Need to create experiences before promoting them


By Peter Thomson

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Recently the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Tourism Development Authority announced its intention to reduce or cut off funding to local organizations including Elizabeth City State University, Arts of the Albemarle, River City Community Development Corp.’s Juneteenth and others.

The idea was to spend this money, which can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly, in a more productive manner.

While most other towns in the area continue these grants, our local tourism board feels it needs the bed-tax money — a 6-percent tax on motel room stays — to fully fund complex demographic research and future campaigns. Corrina Ferguson, the executive director of the TDA, has considerable expertise in electronic marketing and promotion so supporting her makes a lot of sense.

And yet, the TDA’s previous executive director, Christina Rehklau, hired the Goss Agency from Asheville, experts in destination marketing, to study our situation and make recommendations about how to attract more tourists. The result of Goss’ research showed that we didn’t have enough experiential assets to attract tourists and that the TDA here should reach out to other towns in the region in order to create an Albemarle area of tourist attractions: an area in which most visitors would choose Elizabeth City as the place to stay. Elizabeth City would become, if you like, the hub and benefit from attractions throughout the area. Bottom line: we were told we had to create new tourism experiences to complement what we have and only then, start marketing them.

So one must ask, what’s changed? While we’re very proud of the amenities and attractions we have here. Fact is, if a young family were to arrive here at say, 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning and say, ”What are the tourist experiences that you offer?” It’s slim pickin’s. So perhaps rather than spending considerable money promoting experiences that the Goss Agency said are not worthy, we should look at beefing up what we have and starting some new ones.

But under the current legislation for our TDA that’s a problem. The TDA is really not supposed to make things, just market them. They’re not in the business of creating experiences, just selling them. There are seemingly two solutions: either change the legislation or work together toward the common goal of attracting more visitors. Our Tourism Development Authority could finance those same local nonprofits they are defunding to create some of the needed infrastructure, a course of action resulting in the town sporting new interesting experiences to promote.

The Elizabeth City Historic Neighborhood Association would be the ideal people to organize a proper historic walking tour if supplied with a targeted grant for electronic equipment and the money to support an enterprising student or old timer. Once funded, visitors could be charged for a modern, scripted experience.

ECSU could have their fabulous planetarium scheduled for visitors.

Funding could be arranged for other groups to provide sightseeing trips to the Amazon Wind Farm or perhaps a boat tour of historic sites in the area.

By using some of the tens of thousands of dollars that bed taxes bring in, the TDA could develop a laundry list of experiences with which to attract tourists, while supporting those groups that badly need the money. Should private enterprise decide that they want to take over any of these experiences later, they can certainly be allowed to do so.

Alternately, with the best will and highest expertise we may well be expertly marketing and promoting things that visitors just don’t want to see or do. And that’s a waste.

Peter Thomson is a resident of Elizabeth City.