The Overlook with Matt Peiken

PART 1: The Shroud of Tourism | Vic Isley of the TDA

July 17, 2023 Matt Peiken Episode 76
The Overlook with Matt Peiken
PART 1: The Shroud of Tourism | Vic Isley of the TDA
Show Notes Transcript

This is the first in a two-part conversation with Vic Isley, president and CEO of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority.  We roll out Isley’s own background in tourism marketing, the TDA’s evolving priorities and how Isley sees the TDA as a partner in diversifying Asheville’s economy. I push back on Isley’s definition of who encompasses Asheville’s creative community. Isley also addresses this question: Can there be too much tourism in Asheville?

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Matt Peiken: what were you doing before taking on your role at the tda?

Vis Isley: I've been in destination marketing most of my adult career. So I grew up here in North Carolina, in Rockingham County on a tobacco farm, down a dirt road, and went to Chapel Hill. My first community marketing job was in Durham, here in the state, and went from Durham to Tampa Bay and Florida. Spent 13 years in Washington DC and six and a half years, most recently.

As the chief sales and marketing officer for the island of Bermuda living in Manhattan. Wow. And then Asheville came calling. So 

Matt Peiken: you were working for the island of Bermuda. In Manhattan, yes. That's interesting. What were you, what, how did that work? What were you doing in Manhattan that was Bermuda specific?

Vis Isley: So I was Chief Sales and marketing officer for the Bermuda Tourism Authority. The gentleman who was the CEO in DC that hired me back in 2001 to be head of marketing there, got the CEO job to be to bring Bermuda's tourism efforts out of government in Bermuda. And so he came calling to recruit me to be the head of sales and marketing for the island.

I moved to Manhattan and ran the global sales and marketing offices there. It really is all about geography. Over 50% of the visitors that go to Bermuda come from the New York Metro Market, Boston, Philly area. And that's, as the headquarters of global media here in, in the United 

Matt Peiken: States. Yeah.

So tell me, when you arrived in Asheville and got a lay of the land, what struck you as unique to your experience about Asheville? What presented new, a new landscape to you? What were some of the paradigms here that you had not necessarily confronted or to the degree confronted to the degree in your previous positions?

Vis Isley: Great question because I grew up in North Carolina in the middle of the state, the Piedmont and I started my career in Durham in 1995. I've known everyone that's had whatever version of my role here in Asheville and Buncombe County since 1995. Many of your listeners probably know Marla Tamini, who's been at the helm of marketing for Asheville for 29 years, and she and I met back in 1995.

So I've followed and admired Asheville throughout my career, and I'd have to say that my journey in representing communities has had its own twists and turns, and each place has its own distinct character. And I love that about capturing the essence of a place its people and its stories to be able to shine a spotlight on that for others to be able to enjoy for a bit when they come and 

Matt Peiken: visit.

Yeah, it seems like now I've only been here since 2017 and I didn't live anywhere in this area before here, and it seems like I. When, from the moment I arrived, I got the sense that tourism here, that we had a very conflicted relation. We, the city, the populist here had a conflicted relationship with tourism.

That, and this is what I took in, that tourism in some ways rescued this city from at least downtown and the River Arts District from being unused and a lot of closed, a lot of boarded up shops. And that that influx of money and the push to promote tourism really meant the lifeblood of this city, particularly from the nineties going forward.

And yet I also hear from people we're being overrun by tourists, that it's out of control, that the hotels, the hotel boom is crushing us, that we're losing our downtown. I'm curious. I'm sure you're aware of every bit of complaints or criticism that comes to tourism writ large, not the T D A specifically, but just tourism.

I'm wondering, is what you hear from people here or just in the ether here, is that unique to your experience? Or does every community from at least your vantage, whether it was Bermuda, other places you worked, did they also have what I termed a conflicted relationship with tourism? 

Vis Isley: Matt, that's a lot.

So I'm gonna try to break that down a little bit. So first I, I think it's important for your listeners and you to know why I do what I do. I did not know my job existed when I was in school at Chapel Hill. I didn't know what I wanted to do. So I got a business degree with a concentration in marketing and during that time there was, in my principles of marketing textbook, one paragraph about place marketing.

And today their entire university graduate programs about tourism and economic development. So we've come a long way and through, through understanding places and telling their stories to shine a spotlight on them. One, I personally believe in the power of travel, what it does to expand our minds, our understanding and our experiences, and finding people, places and cultures through that.

And also the economic vitality that to comes to a community through that exchange. So it's that very human element of travel and what we get as rewards for that as humans. And then the economic vitality of that. So being a student of Asheville watching it throughout my career and then when Asheville came calling to have me come join the effort here is that.

Tourism and hospitality has been woven into the fabric of this community literally for hundreds of years. So it is not new news. And and I think that is one of the some of the magic of this place. You came in 2017. I've been on an continuing education tour in my two and a half years in Asheville, and probably on over 500 listening sessions with people throughout the community, some natives, some newcomers, some here for 30 years.

And one of the things that's fascinated me about those conversations and listening is that in my entire career in destination marketing and promotion, I've never heard so many humans use the word that they were drawn to a place. And I think that is magic. When you think about marketing or promotion, push marketing or pull marketing, like being able to draw people into a story or draw people to a place.

That emotional connection that so many people I've encountered here have with this community and this place on earth is really special. 

Matt Peiken: It's interesting you put it that way. When I moved here, I had never lived in a community before. I lived in big cities. I was in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis, St.

Paul. I lived near San Francisco. San Francisco is a little bit like this in the sense that nobody moves to Minneapolis and St. Paul just because, it's a much larger city. But people all the time move to Asheville just because, they hear the pole of the mountains. Is that what you mean by pole marketing?

Is that what you mentioned? Pole marketing? Push marketing. Can you explain that a little bit before I follow up with a question about that? 

Vis Isley: That's a fair question cuz it's a bit of geek speak in marketing language. What I mean by that is that whether you read an article or something is pushed into your social feed, it's about where that message reaches you and what state you are in.

When I think about place though, and these conversations and that people have been kind enough to share with me is that this place speaks to them. It could be, sitting on a bench along the Wilma Dykeman Greenway. Watching the French broad go by. It could be on that trail, it could be listening to live music.

Matt Peiken: I imagine that's something you lean on in your marketing. How do you market that to people who haven't been here to experience it? Tell me about the, is that something you're very, you and your staff are very conscious of and lean on in, in marketing efforts? 

Vis Isley: I share with our team all the time.

Our entire purpose is to shine a spotlight on this place. Its people and its experiences for the benefit of the community. And that means understanding the essence of place, having people be willing to share their stories here. Why did Orange peel open here? Why does this downtown look like it does today?

Why did George Vanderbilt get on a train and end up here in Western North Carolina? And on. 

Matt Peiken: You mentioned story a lot and you mentioned just the feeling and the improving this area. You mentioned there was something attached to the vision. I saw something on the website, on the t d website that thought was really interesting, that where is it in my notes here?

Now I have to look at my notes. Oh. Here it is, the vision statement that Asheville Buncombe County will retain its unique, authentic, and environmental charm while welcoming global visitors. And that struck me, that sentence struck me in something you just spoke to, leads me to ask about this. They seem like those could be opposite ends of a scale.

That the, that retaining the unique, authentic environmental charm can happen lots of ways. But doing so while welcoming global visitors, I would think is a delicate balancing act. And I guess I would ask you, and I guess what I was leading to in, in asking about this, that I hear from people, and I'm sure you hear from people that we're losing our charm, we're losing our authentic Asheville.

And you said you noted that tourism goes back hundreds of years here. To your knowledge, was that a complaint also from back in the day in the 18th and 19th centuries? Were people were residents also complaining or worried, maybe not complaining yet, let's take out that verb. Were they worried about this area losing its charm?

Vis Isley: That's a fascinating question and I'll have to send to you this paper that was shared with me when I first came to Asheville from Nate Pennington in the Buncombe County Planning Department. And it goes something like, we're worried we're losing our culture. There are far too many hotels what will happen to downtown, and there are many others that you could think would be ripped from the headlines today.

How, when did this 

Matt Peiken: paper date too, by the way? The 

Vis Isley: 1920s. Okay. So literally a hundred years ago. And that's where people who are have been native to Asheville or Buncombe County say to me, Vic, we've been here. We know what this place was like before. We don't want to go back and. You mentioned a really important word that we talk about a lot on our team, which is balancing and through these conversations and listening sessions with people who live here, love here work and play here, is that in these conversations, I w I was picking up what in some cases felt at odds and it happened over and over again to the point where I just started doing my own research cuz I, I love digging deep.

And what I discovered was this idea of paradoxical thinking or both and thinking, and in these conversations, I, what I came to discover is it was all about perspective. And I'll give you one example, but we literally have hundreds of these from listening to people here. But one was downtown, someone who's been here since the eighties in the music business, and we were talking and they said, it's just a pain in the ass to come downtown.

I've lived here for 20 years and two minutes before that person had just shared why Asheville gets so many larger music acts than our size of city, because all of their friends in the music industry love coming to Asheville. I was like, help me understand. He goes it's easy for them to load in and out.

They can walk all around downtown. They can just stroll into bars and restaurants. It's just really easy.

And at the same time, someone who's in that business has their personal experience of living here and experiencing it. So that duality or paradox, or polarity or balancing is in fact real in both of those perspectives can be true at the same time. Yeah. 

Matt Peiken: It's not an either or. Exactly. And yet your organization is charged with promoting tourism that is the key mandate of your organization.

I'm wondering, being mindful of all that, having all these meetings with community members and hearing about that paradox how do you wrestle with that duality when your mandate is promoting tourism? Is there, and I came across this term, somebody tipped me to it. Capacity, tourism capacity and whether it's hotel development, whatnot, does that come into play?

Do you, is there ever from a tourism minded vantage point when you're charged with promoting tourism can, from your vantage and your organization's vantage, can there ever be too much tourism? 

Vis Isley: So I think what you're referencing is carrying capacity and in tourism lexicon that really is more of an approach or a strategy versus a scientific measure.

Okay. And carrying capacity is about points in time. So when we think about this, and specifically for Asheville, when I came in, it was December of 2020, there were a few souls in our office. Most people were still working remote. So I started my listening tour. Some was, in Hollywood Square's land of Zoom.

Some was walking on the banks of the river or having a coffee outside. And also being a study of strategic plans, which we all know this community likes plans. But studying what the strategic plan for Buncombe County was, what the strategic priorities for the city council had identified. What the Chambers Asheville five by five plan was.

What UNC Asheville's strategic priorities were. Dogwood Health Trust, community Foundation, United Way is really building a map of those because what I think in the time that we are in right now is that we don't, as a community have a collective definition of success. But what I do. Believe through studying those and listening is that we do have some common themes.

And so I aligned those themes and thinking if those were the priorities of these entities. And there are many more than those that I've mapped since then. But those are the ones I started with is that if those are the common themes that this community values and is working to aspire to, then what is tourism's role within that?

And that is where we crafted our four strategic imperatives that's been guiding our work in the last two and a half years. And those are delivering balanced recovery, coming out of covid and sustainable growth, encouraging safe and responsible travel, engaging and in inviting more diverse audiences, and promoting and supporting Asheville's creative spirit.

And for those that like acronyms, which all people in the industry do, is that spells deep And thinking about how we approach going about the work of inviting people, this to this community for a bit to experience it and spend money in local businesses and help sustain local businesses and then go back home, but come back and visit soon, is thinking through those strategic imperatives or pillars if you like, and going about doing the work in that way.

And that balancing, which I loved that you started with, is that through this. Study of paradoxical thinking, or both end thinking. I came across Dr. Wendy Smith out of Delaware University, and she's actually written a book on this. I, we had her come in and speak with our board. She spoke at our annual meeting to community partners about this idea of both.

And that creates opportunities for commonality in thinking about what do we agree on and how do we move forward on that. Again, in my brief study of Asheville is that it feels like we can be very good at either or conversations which creates winners and losers. I 

Matt Peiken: think that happens a lot in our social media era.

There isn't a lot and I imagine you probably think may, you might think this and your staff might talk about this. Social media certainly exacerbates that. There's it, there's this black and white issue and there isn't a lot of nuance in conversation. Sorry to interrupt, but I, when you were making that point, I couldn't help but think that plays a role in that.

Vis Isley: Yeah I'm a bit of a simpleton in the way I I approach things and I think we might be of a similar era or at least close to it, but my my conjunction is and not war, it always has. So in my schoolhouse rocks of conjunction junction, what's your function? I grew up with that. Yeah. Everybody goes, oh, great Vic.

Now I cannot get that outta my head. But that and conversation and in travel and tourism and destination marketing is part of why I love the job. And part of what is challenging about it is that you're often taking conf what appear to be conflicting interests or competing interests and actually trying to find commonalities for more people, more businesses.

More creative opportunity, more artists to win through through this effort. And it just goes back to the fact that travel doesn't happen unless a human has a desire to go explore other places, people and cultures. And if we have that at the root of our heart and essence about how we go about the work, then I feel like we're doing this community service.


Matt Peiken: mentioned something and when you were talking about the four pillars that you've have developed and emphasized since you've come on board. One of them was about visitors and helping them enjoy and experience this area to the best they can. And then going home. We have a lot of people moving here, and I know that I am, I get the sense that a lot of frustrations in the community.

There's a lot of overlapping between tourism and people moving here. Just this, the influx of people that are coming here. We're seeing more people. I'm curious. It's just a th a thought of mine that just came up. Do you think tourism is playing a role in our increased population of people who are 

Vis Isley: moving here?

I would put that question back to you. In your experience when you moved here in 2017, how did you learn about Asheville? I 

Matt Peiken: will tell you, and this is unique for not unique, but it, I only learned this w once I came here, I got a job here and people found that fascinating. I had never lived in a community ever before where, you get asked the question, what brought you to.

Name your city. You say, oh, I got a job. And then you go, oh, where? Here's, oh, I got a job. You got a job. I heard that and I found that really funny. You know that, wow, really? That's a response here. But I kept hearing that, that the general scarcity of good paying jobs is, that's a topic here.

And so that's my response to that. My experience was not typical of most people moving here. People move here for a lot of different reasons, but young people move here cause they want to be in the mountains. They want to not go to college for a year and just hike for a year. There are retirees who get second homes here, but there aren't many people who like me, percentage wise, who have a.

Somebody hire them and bring 

Vis Isley: them here. Yeah. I don't have the data on that, but you and I have anecdote that you and I have that in common that we came for a specific role. That just takes me back to why it's fascinating that so many people are drawn to a place here. And again, thinking about those strategic imperatives is yes, our job is economic development here.

It, I, I call it transient economic development, which is that inviting people to come here for a vacation people to come here for a conference, executive retreat, incentive trip, or special event. And in those, that conference space, in that delivering balance and sustainable growth, we've teamed up with our partners at the Economic Development Commission as part of the chamber.

That they've identified as part of their Asheville five by five plan, five business sectors that they would like to recruit here to our region. And those are outdoor products, life sciences, climate and environment technology in advance manufacturing. And so we've proactively aligned our group sales team or business development team to go after conferences and executive retreats or incentive trips in those verticals so that we can be the front porch of traditional economic development.

The businesses that we have here and outdoor products from from Eno Advanced Manufacturing, that's New Belgium. There, there are so many examples of that. So if we can be good partners in helping diversify our economy, a diverse economy is a healthy economy and we wanna be good partners and stewards of that in those efforts.

Matt Peiken: And that speaks beyond tourism. That speaks to a more permanent effect of what you're hoping to influence is in people moving here in those sectors. 

Vis Isley: Absolutely. And 

Matt Peiken: businesses. That's what I meant, like not just people, but having businesses move here. I had a, one of my episodes, I had a UNC Asheville economist.

We were talking about that, about the opportunities and the challenges of this region in attracting larger companies that would offer those kinds of jobs. You mentioned another facet, one of the pillars you mentioned. And maybe I'm getting the verb on this wrong, but enhancing our creative community there.

And it seemed like there was, there's a lot of room for interpretation on how to do that. And how does the, how is the t d a diving deep into that pillar? Cuz I get the sense from I was hired here as the arts producer at Blue Ridge Public Radio, so I know many artists and musicians, people in theater, dance literature, you name it.

A common refrain is it's becoming increasingly difficult for people in the arts who have made their way in Asheville and they can't, they can no longer afford to live in Asheville. I'm wondering, what are the things that TDA is doing specifically or wants to do or is visioning around the creative community that would support local homegrown artists?

Vis Isley: Great question and one that's very close to my heart personally. And the pillar that you're talking about is promoting and supporting Asheville's creative spirit. The P. The P, and deep, what that means. Underneath that is shining a spotlight on the creators and makers that have helped shape this distinct community.

And that creativity comes in the form of visual arts, performing arts, advanced manufacturing. There are so many creative outlets here. Chefs are creative, farmers are creative, and those kinds of connections and shining a spotlight on those and not just the same ones over and over again because there's lots of deep talent here in the creative community.

Matt Peiken: When you say not just the same ones, can you be specific what you're talking about? Sure. 

Vis Isley: That could be a deep dive. So let me see if I can be concise about that. Is that, for example, in the food scene

before there was the term farm to table, Marla Tamini was working with ASAP and farmers and chef owners here in Asheville to create a storyline of food topia back when asap, 20 years ago, did a survey. There were 19, I believe that's the right number, 19 farms that were serving or connected to restaurants here, the survey that ASAP did last year, there are over 200 farms that are connected to restaurants and chefs and owners who are supplying them.

And that is a livelihood and a food chain that is sustaining farmers. Working with chefs in restaurants, creating a food scene here that is rooted in place and that is distinct and that is part of what draws people here. On the other side, which, and would probably relate more to the scene that you were covering before in my listening sessions with the River Arts District Artists Association, or I happen to be a neighbor of an artist who owns a gallery downtown.

When I ask them, by show of hands, what percentage of their sales are from residents or visitors, the majority of their sales, 60%, 70%, some 80% are from visitors to our community. So in fact, visitors are actually helping sustain that creative community here. Yeah, so I believe that's a both end situation.

Matt Peiken: I've heard various percentages and I suppose that is flexible, depending on the season and the artist and the kind of art you said you, when you talked about your definition of creativity and who and what you're promoting, I would think many artists, when you were wrapping in restaurants and people who make beer, people who cook food while admiring those professions I would think that a musician or a, an actor or anybody in the fine arts, what we label the fine arts might look at that, say if you're conflating what they do with what we do, that makes it even harder for us to.

Make our case because the restaurant industry is thriving here, comp comparatively to smaller galleries and performing arts centers. This theater that we're in right now, this 40 seat BB theater, that they would say, our restaurant and beer industries don't need any more help. They're, they would look at what their experience is and say we need the support.

So I'm just wondering if you can, if you would think that marrying all that up might water down the distinctiveness that performing and visual artists outside of our restaurant and beer industry bring 

Vis Isley: to this community. That's a tough one for me. I would look to people much smarter than me to answer that question.

I would say just from a. From a travel experience, from experiencing place that it is a holistic experience that includes sustenance in food, but also sustenance in culture and arts, which I personally love what I've heard from listening once again and working with Arts AVL and with our arts and cultural institutions.

So talking more specifically about the venues, what we hear and what we're currently working on together in collaboration is that our arts institutions or cultural institutions, which have been inside whose audiences tend to skew a bit older coming out of c o d, have been challenged. And that's from.

Just the way people buy single tickets versus season tickets. The competition with live music to other performing arts in our community. And so we're actually working on a pilot program this month in markets that matter, where we have drive markets. We did a survey of all of our arts and cultural partners to get input from them about what their challenges are, what they're working towards, who are the who are their audiences, including local as well as out of town.

And we're working on a social campaign to shine a spotlight on those arts institutions and experiences. And then we will be a part of the town hall that Arts AVL is working on in August, where we're gonna learn something through this test. And so we've got that campaign that we'll be running this month.

Based on the survey data we got from our partners in the arts and cultural arena here. And then we'll workshop that with them in August. And so I'm really excited about what we're going to learn and where we go from there. That's great to 

Matt Peiken: hear that you're doing that project. Something else that came to my attention that at one point there was a tourism management and investment plan that was talked about.

I guess I don't know how far along the T D A got in that I understand that, I don't know whether it was COVID or something that happened in 2020. It went by the either got shelved or became less of a priority. Can you describe what this plan was and what the status of it is? 

Vis Isley: Sure. Again, we're an industry of acronyms, so team I let's call it that.

It was really a collective effort to get input from the community, from stakeholders about what priorities were at the time, what. Were priority projects, what were Im, what were important values or topics or themes? So there was research involved, there were workshops, charettes all pre me, all, all before my time.

But I, I did study it. And then Covid and I think everyone in this community, country and world can say priorities changed. And so that was shelved. During that time. In March of 2020? Yes. March of 2020, right? How soon we forget? Yeah. Or how long ago? That seems. So March of 2020, that was shelved.

And then there was emergency legislation that got passed in Raleigh. Right before the legislation, the general Assembly shut down because of covid to divert 5 million from the Tourism Product Development Fund to the Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund. And the TT D worked with Mountain Biz Works to administer that program, which was unheard of in this state or country that a community actually diverted lodging tax dollars to a grant program that went to individual businesses.

And nearly 400 businesses received that 5 million in grants to save jobs, to keep places open like Rocky's Hot Chicken Shack or Gingers Revenge or Soul 82 as a black owned business. And that was taking place. And then I came in December of 20 still. And the thick of it in the throes of Covid and started my listening tour and priorities changed.

And so that Team Iip plan is a good reference and it has lots of good research in terms of a point in time. And there are different priorities now. Do you think 

Matt Peiken: those priorities that while we are coming out of the pandemic, I mean it's still in the air, we're three plus years since why I.

At this point or would the priorities in this pure conjecture, but if not for the pandemic, do you think just time we're in a, it's that three years later we would just have a different priority anyway? I'm wondering why if the, if T MIP P was something, and it seems like T mip P really marries into a lot of what you're talking about in terms of getting stakeholder thoughts, experiences, wrapping them into policy and programs that you want to do.

It just, maybe you're doing it under different acronyms or programs, 

Vis Isley: but Yeah, so there's a Venn diagram that was part of the team. I process that, that took this input and in part of my presentation to the board two years ago, I. Started from that Venn diagram and then my, what I call an eye chart of looking at all of those mapping of themes from different strategic initiatives in the community.

And those four strategic pillars ladder up to those broader community goals and just feel more in, in line and in tune with the community. But there are really good linkages in there. And then we also worked with hotel community, which was happening prior to my arrival in working to change the legislation that guides the usage of lodging tax because in this mother May I state that we live in lodging tax for every county in North Carolina goes through Raleigh.

And so ho local hoteliers had been working previous to c d and then coming out of C O D and getting that legislation changed to the To the level of the state guidelines, which in Raleigh means two thirds of the lodging tax invested in marketing and promotion, and one third into tourism related capital 

Matt Peiken: projects.

And you're getting something I think is important that I want you to detail because I think there's a lot of misunderstanding about what money the T d A. What comes in, what, how much control you have and what, in terms of what you do with it, who makes the decisions? And especially in a community that is generally starving for resources.

A lot of our nonprofits vary hanging on it's hand to mouth with a lot of our small to mid-size nonprofits. And a lot of people see the TDA money. It's oh, here's this windfall of money that tourists bring in. Why can't we do more with it? So I guess I'd like you to explain a little bit about what is mandated by the state legislation that made the TDA even exist.

It created the tda Talk about where these, the two thirds of the money that comes in from occupancy taxes, where it has to go by state mandate and where the one third has to go by state mandate. 

Vis Isley: Sure. So again, lodging tax is legislated at the state level here, but every county I started in Durham County, every county's legislation is a bit different.

And lodging tax was created for Buncombe County specifically 40 years ago this month. 

Matt Peiken: Right. 1983 is when the tda, Buncombe County TDA 

Vis Isley: was developed. That's right. And lodging tax is designed to help bolster the local economy. And it is funded through visitors who stay in lodging properties, which today is either hotels, vacation rentals, or bed and breakfast in our community.

Airbnbs. Airbnbs, yes. Vacation rentals. So it is a lodging tax that is paid by visitors. So when people say it's taxpayer money, it is visitors who come to our community that pay the tax that is then remitted. Through the lodging owner or property, and that is legislated or mandated at the state level here in North Carolina.

That is a resource that we have for our community coming from the outside, having grown up in North Carolina but worked for many other destinations and also being the Chief Operating Officer for Destinations International which is the Professional Development Association for tourism offices all around the world.

It may be surprising to your listeners that Asheville and Buncombe County is looked at as a model for how to invest lodging tax dollars, cuz generally speaking, even here in our own state, if you say lodging tax is invested in community, it's generally code for a convention center, a major performing arts center, or a major sports facility.

Okay. And here in Ashland, Buncombe County, the way it's been structured over the last 20 years, because the Tourism Product Development Fund has invested 60 million in 45 different projects throughout the community over that two decades. And that's from the Wilma Dykeman Greenway to the JBL Soccer Complex, to Pack Square Park to the Worthham Center, the Asphalt Art Museum.


Matt Peiken: the did McCormick feel the approval for that come from that, also from the Tourism Development 

Vis Isley: product fund? So in our June board meeting, we presented a recommendation from the Tourism Product Development Fund committee to the board to fund and invest in McCormick Field. So that was presented in June, and then the Tourism Development Authority Board will vote on that in the July meeting.

Okay, great. 

Matt Peiken: So you mentioned that every county has its own. Regulation or legislation around that. I didn't know that. Each county, I thought it was a, that the, that Raleigh decided this is what you can and cannot do every county in North Carolina. But you said there's some flexibility there. Not flexibility, but each county has its own.

Vis Isley: So how this is a both and this is a both and answer. Okay. And it's hashtag complicated because, my best friend from college is a dermatologist who's lived here for 20 years and raised her family and she says, Vic, I don't get up every morning thinking about tourism or lodging tax. That is not what I do.

Yes. I love when fam, from fa family and friends come to visit and they get to experience the arboretum and restaurants in the arts and cultural community here. It's not what people think about every day. So lodging tax is complicated. So there are. Many different versions of lodging tax legislation.

And there are state guidelines for usage of lodging tax that have been in place since 1997, I believe. And that is what is uniform in terms of when lodging taxes going through, the sausage making in Raleigh of what is within the guidelines, what is with outside of the guidelines, and when it gets opposed, and when it gets, when it's let through.


Matt Peiken: it reminds me, you probably, you may not have any knowledge about this, Raleigh gives every school district a base starting salary for teachers and that every school district can add supplemental pay if they choose to. If they have the money in their budgets, they can do that. Is this akin to that in a sense that every county's tourism development authority.

Has a baseline that it has to operate under if you do bring in more money or that you can have your own specific set of guidelines on top of what is dictated by the state. Am I reading 

Vis Isley: that correct? No, that's def My mom was a sixth grade school teacher in Rockingham County for 30 years. And you don't wanna get me started on education.

Okay. Okay. And it is not the same or similar. Okay. What I would say though, when you're talking about resources for a community or a county is that looking across the state, lodging tax is designed for a specific use and purpose. It is on a single type of business. And it then therefore it is invested in that way.

So one of the things that's important on lodging tax is that it is what is used and leveraged to invest in marketing and promotion for our entire community. And also, In capital projects and 69% of what visitors spend in our community is outside of lodging businesses. So while lodging shoulders, 100% of the marketing investment, 69% or the lion's share of spending of visitors is throughout restaurants and art galleries and music venues and outdoor outfitters and retailers.

And that's why it makes so much difference to our entire community about that additional money or investment or spending that comes into our local businesses, that wouldn't happen otherwise. But 

Matt Peiken: you of course, visitors are spending their money in lots of other places. They're not just staying in the hotel, eating at the hotel restaurant, going back to their room.

You know that goes without saying. The tourism development product fund seems. From the outside looking in as where you have some room for interpretation you meaning the tda, have room for interpretation about where can this money go that is tourism related, tourism promoting. And that can be from major projects to small groups.

And I know you have and please tell me what the name of this fund is. I know there, there are, there's a program within the TDA that gives up to $5,000 for individuals, like small festivals and things like that. There's in fact I have that here. 

Vis Isley: Yeah. So let me help you with that.

Yeah, please. So in the two thirds which again is in the state guidelines, two thirds is marketing and promotion, and then one third in, in tourism related capital project investment. And so the Tourism Product Development Fund, which has been in our community for two decades, for 20 years, is for major tourism related capital projects.

That's in the legislation major tourism related capital projects. And through that, again, in the last 20 years, if you're like me and have spent time on the Wilma Dykeman Greenway, 7 million of lodging tax helped make that possible in partnership with City North Carolina, department of Transportation and Federal Department of Transportation dollars.

And that what I, that's what I call at least a three-legged stool and maybe more is the power of partnership in investing these kinds of dollars on behalf of our community. If your listeners spend Saturday mornings at the JBL soccer fields, many of those families don't realize that lodging, tax dollars or visitors helped pay for those fields.

Yeah. So those are the, those are examples of, again, people are living their lives. They're busy. It's complicated. Yeah. And so trying to under, trying to try, trying to share the stories of how the visitor dollars that are left in our community, the lodging tax dollars that they generate help improve the quality of life and the amenities that we get to enjoy as residents every 

Matt Peiken: day.

When you talked about some of these projects, I can't help but think the renovations or the badly needed renovations of Thomas Wolf Auditorium come to mind. Is this something that the TDA that would fall under the capital improvement projects, major capital improvement projects, that the TDA could conceivably shoulder a good portion of the 

Vis Isley: cost?

It absolutely would and has. So over the life of the Tourism Product Development Fund, believe between. Six and $7 million have gone into renovations of the facility over the years. And what do you mean that the paint floating down from the ceiling in an Asheville Symphony Orchestra performance wasn't part of the decor?

Matt Peiken: It's it has come, obviously, it's come to such a point where with the HVAC issues that they can't even perform there. There's no way they can even be in there. But the renovations, from what I understand, the cost of renovations for Thomas Wolf. No matter what they, that renovation ends up being, whether they, it's a tear down and build up or just remaking what's there, it's going to cost exponentially more than the renovations of McCormick Field.

The TDA for all the occupancy taxes that come in certainly can't be expected to pay a hundred million dollars or more. I can't imagine. So what could the community realistically expect from the T D A, which I am, tell me if I'm wrong on this, that this kind of scale of renovation that is necessary at Thomas Wolf would be the largest single expense of a city project that the t d A would to some degree be supporting.

Vis Isley: Yeah, I think we're getting ahead of ourselves a little bit on this one. So one, one thing that's important to understand about the Tourism Product Development fund. And then the legacy investment tourism from Tourism Fund that will open in the fall is that these are grant programs. So either government partners or nonprofit partners can come and apply for projects that are major tourism capital projects.

And once it gets into that application process, it becomes a competitive process because there are finite dollars available. So for example, we have the Tourism Product Development Fund grant cycle open currently, and we have 8 million to award for projects that will be decided upon by the Tourism Development Authority Board in October.

So with that, there are guidelines that we do up to 50% matching funds. So to date the largest investment in a project is with Buncombe County and the town of Woodfin, which is the Woodfin Blueway Greenway that will have the the wave in the French broad and will also have greenways and a park.

And that's 8.14 million that the Tourism Development Authority has invested in. That collaborative project, 

Matt Peiken: when we talk about the wave, is that the pollution clearing element 

Vis Isley: of the French Broad, it's the whitewater wave, which will be, there'll be a lot of junk pulled out of the French Broad River before they install the whitewater wave.

But that will be a recreational opportunity for kayakers, for events and competition as well as for enjoyment. So again, that's another power of partnership example of with the blue, with the Woodfin Blueway Greenway is. Tourism development, authority, investment, Buncombe County investment town of Woodfin and North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Matt Peiken: And even that, though the total amount there pales in comparison to what people are talking about regarding Thomas Wolf. Yeah. 

Vis Isley: So next up would be the McCormick Field and renovating it to be a year-round facility, as well as being able to retain the Asheville tourists. And that would be in the nature of around 22 million if the.

Tourism Development Authority board, green lights that in our July meeting. 

Matt Peiken: You mentioned the competitive process of this and the I am drawn to who is making the decisions on these grants and other expenditures from the tda. I noticed there are a couple of different committees depending on the fund, and there's the board, the 11 member board, and a majority of them, correct me if I'm wrong on this, that seven of the 11 represent the hotel industry.

Is that, am I right on that or this the HO Hotel slash airbnb slash vacation rental industry. Am I right on that? 

Vis Isley: Not exactly. So to answer the first question, there is a tourism product development fund committee per the legislation. And there is an. Those need to be a majority of hotel or lodging owner operators.

And then there will be a legacy investment from tourism fund committee, which applications are actually open until tomorrow, July 7th. Not sure when this is gonna air, but you can that out. Yeah, I'll just 

Matt Peiken: strike that out. 

Vis Isley: So the tourism product development fund committee per the legislation, reviews the applications and it's in a two-step process, and then that committee makes a recommendation to the Tourism Development Authority Board on which projects they, they recommend funding and then the board ultimately makes that decision.

Let me ask 

Matt Peiken: you, this might be a naive question, probably is a hundred percent of all this money that comes through is through hotel and vacation rental occupancy taxes. But why do. People representing those industries have to be a majority on these boards and commissions. I would think in some ways we're not getting as diverse a perspective community perspective on some of these projects that we by not by having it be a majority coming from those sectors.

Why is that? Is that mandated by the state or is that something that you and your colleagues at the TDA can do something about? Not that it has to be done about. I'm just wondering what freedom do you have? What autonomy do you have to decide the makeup of these boards and commissions? 

Vis Isley: The board seats are mandated in the legislation, outlined in the legislation that 

Matt Peiken: literally a majority of board seats have to be represented by the vacation rental industry.

Vis Isley: The legislation outlines. The seats for the nine voting members and then the two exofficio. And it is lodging owners or operators that are under a hundred rooms. There are seats for lodging operators or owners that are over a hundred rooms. There are, there's a vacation rental seat that it was specifically put on.

There's a owner of a restaurant, brewery distillery opened to tours or an art executive director of an arts organization. The chamber appoints one of the members, so it is outlined specifically in the legislation and in my 28 years of doing this work, that is pretty standard in terms of a lodging tax that is levied on one specific business category that business category has a say in how it's invested. 

Matt Peiken: I, because on the surface of it, it's not the hotel year that's paying that tax, it's the visitor that's paying that tax. It's not coming out of the hotel year or the Airbnb person's pocket not coming out of their profits.

Am I 

Vis Isley: wrong on that? They are responsible for collecting it and remitting it, and that has been an industry standard. The f here's a little nugget for you. Yeah. The very first Convention and Visitors Bureau was started in Detroit, Michigan. 

Matt Peiken: Okay. Thanks for throwing that in. I didn't know that. But do you understand my point here that yes, they're collecting it and may I imagine there could be a collection fee for doing so?

That I don't know, but I don't see how that buys an expertise and an insight into how these monies are best spent, even following the legislation's edicts that you, it's a competitive process and that perhaps, and again, you don't have, I know you don't personally have a say in this. I'm just wondering your vantage point on this, do you understand my, that somebody's putting out a supposition that, why does it have to be just because they're collecting the occupancy taxes?

They're not paying for a seat on these committees.

Vis Isley: I mentioned before the first Convention and Visitors Bureau started in Detroit, Michigan because there were people that wanted to bring conferences and events to a place that created cars. So it's about that personal journey and it's been industry practice that is how lodging tax is collected and that is how it is invested.

And it is different community to community, state to state. However, makeups of boards is pretty standard in the industry. 

Matt Peiken: This might also be a naive question, please. And tell me if this is naive. I don't take offense if it is. Service, obviously servers, service workers and artists have been saying for y since I've been in town, it's becoming increasingly difficult to live and work in this community.

Is any, is there any room. Within the occupancy taxes to have a fund somehow to supplement the pay of service workers who are serving tourism. Here it is, they are working directly interfacing with tourists. I'm just curious, this is something that again, the community looks at the TD as having this pot of money that comes in that is un unprecedented or unequal elsewhere in this community and they see that as well, why can't we do something that's with this?

And I hear from service workers and artists, we are the reasons people come to this community from artists say this, we are the reasons people come here and service workers say we are the ones who make it a great experience for them. Is there any room in, within the tourism development, product fund or some other fund to create some sort of supplemental pay for service workers?

Vis Isley: In my nearly 30 years in, in this business I don't know of a program that exists like that anywhere in the world. And, our job in how the lodging tax is designed again, that is paid by visitors and collected by our lodging property owners here in our community is is demand generation.

So our job is to inspire visitors to choose Asheville and Buncombe County so that they come through the doors of these businesses to buy products and goods and experiences to leave their money here. That helps pay for the livelihoods of people here. 

Matt Peiken: Is there anything we haven't talked about? I've kept you here an hour and I'm, we could probably could talk about a lot more and I.

I could learn a lot more, but is there anything we haven't talked about that you think is germane for people to understand and get context about either your work with the TDA or the role of the TDA in this community and what your priorities are going forward in the year ahead? I know you just passed a new budget for the coming year.

What's what should other people know that we haven't talked about?

Vis Isley: That's a great question. I would really encourage folks to think about what is their mindset and heart set when they travel, and what their travel decisions are. Where they go, why they go there, what they do when they're there. And then think about that in the reverse in our own community.

I think that there, there's lots of issues for us to solve. And one of the things that I love about this community is very passionate. I would really love to have more and conversations about how we create more opportunities for more people to win, to have sustainable growth in our community, and how do we do that together?

And for the things that we want as a community is what are the levers that we have collectively to pull in the state of North Carolina to have the things that we want to have and services that we want to have. Because the lodging tax is not a panacea, it's not a cure-all. It's designed for a specific purpose.

And we are working within the community and with these strategic imperatives to deliver what's right and what's good for this community. And the other thing is that our employees are residents of Asheville. The Tourism Development Authority board members are residents of Asheville and Buncombe County.

They started their careers in service and 

Matt Peiken: hospitality. Yeah, and I noticed on the website you mentioned your first service job or your first there, what, there was a, the service job and there was another title, but I know you were very clear to put that, to let people know that people on that board started in service.

In the service industry. 

Vis Isley: We all start, we all started from somewhere and we're all on a journey. And I think that's one of the reasons that I love travel is it's a journey. 

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