the event, asking them where they are from, what brought them here, how long they’re here for, the number in their party, how much they’re spending each day, how they learned about the festival they’re at and so on.

“They will tell you if they found out about it once they got here or learned about it before they came or if they found out about it once they got here and extended their stay.”

Collins said festival organizers should also consult with other lodging owners to see if people booked their stay here because of the event.

The lodging business is only part of the tourism picture, however. There is some value in day-trippers who may still shop and eat while they are here, even if they don’t stay the night, and festivals will get some credit if they can show that.

There’s one variable that proves even more elusive, yet shouldn’t be discounted: the “I-had-such-a-good-time-I-will-come-back-next-year-and-tell-all-my-friends” factor.

For tourists who merely stumble upon a festival during their visit, if it enhances their experience enough to bring them back again sometime, that should count for something.

But Collins said the new criteria this year for measuring impact of a festival is a starting place.

“Any information we can gather is better than no information, which we had before,” Collins said.


Bang for the buck

Not all the grant requests are for festivals.

Some are for niche marketing campaigns for specific attractions.

Grants were given out to advertise the live music series at The Strand at 38 Main theater and Classic Wineseller in downtown Waynesville or the Haywood Arts Regional Theatre. Some are for campaigns, like a winter lights initiative to make Maggie Valley more festive during the holidays or money to pay a costumed Miss Maggie to stroll the sidewalks and wave at passing motorists in the summer and fall.

Yet other grants are for ad campaigns geared at niche demographics or destinations. Two lodging associations in Maggie Valley got a $8,700 grant for an ad campaign specifically targeting the military market.

Meanwhile, the Downtown Waynesville Association also got advertising money to showcase its unique Main Street shopping destination that may be overlooked in the master marketing campaigns the tourism authority does on behalf of the county as a whole.

A sizeable niche marketing campaign of $54,000 was awarded to four tourism entities in Maggie Valley to advertise it as a vacation spot. The Maggie chamber and various lodging associations there used to apply for their own separate pots for their own separate niche ads.

“The fact those groups got together is huge,” Collins said. “They came together and developed a marketing plan to make better use of these dollars.”

Their dollars can go so much further and have a bigger impact than a fragmented, scatter-gun approach, Collins said.



How it works

The Haywood County Tourism Authority brings in around $1 million annually, collected through a 4 percent tax on overnight lodging. The tax, paid by tourists, is pumped back into tourism marketing, promotions and initiatives, from visitor guides and visitor center operations to travel web sites and magazine ads.

Of its total $1 million budget, roughly a quarter is reserved for mini-grants for niche marketing campaigns and festivals.

The roughly $250,000 of grant money is divvied up into six pots. Five of the funding pools are earmarked for specific geographic areas of the county — namely Waynesville, Lake Junaluska, Maggie Valley, Canton and Clyde. 

Each of the five areas has their own subcommittee that vets grant applications and dolls out money accordingly.

A sixth funding pool is earmarked for events or tourism projects with a countywide focus, and is decided by the county tourism authority itself.