After HB2 cancellations, Asheville inns hope fall color lures tourists back

The Engadine Inn & Cabins at Honey Hill in Candler, NC
The Engadine Inn & Cabins at Honey Hill in Candler, NC Rick Bell

Normally this time of year, Rick Bell says, the phone would be ringing often at his bed and breakfast inn just outside Asheville, with prospective guests ready to book a vacation in the mountains.

But in the weeks and months after Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 2 on March 23, Bell says fewer people are booking a room at his Engadine Inn and Cabins at Honey Hill, after one of the inn’s strongest winter seasons in years.

He’s hoping things will change come October, generally the busiest month for B&Bs in Asheville. That’s when tourists flock to the mountains to catch sight of the changing leaf colors.

“I hope that leaves are going to trump boycotts,” Bell said. “I don’t know if I’d say I’m optimistic that things will change, I’d say I’m hopeful. I have to have hope that this will be over soon.”

North Carolina’s HB2 requires people in government-run facilities to use bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificate, and it nullified a Charlotte ordinance that would have expanded protections for the LGBT community.

Frank Salvo, the co-owner of the 1889 WhiteGate Inn & Cottage near downtown Asheville, said he has seen a drop in customers from outside the state, particularly from New York and Florida.

“We’ve seen a decline from our bigger markets,” Salvo said.

He’s also concerned about how his business will fare in October. “We do have the advantage of the fall leaf colors, but if the trend is that they are not coming to North Carolina, I’m concerned,” Salvo said.

The business fallout from HB2 has been felt across the state: The NBA announced it would move its 2017 All-Star game out of Charlotte, and PayPal scrapped plans to build a global operations center in Charlotte, a facility that would have created at least 400 jobs. Deutsche Bank put a hiring freeze on 250 jobs at its software center in Cary.

In a statement, a spokesman for Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign said Wednesday the state “continues to add thousands of new jobs and move up in the rankings of the best states to do business.”

Drop in website traffic

In Asheville, the Omni Grove Park Inn lost a major event when the W.K. Kellogg Foundation canceled a summit that was to be held in August. It would have brought more than 500 people to the city, with a projected economic impact of $1.5 million.

The Asheville Bed and Breakfast Association has reported a sharp drop in traffic on its website after HB2 passed, dropping 10.69 percent in April, 11.85 percent in May and 19 percent in June compared with last year.

Susan Murray, the association’s marketing chair, said all eight B&B owners present at a meeting Wednesday reported a decline in occupancy since April. She also said they discussed whether business will be down in October, when the city’s B&Bs are on average 90 percent to 100 percent occupied.

Stephanie Brown, executive director of the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, however, says that overall tourism and overnight stays in Buncombe County are up from last year.

Occupancy in Buncombe County hotels and motels, which excludes bed and breakfasts, dropped by 0.2 percent in April and by 3.8 percent in May from the previous year. But in June, occupancy increased by 1.2 percent, according to data from the national travel research firm STR provided by Brown. She said the occupancy numbers were dragged down a bit by an increase in supply, with more rooms available.

“Overall, Asheville’s overnight numbers have been growing,” Brown said.

And B&B owners in other parts of the state say they haven’t noticed a dropoff after the passage of HB2.

“I haven’t seen people cancel because of HB2,” said Monica Edwards, president of the North Carolina Bed and Breakfasts and Inns and co-owner of Morehead Manor in Durham. She did say the growth of Airbnb, the peer-to-peer rental provider, is pressuring B&Bs industrywide.

But Billy Sanders, the co-owner of The Reynolds Mansion in Asheville said it’s not just that the calls have stopped, but that people have explicitly called and said they are not coming because of HB2.

Sanders said he had 16 cancellations from people who said they are not coming because of HB2, totaling $7,800 in gross revenues at The Reynolds Mansion.

He says his average gross revenue for July is $24,000 to $28,000, but as of late last week it stood at just $13,400 for the month.

Additionally, Sanders says there is no way to track how much future business he will lose due to people no longer considering Asheville as a travel destination because of HB2.

“I guess what’s kind of bewildering is when you talk to Buncombe County, they say that tourism is up,” said Sanders. “Maybe it’s because of the type of guests I have that it impacts me more.”

Sanders says many of his customers are from Europe – including Britain, which has issued a travel warning for LGBT people traveling to North Carolina.

While the economic impact of HB2 is still being calculated, other vacation destinations in North Carolina have also taken a hit on revenues.

Emerald Isle Realty, which manages about 700 coastal vacation homes, has reported cancellations totaling 29 nights of rentals and $20,000 in revenue this year since HB2.

At Engadine Inn, Bell says small businesses like his have a particularly hard time weathering such cancellations. He says if HB2 fallout continues, businesses like his might not survive. Still, he’s hopeful – not just for a good fall leaf season, but for bigger changes as well.

“I’ve lived long enough to know Americans finally get around in order to get along,” said Bell. “It can’t go on like this forever.”

Keith A. Larsen: 704-358-5354