Numbers down in tourists, officials remain hopeful

First Posted: 12/30/2008

Staff Reporter

While the number of visitors coming to Mount Airy and the surrounding area has decreased since August, local tourism officials say that doesnt mean that tourism isnt still a vital contributor to economic profit in the area.
Its simply a reflection of the tough economic times.
The economy has people cutting back on vacations, but we don’t think we’ll be impacted as significantly as other places, said Valerie Oberle, the chair of the Tourism Partnership of Surry County, which is an effort to create a joint tourism and marketing campaign to promote travel, expand tourism, and provide other tourism-related expenditures. The organization includes Surry County, Dobson, Elkin, Mount Airy and Pilot Mountain.
Since the Visitor Center opened its doors at the Chamber of Commerce in 2006, it has greeted more than 148,000 visitors. According to a report released by the Chamber of Commerce last month, the number of visitors steadily increased until August of this year when the center saw only 6,843, which was about 500 less people than it did in July. September 2008 saw a total of 6,683 visitors which was 924 people less than September 2007. October 2008 saw almost 1,200 less than October 2007, and November 2008 saw more than 500 less than November 2007. As of Tuesday night, the numbers for December had not been completed. Decreased numbers are also evident in the revenue generated from the occupancy tax, which dropped 9.18 percent from last year.
Jessica Icenhour, the Director of Tourism at the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, who compiled the report, listed the declining economy and high gas prices as factors contributing to the decrease of visitors to the area.
All the travel forecast point to the economy as playing a role, she said. During the Autumn Leaves Festival and Mayberry Days, gas was at its peak height. I think numbers will be higher come 2009.
She added that on Monday the center had counted 315 visitors for that entire day, indicating a larger number than average for daily visitors. According to the tourism report, the monthly average of visitors from July to November was 6,803 which comes to about 226 people a day.
Now that the price of gas has gone down, people are taking more day trips than night trips, she said. Our visitors are leisure visitors.
Both Oberle and Icenhour said that Mount Airy and the surrounding area lends itself to the casual traveler because of its variety of low cost fun.
It’s not expensive to visit our area, its a place where you can have a fun, outdoor vacation, (and) that’s one of the things we’ll be promoting, Oberle said, referring to the Tourism Partnership, which hired Clemmons-based branding company MadCat earlier this month to help brand the Surry County and its four municipalities in order to draw visitors and promote tourism.
Were promoting authenticity, we must be authentic in our role, she explained about the branding process. What we present must actually be the reality of what people experience here and what we are.

Moving forward for 2009
Completing the branding process, which includes branding both Surry County and its hospitality industry, are the goals that Oberle said she sees the Tourism Partnership focusing on in the upcoming year.
Were extremely pleased with how weve been able to put together the partnership, she said. Everyone recognizes that tourism is critical to economic prosperity, and weve received full fledged support from other organizations. Its a milestone to see this level of cooperation.
The organization grew out of the convergence of NC STEP, a NC Rural Center project designed to promote small town revitalization that includes participation from 45 communities including Dobson, Elkin and Pilot Mountain. In that union of NC STEP, known as the Surry Cluster, Oberle said the members developed a camaraderie that spurred an initiative to start the organization after they disagreed with the county, who wanted to create a similar organization like the Partnership. The countys organization would have taken 50 percent of the revenue generated from the areas occupancy tax, which is six percent, from each participating muncipalitythe Tourism Partnership only collects a third of that revenue.
The credit really goes to the three municipalities working together on NC STEP, said Oberle, adding that she believed the Tourism Partnership was one of the only organizations of its kind in the state, and one of few in the country. It was a strategic goal to promote tourism in a collective manner. We didnt have the leverage to do what we wanted to do, so we had an idea to form strategic partnership. We had to move fast. I knew because of the NC STEP relationships, the mayors, town mangers and other leaders from all four towns were in all complete agreement about forming the partnership. We didnt think (collecting) 50 percent was necessary, we thought we could do it for less.
The revenue received from each municipality helps cover advertising costs and other methods of promoting tourism.
One of the initiatives Oberle hopes to sponsor in the upcoming year is a Familiarity Tour, in which those working in small businesses related to the hospitality industry would receive on the spot training that offers the Surry brand of hospitality, Oberle said.
One of our priorities is getting the hospitality committee back together, and to begin to put tactical actions in place which will include FAM tours for key hospitality locations, and other hospitality businesses that have high guests contact. It will be a travel road show that takes hospitality training directly to restaurants, conveniences stores, retails, cafes and smaller operations that couldnt afford to send people off site. One of the key things is to establish our own brand of hospitality that makes a statement of what exists here, were not trying to change anybody here, but to heighten peoples sense about what brings people here. Were already good, we know we can get even better, we want to perpetuate that.
Oberle, who is a Canadian by birth, worked in Florida with Disney for 27 years before moving to Pilot Mountain five years ago. She sums up her experience living in Surry County as one that has been filled with friendly faces and helping handsits one that she thinks best represents the area, and that the branding company MadCat will help distinguish as Surry Countys own identity.
Ive been impressed with the genuine warmth and friendliness in the county and beyond our borders, she said. The willingness for people to be helpful and go out of way to help you, along with that small town feel, that family feelits what Ive heard tourists say, too. We want to embellish that and capitalize on that, and get people in the community and in hospitality jobs on that, we want them to understand how that builds customer loyalty and brings (people) back.
Local tourism director Jessica Icenhour said her focus for the new year will be promoting the variety of activities that Mount Airy and the surrounding area offers such as biking, canoeing, wining and dining, among others.
Whether visitors are Mayberry enthusiasts or a lover of wines or even looking to get hitched, she said the Visitors Center has a host of travel packages on its Web site,, dedicated to the leisure traveler with a niche.
I think we are definitely going to the focus on packages, its a niche market, she said. (The area) is developing into a recreational/out door area that includes bicycling, canoeing, the wine industry and weddings.
In a separate tourism effort known as The Northwest North Carolina-Southwest Virginia Regional Tourism Initiative, which formed in April, it merges the tourism efforts of nine counties including Surry, Stokes, Yadkin, and Wilkes counties in North Carolina and Carroll, Grayson, Smyth counties, and the city of Galax, in Virginia. In an effort to blur the state lines and integrate both states, the group branded the region as The Cascade Highlands.
Chris Knopf, the assistant county manager for economic development in Surry County, who also serves on the board of directors for the organization, couldnt be reached Tuesday afternoon, but said in an earlier interview that he expects the Cascade Highlands to have a director in place at the start of the new year and a Web site for the organization.
Contact Erin C. Perkins at or 719-1952.

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