Tourism in New Hanover County continues to grow, according to an annual report from the New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority.
Kim Hufham, the TDA’s president, made a presentation to the Wilmington City Council at their meeting last week, noting some of the highlights of the 2014 – 2015 fiscal year as well as the changes and adjustments that will be made moving forward.
Last year the county reached nearly $508 million in tourists’ spending, an increase of 6.33 percent over the previous year. According to Hufham, that’s the first time the $500 million mark was passed. New Hanover County tourism spending generated $43.93 million in local and state taxes, off-setting residents’ taxes by $202.45 for the year.
The county maintained its ranking as No. 8 overall for tourism among the state’s 100 counties and No. 2 for coastal counties. Over $10.3 million, an increase of 9.4 percent from the previous fiscal year, were collected from room occupancy taxes last year, a fund that is especially important to the area’s beach towns. Twenty-seven percent of the room occupancy tax money went to beach renourishment, while smaller portions of it went to individual marketing and advertisement for Wrightsville Beach (11 percent), Carolina Beach (8 percent) and Kure Beach (4 percent).
While the beaches have always been the greatest draw for tourists to the area, officials have also been trying to market the city of Wilmington as a destination for conventions and meetings. According to the report, the convention center district had one of the biggest increases in growth based on taxes collected in 2014.
Hufham said that while the positive numbers are encouraging, she and her staff are looking for more and better ways to show off all that New Hanover County has to offer.
“Right now one of the most difficult things is to find the right venues to be marketing,” Hufham said. “There has never been a time when there are so many opportunities for different marketing venues and ways to market an area.”
One of the things Hufham said hospitality businesses are concerned about is getting people to come during the off season of November through March. After a recent restructuring of their team, Hufham said there are now two staff members dedicated to trying to book meetings at the convention center, particularly during those winter months.
“We’re working hard to fill those rooms,” Hufham said.
Some suggestions from the council were to capitalize on the burgeoning theatre district downtown (Mayor Pro-Tem Margaret Haynes noted the traditional theatre season runs opposite the summer tourist season) and to increase sports marketing, two areas that Hufham said the TDA is working on through partnerships with other groups and businesses.
The annual Beach2Battleship Triathlon, sponsored by PPD, is one of the biggest events in the area and is a boon to the downtown area in particular.
“We think currently that is the largest room night generator for the convention center,” Hufham said of the race, which attracts 2,300 competitors from all over the region, country and even globe. “And it’s a sporting event, it’s not necessarily a traditional convention.”
Another event that will raise the Port City’s profile as a sporting destination will be the Wells Fargo Championship, scheduled to be played at Eagle Pointe Golf Club in Porters Neck in 2017. Normally played in Charlotte, the TDA has partnered with tournament organizers to begin advertising Wilmington as a premier vacation area. According to Hufham, money is already being set aside for television commercials to be aired during the tournament, and a full-page ad promoting the area will be placed in the 2016 championship’s program.
While the area’s weather and passion for athletic endeavors will help attract tournaments and teams, Councilmember Charlie Rivenbark brought up another issue.
“Something that’s missing in the equation is our lack of facilities. We just don’t have it,” Rivenbark said. “You can only attract so many people. We’re not getting the big [events].”
“That’s certainly something that I don’t know that this council or any council can overcome,” he continued. “We’ve got to have more facilities than we already have.”
Hufham acknowledged the problem, giving the example of the annual Beach Soccer Classic sponsored by the Wilmington Hammerheads Youth FC, which she said can’t expand any further because all the facilities are used to capacity.
Filling sporting venues, hotels and restaurants are what Hufham and her team aim to keep doing, however. By using the technology and social media available to them for advertising, as well as building on or creating new partnerships with other groups, the TDA is looking to improve upon their previous progress.
“[We] hope to continue to see, this upcoming year, another great year of growth for the tourism industry,” Hufham said.