Jumpstarting Tourism

Summary: Leslie Boney, Director of the Institute for Emerging Issues, hosts a series of virtual conversations discussing the impacts of coronavirus (COVID-19) and some of the ways our state is responding. As we begin to reopen the economy, we start a series called Jumpstarting NC. Each week we’ll be talking with those responsible for jumpstarting critical parts of North Carolina.
Join us for this episode (Jumpstarting Tourism) with guests Bill Cecil (President and CEO of Biltmore Estate), Duarte Morais (Associate Professor of Equitable and Sustainable Tourism at NC State University), Wit Tuttell (Executive Director of Visit NC) and Jeff Eidson (Explore Elkin).

*This episode of First in Future was recorded on Thursday, June 11th, and reflects information that was up-to-date at that time.*

View the slides here.

Listen to the podcast or Watch Zoom Video

Highlights & Resources


  • NC normally has 51M visitors per year (#6 in the US)
  • 45K businesses provide services to tourists, 550K employees in leisure & hospitality industry
  • Travel spending is down 70% this year, hotel occupancy is at 27%, 2/3 of the industry has been out of work = this is the biggest crisis our tourism industry has faced

What was it like to have to close down the Biltmore Estate earlier this year?
Bill Cecil: A jolt – never expected this. Never been closed otherwise this long except for during WWII. But we had to make sure our guests and team stayed safe.

What’s it like in Elkin, NC?
Jeff Eidson: Hotel occupancy is down, coming back a little now. We’re fortunate that many amenities are outdoor attractions – Stone Mountain State Park, wineries, river, hiking trails. Shifting messaging to outdoor activities instead.

What’s the bigger picture for smaller tourist entities?
Duarte Morais: These challenges can be opportunities for destinations to reinvent and emerge more competitive. Motivations for travel are changing: doing things in a socially distanced way, escaping confinement to an open area to relax – that’s a big draw to smaller destinations.

Where are people right now in thinking about travel?
Wit Tuttell: Based on a weekly survey on traveler sentiment, there’s a lot of fear and anxiety right now about traveling and having people come into your community. It’s different than anything we’ve ever dealt with.

Summarize trends we’re seeing?
Wit Tuttell: We get out of this by showing people travel can happen in a safe way. There will be new dynamics to tourism and it will be competitive, but NC is well-positioned because we’re perfect for what people want: space, outdoors.

What’s Count On Me NC?
Wit Tuttell: Worked with NC Restaurant and Lodging Association and NC DHHS and created “Count On Me NC” campaign – a pledge that businesses take, courses that NC State Extension has designed to make sure they’re operating in a COVID safe way to keep people healthy. Had ~10,000 people take the courses so far. 

What precautions has Biltmore put in place?
Bill Cecil: Put into place recommendations from CDC, NC DHHS, National Restaurant Association, Lodging Association – i.e. face coverings for team and guests, asking sick people to stay home, checking people returning from furlough.

What’s the plan now?
Bill Cecil: Trying to balance the demand. Some restrictions in Buncombe County are more strict than the state’s. Hope to get our visitors/guests back. Working hard to keep guest satisfaction up. Always trying to keep in mind safety of guests, team & community.

Advice for other properties? What does it take to make a tourist feel safe?
Bill Cecil: Working closely with NC DHHS and CDC and other local/statewide groups. Incorporating new learnings in ways to protect guests and team. We brief every morning, we debrief every evening, we talk to our guests about what makes them comfortable and work hard to incorporate feedback in the next day’s operation. 

On Explore Elkin efforts to draw people to Elkin, NC:
Jeff Eidson: Want to show people that Elkin is a great little town to live in; you can enjoy amenities of a larger urban area and lifestyle of a small town. Goal is to create infrastructure with restaurants, entertainment in downtown Elkin.

On Count On Me NC training:
Jeff Eidson: Hotels have done Count On Me NC training – done away with buffets, etc. Occupancy levels are low so they’re not dealing with crowding issues. Wineries have modified their operations. Entities are aware of safety for community and travelers and have taken creative measures. 

How does the rest of the world see recovery from this?
Duarte Morais: Seeing in Portugal: strong government involvement in tourism industry. Created “clean and safe” program (similar to Count on Me NC). In some popular beach destinations, they create sections that you reserve. Apps to check which destinations are crowded. Training, safety branding, pledges for procedures, access to protective equipment. Support systems for employees to influence their behavior have been different in Europe than the US.

Why is Create Bridges – helping local communities build the infrastructure to support tourism and create jobs – important?
Duarte Morais: Create Bridges can help communities disperse visitation so that destinations/attractions work together to get fair share of visitation/benefit. Before, the market didn’t respond to that. But now, there will be more interest in peripheral destinations to the main draws which will benefit some of the less well-served destinations.

The market is now more socially conscious. Many of us come out of traumatic situations reexamining the meaning of life. Great indication for how the tourism industry attractions and destinations need to rethink their role – need to be evidence that tourism is serving the community and the community is excited about having tourism near them.

What’s different about tourism coming out of this?
Wit Tuttell: More digitally based. When advertising, have to be careful of things that could change rapidly. Visitors have a different mindset now – want to be part of something, not just to check experience off a list. All speak well to the attractions of NC. 

Bill Cecil: New emphasis on family – multigenerational guests who are very connected to each other. Our leadership team has come together to focus on a complex situation – COVID has helped push that dynamic through the company. Getting better at adapting because of the urgency. Will see a more customized experience, less crowded.

Key takeaway?
Duarte Morais: There’s a cultural benefit to North Carolinians traveling in NC. It will demand that our industry provide a higher quality, less standardized, less commercialized experience. Local, nearby tourists are harder to please but it will make NC a richer, more competitive destination.