Area counties see strong visitor spending in 2012

Counties across the Charlotte region enjoyed a robust year of visitor spending in 2012, new state data show, fueled in part by activities ranging from the Democratic National Convention to hot air balloons and a steeplechase.

Mecklenburg and the nearby counties of Cabarrus, Iredell, Gaston, Lincoln and Union saw a combined visitor spending growth rate of 6.8 percent last year, easily besting the statewide average rate of 5.4 percent.

Mecklenburg once again accounted for the biggest tally of any North Carolina county in visitor spending, a figure that grew by 7 percent and hit $4.4 billion last year, or nearly one-fourth of the total for the state.

Other counties in the region saw significant gains, too.

Union County had one of the biggest visitor spending growth rates in the state. Cabarrus ranked 12th in total visitor spending out of 100 counties. And Iredell County finally broke the $200 million mark for visitor spending.

“That was exciting,” said Craig Peddicord, executive director of the Statesville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

After Peddicord started work at the bureau early last year, he boosted the agency’s advertising and marketing efforts and revamped its website. The bureau also heavily marketed the annual Carolina BalloonFest.

That popular October activity drew an estimated crowd of more than 32,000 over three days, the biggest total in a decade, said Carolina BalloonFest Executive Director Robb Collier. Organizers are hoping for bigger numbers this fall when the festival celebrates its 40th anniversary.

The annual visitor study for the state Commerce Department’s Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development is by the U.S. Travel Association, which uses data from government and proprietary sources to examine spending in areas including restaurants, lodging, attractions, retail shops and recreation. A similar study for South Carolina counties for 2012 has not yet been released.

‘Some pretty healthy numbers’

Last year’s DNC had an estimated economic impact of nearly $164 million on the local economy, according to a consultant’s report. As lucrative as that event was, it still was dwarfed by Mecklenburg’s overall multibillion-dollar visitor spending totals, said Tom Murray, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

Another positive indicator for the industry, he said, was the jobs figure: The sector employs more than 45,000 people in the county. The employment total rose by 4.3 percent last year, one of the highest rates in the state.

And state and local tax revenue tied to visitor spending in the county last year generated $313 million, a 3.6 percent increase over prior totals.

“We’re fortunate to be in a very healthy tourism market,” Murray said.

Diverse attractions

While Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties are home to some of North Carolina’s highest-profile sites, Union County actually had the region’s largest visitor spending growth rate.

Visitor spending of nearly $109 million marked an increase of 7.3 percent over 2011’s totals, the fourth highest growth rate in the state. “I think the growth rate is fantastic. It shows that people are coming not just to Monroe but Union County as a whole,” said Pete Hovanec, Monroe’s tourism director.

He listed a series of events and attractions around the county that help lure people, including the Queen’s Cup Steeplechase in Mineral Springs, the JAARS Bible translation ministry in Waxhaw and the Warbirds Over Monroe Air Show. Filming TV shows and car commercials in the county also added to the spending totals.

Some caution remains

Despite overall increases, visitor spending rates statewide and locally are not growing as fast as they had in 2011.

In the midst of the recession, the state’s visitor spending rate plunged in 2009, then shot back up in 2010. Since then, growth rates have slowed as part of a cautious recovery, said Wit Tuttell, the state’s director of tourism marketing.

Mecklenburg saw the biggest drop locally, moving from a 10.5 percent growth rate in 2011 to 7 percent last year. Murray said that reflects a normalization of rates coming out of the recession.

The industry still faces some other hurdles.

One challenge Murray cited is the rise in hotel room rates, which pits the county against areas offering lower prices. He also said there is a need for more hotel rooms and larger hotels to help attract big groups.

Tuttell said the region and the state face “a marketing arms race that states near us are doing.”

Despite such concerns, he said he believes the state will surpass last year’s record of $19.4 billion in visitor spending and top $20 billion this year. “As long as we’re growing, it’s OK,” Tuttell said.