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High Country’s Variety Attracts Vacationers

By Jane Nicholson

BOONE – Visitors to the High Country tend to be last minute planners, rely on word of mouth or the Internet when picking their travel destinations and activities, and favor shorter one-to three-day trips versus a weeklong excursion.

Why and how tourists make their travel plans are among the findings of an Advantage West-funded marketing study conducted for High Country Host (HCH) by professors in Appalachian State University’s Walker College of Business.

More than 2,000 visitors were polled for the survey at venues across the six counties. The information gleaned from their responses will be used to develop future marketing strategies, said Judy Donaghy, executive director of High Country Host, an organization representing tourism-related businesses in Ashe, Alleghany, Avery, Mitchell, Watauga and Wilkes counties.

“It gives us a better picture of who our visitor is and what kind of information they use to plan trips to the High Country,” Donaghy said

The survey was conducted by Mike Evans, Dinesh Davé and Jim Stoddard.

“The survey provides really good marketing statistics and demographics on who’s coming to the area,” Evans said. “It provides information on the service that makes us more competitive.”

The survey showed the strength of the variety of niche markets that have developed in the six-county area.

” We have heritage tourism, cultural tourism, nature and eco tourism. We have a fairly diverse market, which is good. That’s why we are a great destination” Evans said.

The study’s information also yielded a few surprises, Donaghy said.

“A huge number plan their trip less than a week in advance, which was a little bit of a surprise to us. It certainly gave us some insight as to how we should be marketing the area,” Donaghy said.

Donaghy speculates that last-minute travel is a result of families who have become so busy with their children’s activities. When a free weekend arrives, they plan a last-minute trip to the mountains.

More than 43 percent of those responding to the survey were from within state, and a large number of those from Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Hickory. The most visited venues were the Blue Ridge Parkway, shopping areas and Grandfather Mountain.

“It seems everyone visits the Mast General Store and Grandfather Mountain,” Evans said. “The survey also reinforced the importance of the Blue Ridge Parkway to the area. It clearly is a resource that we need to understand. A high percentage of people tour it for the views and nature. We need to understand, protect and cherish it.”

The survey showed visitors use the Internet for their travel planning, but still request copies of HCH’s “Mountain Vacation Planner,” even though all its contents and more can be found on the organization’s Web site at http://www.highcountryhost.com/.

The visitors’ primary source of information that was the report’s most surprising.

” As far as advertising, word of mouth and having a good experience on previous visits are by far the methods most people used when deciding to take a trip,” Donaghy said. “That tells us something that we try to get across to our members: that the way people are treated when they are here makes a huge difference in whether or not they come back and whether or not they recommend the area to other people.”

Dana Clark, former president of the Travel Council of North Carolina, agrees.

Clark is an associate professor of management in the Walker College of Business, He helped develop a training program for the Tourism Industry Association of North Carolina in the late 1990s that addresses a variety of customer service and hospitality industry issues.

” People come to North Carolina to visit because of N.C. hospitality,” Clark said. “They really think it’s Mayberry here. They have an expectation that we are going to be friendly, so it’s very important that we give our people training, especially front line people.”

The program addresses proper telephone etiquette and ways to deal with people from different cultures, or people with special needs, such as senior citizens or families with children. It also addressed how to recover from service failure.

“I think most destination marketing organizations realize that you have to have the product right before you go out and market to tourists,” Clark said. “You can have all the marketing in the world but if they come in and their experience is bad you have blown the whole thing.”

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