ASHEVILLE – Besides the $1.3 million the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority spent for advertising at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, the organization also dropped $70,000 to entertain tennis and tourism industry officials, as well as “decor” for the suites, and travel and lodging for TDA staff and board members.
The TDA, which derives its funding from the local occupancy tax on hotel rooms, vacation rental and bed & breakfast inns, released a detailed report Sept. 12 on the expenditures at the Open, which concluded Sept. 11. By law, the TDA must spend two-thirds of its revenues on advertising and promotion and one-third on its Tourism Product Development Fund, which funds infrastructure projects that can bring in tourists but also benefit locals.
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Koozies, suite decor and catering
The report details what types of exposure and advertising the TDA got for the $1.3 million, but also outlines what the authority spent for staffers to attend, entertain and network with movers and shakers in tourism and tennis.
Among those non-advertising expenses:
• Fan promotion — $24,466. This included buying and distributing 15,000 “Asheville” labeled drink koozies.
• Suite decor — $1,099. The suites, available two nights, were included in the $1.3 million deal, but decor was extra.
• Suite catering over two nights — Sept. 7 was reserved for media (travel editors, writers, etc.) and cost $8,913. Sept. 8 was for meeting planners and cost $9,747.
• Staff travel for Explore Asheville staff (the promotional wing of the TDA) — $8,289.
• Travel for “M. Sumney and manager” (Asheville musician) — $8,790.
• Travel for TDA Board member – $1,859.
The TDA has a $46 million budget. It initially announced the U.S. Open advertising deal Aug. 2.
The advertising money bought an “Asheville Night” designation for one session, and it included the reservation of the suites for two nights, as well as limited invitations to the U.S. Tennis Association’s presidential box “used to meet with USTA officials about attracting future events to Asheville,” according to the release.
Expecting a ‘return on investment’
TDA President and CEO Vic Isley said in the release that she’s proud of the Explore Asheville team and “our work to showcase Asheville as a creative, vibrant community for leisure travel, business groups and sports events.
“Measuring the return on investment for this partnership is as important as the implementation of it,” Isley said. “Measurement will take place over the coming months and early indications are very promising.”
The release states that one meeting planner who was a guest of the TDA at the event “has the potential to bring several conferences that could generate $337,000 in future spending in Asheville.”
The release also states that on Sept. 8, Explore Asheville “leveraged its second suite session to host meeting and event planners based in the New York area.”
“One guest is considering Asheville as the location for a conference that would generate more than $415,000 in direct spending in our community,” the release states, adding Explore Asheville covered catering costs of $9,747 for the evening.
Those working that night’s event included Isley, the director of sales and group marketing manager, and TDA board member Brenda Durden.
Strong TV viewership
The TDA’s release noted the Open attracted “its highest-ever attendance for the tournament during the main draw,” with 776,120 fans.
“TV viewership also reached all-time highs,” the TDA said. “Serena Williams’ US Open finale drew 4.6 million viewers, making it the most-watched tennis telecast in ESPN’s 43-year history.”
Asheville already has hosted the Billie Jean King Cup in Asheville earlier this year, and the TDA “used the access to discuss bringing additional USTA related events to Asheville in the future with Lew Sherr, USTA CEO and Executive Director,” the release states.
The Billie Jean King Cup generated $8 million for local businesses in the Asheville area, the TDA said.
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Wooing travel writers and reporters
Regarding the media night event the TDA hosted in its suite, the release said, “It is normal practice for destination marketing organizations to host events for members of the media, frequently in the media capital of New York City.”
“Explore Asheville used one of its two suite nights at Arthur Ashe Stadium to engage with media and influencers, build relationships and share the latest news about Asheville to inspire future coverage about the character of the community,” the release states, noting Explore Asheville covered catering costs of $8,913.
Isley worked that event, along with Marla Tambellini, senior vice president of marketing, the TDA’s director of public relations and the group marketing manager. TDA board members Matthew Lehman and H.P. Patel also attended.
At the TDA’s Aug. 31 meeting, Patel said spending on events such as the U.S. Open is crucial now, as hotel occupancy has dragged this summer compared to last year.
“It’s imperative, this advertising,” Patel said to TDA staffers. “I think it’s great, what you guys are doing, and the U.S. Open appeals to that.”
Lehman, who is also the treasurer of Explore Asheville, said in the release the U.S. Open was “a terrific opportunity to engage with media and clients.
“Based on conversations, I feel confident that we will be welcoming visitors and conference attendees to Asheville in the near future,” he said. “Their spending in our community will continue to sustain our independent businesses.”
For the media night Sept. 7, the TDA’s guest list included writers and editors from Conde Nast Traveler, the Washington Post, Travel & Leisure magazine, Vogue, Essence, National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times, The Daily Beast and others.
The Sept. 7 evening session was designated “Asheville Night” and included additional promotion for the Asheville community in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
State senators weighs in
State Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, who co-sponsored the bill to change the TDA’s funding formula (previously it was a 75%-25% split between advertising and the Tourism Development Product Fund) said via email he has faith in the TDA’s marketing savvy.
“I’m confident in the Buncombe TDA’s ability to effectively market our resources and assets to drive our economy,” Edwards said. “After all, look at their successes over the past several years. Buncombe County tourism continues to thrive even through a major recession and a pandemic.”
State Sen. Julie Mayfield, D-Buncombe, also said she has no problem with the TDA’s tournament expenditures.
“First, as we all know, the TDA is required to spend millions of dollars on marketing Asheville, and this marketing strategy is not out of line in terms of cost with much of what the TVA buys,” Mayfield said via text message. “Second, I view this as an investment in Asheville’s relationship with the USTA. We have hosted the Fed Cup/Billie Jean King Cup three times now, and if advertising at the U.S. Open helps to cement the USTA relationship and bring the Billie Jean King Cup back to Asheville again and again, it will have been well worth it.”
For the $1.3 million advertising investment, the TDA got:
• Two court logo display positions in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
• The Asheville logo displayed on each side of the court during match play.
• A 10-second video board message run in two event stadiums, as well as ad impressions across U.S. Open digital platforms.
• Video ads on USOpen.org, and advertising spots on U.S. Open radio.
• Email banner inclusion in U.S. Open daily newsletter.
• A full-page ad in the U.S. Open program (160,000 copies).
• Inclusion in listings where all official sponsors are included.
Also traveling at the TDA’s expense were Asheville residents M. Sumney and E. Fernandez Abril, listed as “musician, actor, Asheville resident;” and Coco Villa, an Asheville-based sustainable clothing designer.
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The Citizen Times reached out for comment to Villa and Travel & Leisure magazine executive editor Jacqueline Gifford but did not hear back by deadline.
For the Sept. 8 suite event with meeting and event planners, the TDA’s guest list included meeting brokers and planners, an American Airlines official, a research group and others.
Citing a statement by the USTA in Fortune magazine, the TDA said brands spend millions to tens of millions annually for sponsorships, depending on “prominence of signage, amount of promotional space on the ground and other benefits.”
“Asheville was able to reach similar national audiences for a fraction of the cost of other major brands represented at the U.S. Open,” the TDA said.