Highlands Chamber prepares for 2021 and beyond

At the Town Board annual retreat earlier this month, one of the last presentations was by Director of the Highlands Chamber of Commerce Kaye McHan.

She outlined results of the Chamber’s annual retreat which took place in February during which the board further delineated the Chamber of Commerce’s and Visitor Center’s mission statements and purpose and spoke about the future of tourism in Highlands once COVID is contained.

“We have two different funding sources so basically we run two different businesses which is the way we distinguish what we do with the funds we receive,” she said.

The Chamber is funded with membership dues and the Visitor Center, now dubbed Visit Highlands NC is funded through occupancy tax dollars which all accommodations must levy.

The occupancy tax in Macon County is 3% of the accommodation rate. The money is sent to the county which keeps track of the money generated. After the county takes a handling fee, the money is sent back to the Chamber of Commerce/Visitor Centers through the local Tourism Development Authority in the municipalities from which it was generated.

New mission statements were formulated during the Chamber retreat because the entities are different.

“We felt it was important for us to have statements to keep in mind what the mission is we are trying to accomplish and to make our decisions off of that,” said McHan.

The Chamber’s mission, which is Member-dues driven is “strive to enhance and promote economic vitality and quality of life in the Highlands community.”

The vision accompanying that is: “to be the most valuable resource forging partnerships between businesses and residents for prosperity while preserving the uniqueness of Highlands.”

The mission for Visit Highlands NC, which is funded with occupancy tax money, “is to promote tourism and travel to Highlands for the economic benefit of all.”

The vision is “to be a year-round destination for those seeking an authentic leisure experience that makes the most of the area’s resources and unique culture.”

All together the value of the Chamber and Visit Highlands NC is to maintain the brand and integrity, and to operate as a research-driven organization to preserve the unique culture of Highlands.

“It’s about the data and finding the proof for what we are trying to do,” said McHan. “And ultimately to preserve what makes Highlands unique — the value of our small town and the reason we all moved here. It’s important to protect that and maintain it.”

Though throughout the nation, the hardest hit enterprise during COVID is tourism, Highlands totally missed the bullet, said McHan. “We really lucked out.”

According to statistics, the two kinds of places that profited off the COVID year are small mountain resort areas and beach areas.

“Those are the only ones that are coming out of this on the positive side as far as tourism is concerned,” she said.  “Nationally, the highest unemployment rate is in tourism. Elsewhere in the nation the tourism industry is dying. Highlands really lucked out.”

McHan said what has helped Highlands is the demographic of the people who traveled here, and the Chamber wants to make sure that continues.

According to McHan, the demographic of people who come to Highlands and who came during COVID are those in the 75th percentile economically. She said they normally take luxury cruises, stay in luxury hotels, go to Broadway shows, major sports events, and travel internationally. But in 2020 that wasn’t the case.

“In 2020, they had none of that. So instead, they drove to Highlands. And why not? It’s an amazing place. During 2020, those with the means took day trips, short get-aways, drive-to destinations. That’s us. That’s the places they went to and will continue to go to if they choose to travel,” she said.

Already 2021 is looking good.

“2021 is opening up. We have had more traffic during our slower months. Vaccines are happening, so people are getting a little more comfortable. Still not going international – that’s still a ways out, so they will still come here.”

Occupancy tax proceeds from July 1, 2020 through January 30, 2021 have already surpassed the total amount of occupancy tax dollars for the previous fiscal year July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020 and FY ’19-‘20 was already 14% higher than FY ’18-’19.

The total occupancy tax proceeds for FY 2019-2020 was 755,964.54. The total for July 1, 2020 through Jan. 2021 is already $844,595.57 – and the fiscal year doesn’t end until June 30, 2021.

What has McHan and the Chamber board concerned is what happens if Highlands loses the echelon of visitors it has enjoyed and profited from since everything began opening up May of 2020?

“In April when we only got $178 in occupancy tax, that was a wake-up moment. What happens if we lose our visitors?” she said.

Of course, the opposite happened, but worried about high-earners vacationing elsewhere once everything opens up world-wide, the Chamber has its eye on the future saying that’s why it’s important to keep marketing Highlands as a great place to live and visit.

“This is not a permanent change,” said McHan to the Town Board. “I wish I could tell you the town will be getting that much sales tax every year, but it won’t. The dip will probably come in 2022-‘23 when people become comfortable going out around the world. We need to work on replacing the audience we are going to lose.”

Year-to-date sales tax proceeds for July 1-Jan. 2021 is $671,896.46 — already up $24,470.77 over February of 2020.

“We will need to replace that group that will likely shift elsewhere, so we need to keep our name out there to the right audience. We are Garden and Gun not Southern Living.”

With that in mind, McHan said the Chamber’s goal is to strengthen the year-round economy through seasonal marketing with an emphasis on spring and winter because the goal is to keep year-round, steady income coming into town.

Since its inception, Highlands has been a place to rejuvenate. But says, McHan, it’s not just a great place to visit, it’s a great place to live so what the Chamber does isn’t just for visitors.

“It’s for us — concerts, fireworks, parades. It creates a great place to live. So, if we put our money in those things to keep it a great place to live, it makes it a great place to visit.”

With hundreds of thousands of dollars at their disposal, the Chamber/Visit Highlands NC will be taking over the flowers and hanging baskets on Main Street. It plans to extend the business district experience with visual clues seen on Main Street – basically flowers – to elsewhere in the business district. Hence “Highlands is Blooming,” kicks off Mother’s Day weekend.

“Visual clues will be a repetition of what’s on Main, and this will take people off Main to Carolina Way, Spring Street and elsewhere – spread them out so Main Street isn’t so crowded,” she said.

“Meander in May” is Saturday, May 22 where artists, weavers, and musicians will be spread out all over the downtown business district. It will be a great reason to be outside and be in Highlands,” she said.

This year, Friday and Saturday outdoor concerts are scheduled May 22-Oct. 31.

“We have a great lineup for this year with the Caribbean Cowboys kicking off of the concert series the night of “Meander in May.”

Events slated for 2021

  • Plateau Pick Up – April 17
  • Highlands is Blooming –May 9
  • Meander in May – May 22
  • Fri. & Sat. Outdoor Concerts May 22 – Oct. 31
  • July 4th Fireworks and Concert – July 4
  • Halloween On Main – Oct. 31
  • Lighting of the Park and Main — Nov. 27
  • Trim Our Town — Nov. 27
  • Olde Mountain Christmas Parade – Dec. 4
  • Santa in the Park – Nov 27 – Dec 24
  • New Snow Event coming Jan 2022

The new “snow event,” yet to be unveiled, is scheduled for late January

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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