“The impacts of tourism are both positive and negative”
According to its executive director Lee Nettles, the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau is currently embarking on a number of initiatives. One of them, “Careers Beyond the Counter,” is designed to encourage local students to pursue rewarding vocations in the tourism industry. On June 6, the office will hold a public meeting on the concept plan for a new event center at the Soundside event site which has been redesigned more as a community than a convention center.
The office is also implementing a marketing campaign to attract “better visitors” who will be more respectful of both local culture and the natural treasures of the Outer Banks. And he has also just hired a company, at a cost of around $180,000, to develop a long-term tourism management plan, a task that is expected to take a good part of the year.
In a recent interview with The Voice, Nettles brought these efforts together under one strategic umbrella.
“The level of visits we’ve had over the past year and a half isn’t necessarily sustainable,” he said, “especially when you combine it with a limited workforce and some of the other challenges we have… There is a price for this growth The impacts of tourism are both positive and negative.
Current initiatives, he added, are designed to answer the question: “How can we grow and manage what we have, and not kill the golden goose or transform this community? into something we don’t want?”
In the interview, Nettles discussed the “Careers Beyond the Counter” initiative which the office is discussing with local high school officials to prepare students for careers in tourism which offer considerably more opportunities than basic jobs in the service sector.
“If we could encourage high school students to become more aware of the tourism industry and the opportunities associated with it, we could potentially grow the workforce without people coming into the market at the looking for accommodation…” he said.
Nettles added that the perception of many families and students here is that “the tourism industry is limited to the counter jobs these students have had. And meanwhile, it’s horticulture, it’s culinary…it’s marketing, it’s advertising, it’s web development…The industry gets kicked around for having low-paying jobs, but nobody talks about growth [or becoming] a manager quickly.
The status of the event center at Nags Head
Nettles described the process of planning a new events center as “an evolution of thinking… The center has kind of moved from a meeting space and traditionally visitor-focused to a space that’s more focused on community, as a civic center”.
Having a hotel on the site was dropped as an option and Nettles cites uses such as concerts and sports and smaller trade shows for the roughly 48,000 square foot center, which he says is comparable in size to the Publix of Kill Devil Hills.
“We’ve always recognized that it’s not a big enough property for a convention center, and also that it’s not really our market,” he said. “We are an hour and a half from the nearest international airport”, so the idea is to “provide an interior space large enough for the events that we have already developed… We will do meetings, we will do smaller trade shows… That was the biggest challenge, I think, trying to size the building properly.
Speaking of the public meeting scheduled for June 6, Nettles notes that currently the event center “is just a concept, it’s not really a final design… There are still big issues to work out. .. If all went well, I would see the building come out of the ground in two, three years.
The quest for the “best visitor”
The executive director said the concept started “as a rhetorical question… Maybe we don’t need more visitors, we need ‘better visitors’ who are better stewards of the region, who take somehow better care for the place or who are more respectful of the culture of the place.”
The goal, he added, is to find more visitors who “want to know why you shouldn’t run on the dunes or leave big holes in the beach”. [and] why it’s so important to go to a local business.
In terms of marketing, Nettles said the office is targeting “an enthusiastic audience, people who have particular passions for this place, whether they’re kitesurfers, whether they’re aviation freaks…people from the National Park Service . And what ties all of these things together… is that their passion says when and where they travel… If that’s their passion, then it’s not just the three summer months.
Asked if he believes, as some residents complain, that tourist behavior on the Outer Banks has gotten worse over the years, Nettles said, “I would say that respect and manners have deteriorated for our society as a country. I don’t think it’s relevant for our visitors. I think people just don’t care about their fellow man [as much] and we’re just more of a disposable society than before.
“Part of the overall sustainability of tourism is just to make it less of a stigma or separation” between visitors and locals, he added. “I want to create a community.
Launch of the long-term tourism management plan
Nettles said the office hired BC-based MMGY NextFactor to carry out what he describes as a three-part assignment.
“The first is a community engagement activity, where we really want to bring people together and have a conversation, find out what our shared values are, what do we think makes this place so special…So we have these discussions and we are able to identify the golden eggs and then we can deal with the geese that lay them,” he said.
“Another big area is predictive models, models of what is happening with tourism and what the cost is. What are the different scenarios that we can run to figure out how to grow so that we don’t overload what we have,” Nettles added. “The third big part is just developing the plan.”