As a newly created brewers guild sets its sights on marketing the Port City as a drinker’s destination, an established local organization has been been doing just that behind the scenes.
Now that group – Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau – is hoping to move forward together with area craftsmen to carve out a niche in the national craft beer movement.
The bureau is hosting a meet-and-greet, of sorts, with area brewers later this month to share the bureau’s ongoing efforts to promote the industry and hopefully forge a strong partnership in shaping locally made beer into a tourist draw akin to Asheville.
“This whole area is getting ready to explode,” said Shawn Braden, executive vice president of marketing for the visitors bureau. “We want to bring more of our industry partners into the fold and see how we can work together to get more exposure.”
It’s exposure staff at the agency has been actively seeking for the last two years, as signs of the surge to come began emerging. It was 2014 when, for the first time, the visitors bureau was able to tap into NC Beer Month–an annual statewide promotion of North Carolina’s breweries through various events and specials held each April.
“It was just in the last two years that we were really able to claim we were a craft beer destination,” bureau spokeswoman Connie Nelson noted.
Since that first stake in 2014 – and especially within the last year – the number of breweries in the Cape Fear region has rapidly risen to eight.
And Ted Coughlin, owner of the downtown Ironclad Brewery and member of the Greater Wilmington Brewers Guild, believes that number will nearly double in the next several years, with three alehouses slated for downtown alone and another four spread through New Hanover and Brunswick counties.
That’s good news for brewers like Coughlin, who views craft beer as a collaborative, rather than competitive, business.
“We feel the more breweries that come to the area, the more beer tourists will come…Our top mission is to promote the craft beer industry within Wilmington,” he said in a previous interview.
It’s that spirit of cooperation that the bureau wants to tap into as it continues to develop the fledgling local industry into a reason to come to the Port City.
“It is encouraging for us to know that the brewers want more breweries to come in,” Nelson said.
To draw in tourists for a weekend or weeklong getaways themed around beer, Coughlin believes a city needs at least 10 to reach that “tipping point.”
Anticipating those numbers in the near future, the visitors bureau has reached out across the state, attaching Wilmington to efforts like NC Beer Month, and nationwide, helping the city earn some accolades. Among other efforts, the group was behind getting Wilmington on the Craftbeer.com’s list of the “Top 5 Beeriest Beach Towns” in the country last year.
And it has added brewery visits and bottle shops to the “Tours and Trails” link on its website, which Nelson said gets 5.7 million page views a year.
Posing the question, “So if you’re looking for a beer-based getaway, why not book it at the coast?,” the page aims to create a “one-stop shopping” kind of experience for potential travelers, Braden said.
That approach, she added, is what really puts cities on the map for tourists.
“I liken it to the success Kentucky has had with bourbon,” Braden, who worked in that state’s tourism industry, said. “If you aspire to become a destination you’ve got to have a uniform message with industry partners.”
It’s that approach she hopes to put forth to local hotels, including several slated for downtown in the coming year. She said connecting breweries and accommodations on package deals – a room and tickets aboard the Port City Brew Bus, for example – could be mean the “difference between looking and booking.”
“It’s infinite how it can be packaged and put together,” she said.
With Asheville, which has 20 breweries, already established as a craft beer city and a growing number of Triangle-area breweries popping up, Braden said there is potential for the state’s travel and tourism commission to connect mountains to coast for visitors.
“If there is a statewide initiative, that’s where we’re really going to get on the bandwagon,” she said. “When a campaign [like craft beer] really takes off is when the state and the partners all get behind it.”
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.