Tourism still going strong — for now

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, June 22, 2022

By Elisabeth Strillacci

SALISBURY — James Meacham, CEO of Rowan County Tourism, says the numbers are still strong for tourism in Rowan, though there have been changes and the current economy means more changes may lie ahead.

Speaking before the Salisbury Rotary Club on Tuesday, Meacham noted that he last spoke to the group 15 years ago in the same month of June, when he was new to the job and the community.

At that time, Rowan County commissioners launched a “Branding Task Force.” Since then, Rowan County Tourism has come a long way, most notably in that brand marketing plan, now considered one of the top examples in the country. Part of that plan was making sure all connected communities were on the same page with each other.

Meacham said when COVID hit in 2020, it became more apparent than ever how connected communities in the county were because getting messaging out was far more simple than expected.

“We were already on the same page, which made messaging much more effective,” he said. “Now, we’re evolving still, and moving into the story-telling phase where we are talking about what makes Rowan County an original.”

In 2019, Meacham said the county had a record year in terms of income from local occupancy tax, which funds the tourism organization. Then 2020 and COVID hit, and there were “record losses,” that continued into the first part of 2021. As the year went along, however, things took an upward turn, and the second half of 2021 and the first half of 2022 have climbed back to record levels. But unlike 2019, which was “the most stable year ever,” current economics are far more unpredictable, and the source of the dollars has begun to shift.

When COVID began to ease and folks were able to travel again in late 2021, he said, leisure travel skyrocketed.

“People were just traveling to get out after being quarantined so long,” he said. “Now, leisure travel has come down to 2019 levels, which are still strong, but group travel to destinations or events has been climbing, as has business travel.”

“Convergence of economic factors that are beyond local control — inflation and gas prices — may eventually have an impact,” he said. “We are watching the numbers weekly. We may not be able to do much to avoid it, but we’ll know if it’s coming and will be as prepared as possible.”