Tourism spending rises again in Polk County

Published 4:32 pm Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Polk was one of 62 of the state&squo;s 100 counties to see an increase in tourism spending in 2008, although the increase was below the statewide average increase of 2.1 percent. Young points out that any increase was significant considering that it came on the heels of a 9.6 percent jump in tourism spending in Polk County in 2007.

&dquo;To see it go up on top of a big year (in 2007), that&squo;s very positive,&dquo; says Polk County Travel and Tourism Director Melinda Massey Young. &dquo;It&squo;s a great sign. It shows people are still coming to Polk County.&dquo;

Young says a slowing economy was not the only deterrent to travel and tourism last year. She notes that a spike in gas prices and even gas shortages reduced travel significantly in the last half of 2008.

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&dquo;With all that was going on, who knew how we were going to end up, so that&squo;s really reassuring to see growth in spending,&dquo; says Young.

The tourism figures are based on a complex economic model that estimates tourism spending based on spending in a range of other areas, including lodging, gas, food, groceries and sales tax.

Young says the increase in tourism spending in 2008 indicates to her that more people made day trips to the county since tax revenue from lodging declined.

Polk County has tried to take advantage of the trend toward daytrips through a variety of regional marketing efforts. Last year the travel and tourism office used grant funds to do radio ads and also distributed new brochures to various markets, including Asheville, where &dquo;we went through the brochures like hot cakes,&dquo; says Young.

She suspects the new brochures attracted the attention of people visiting Asheville and may have drawn some of them for day trips.

The brochures were part of a coordinated marketing strategy that established a consistent brand and image. &dquo;The First Peak of the Blue Ridge&dquo; branding message was also incorported in a revamped website that includes more pictures and descriptive text. The brand was also utilized in direct mail marketing.

Currently, the travel and tourism office is working on an online, pay-per-click marketing campaign that will target Charlotte area residents. The campaign will utilize Google ads that, when clicked on, will send visitors to a special web page created to promote Polk County as an &dquo;easy mountain getaway,&dquo; says Young.

The page will emphasize how much closer Polk County is than other mountain locations, such as Blowing Rock.

&dquo;People are discussing us in Charlotte,&dquo; says Young, &dquo; and realizing that we&squo;re so close, but it still feels a world away.&dquo;

Despite the decline in business for accommodations here, Young says Polk County has so far been able to weather the recession without losing any establishments. Fortunately, she says, accommodations have seen an increase in business in recent months, bringing them some much needed relief.

Young says business during the winter months was very slow, and the county, which often attracts couples seeking a weekend getaway, also had a slow Valentine&squo;s Day holiday this year.

Businesses began to see an improvement in tourism spending, in May, then &dquo;June really picked up and July looks much better,&dquo; says Young.

However, spending is still below the &dquo;banner year&dquo; of 2007 and 2008. Young says lodging sales were down roughly 8 percent in May and 10 percent in June compared to the same months in 2008.

She says she&squo;s hopeful the number will continue to increase as Polk County heads into the popular travel months in the fall.

In fact, she says, Polk County has not only avoided losing any lodging capacity, but actually is adding more choices for visitors.

A growing number of property owners in the county are offering cabins for rent. The &dquo;growing niche&dquo; market, Young says, offers a good value to visitors since rates are comparable to hotels, but visitors get a kichen, more room, and maybe even a deck or porch.

A newly remodeled Days Inn and a host of inns offer a variety of other choices, says Young. She adds that the county has been working to gain more of the lodging business for equine tourism here. The inns are ready to cater to the needs of the many horse owners who visit here each year for equestrian events. Young says the county would much prefer to see those horse owners stay in the county overnight and shop and eat here, rather than lose them to hotels near Spartanburg.

The Green Creek Equestrian Park, now under development off Hwy. 9, is likely to add to tourism business here, says Young, particularly since it can host much larger shows than existing facilities here.

For more information about Polk County Travel and Tourism visit or visit the travel and tourism office at the corner of Hwy. 108 and Peniel Road in Columbus.

Young emphasizes that the tourism office&squo;s &dquo;wealth of materials&dquo; is available to not only visitors, but area residents who want to learn more about what&squo;s available here. She encourages residents to stop by and get a map or brochures. &dquo;We&squo;re here for you too,&dquo; says Young.