This article was originally posted in Mountain Xpress on  

“Let your spirit run free.” The tagline for the new $11.5 million marketing campaign by Explore Asheville, the convention and visitors bureau funded by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, is meant to highlight the liberation and spontaneity travelers discover when visiting the region.

But the phrase might equally apply to the campaign itself. Under the direction of 360i, the Atlanta-based agency that took over direction of Explore Asheville marketing efforts in January, promotions for the area are slated to reach a wider audience than ever before — 20 million more people than were included last year, according to 360i representatives speaking during the BCTDA’s Sept. 5 annual meeting at the Omni Grove Park Inn.

Demographically, explained 360i marketer Cindy Stein, Asheville’s primary target has broadened considerably from “elite empty nesters” to encompass all “people who like the finer things in life.” Those visitors may already be familiar with the region, she said, but the new campaign would encourage them to linger over culinary and cultural attractions for longer stays.

Secondary audiences, Stein continued, include tourists seeking a family-friendly experience and a younger cohort whose friends have mentioned Asheville as a “new, cool place to go.” Both of those groups, she emphasized, are more budget conscious than the “prosperous, established … couples living sophisticated lifestyles” listed as the most desired visitors in the BCTDA’s 2018-19 sales and marketing plan.

That shift to target the less wealthy, added 360i’s Ashley Keetle, acknowledges Asheville’s vulnerability to a recession, which local officials, including Council member Vijay Kapoor and City Manager Debra Campbell, have said poses a greater-than-usual threat. “Tourism and travel can be the first things to go, so we’re trying ways to buffer the impact,” Keetle said.

In a press release issued before the meeting, Stephanie Brown, Explore Asheville’s president and CEO, noted that area visitation may be at risk if the national economy falters. “Although key measurements were positive for the fiscal year, the industry is beginning to experience early signs of weakness that may be due to economic factors that appear to be impacting consumer confidence,” she said. “Our role in bringing in customers to local business continues to be critical to the support and sustainability of our small businesses who rely on these visitors.”

The campaign will also reach a broader geographical area. Beyond Explore Asheville’s core markets in large Southeastern cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte, new cities where ads will be shown include New York, Chicago, Birmingham, Ala., and Columbus, Ohio.

Despite this substantial marketing expansion, said Menno Kluin with 360i, Explore Asheville would seek “the right kind of growth” instead of an unchecked increase in tourists. “We have to attract the right travelers, we have to attract the right people, so that we don’t muddle our wonderful destination.”

When Xpress asked for more detail on that remark, Kluin acknowledged the stress that some visitors place on residents. “Imagine Asheville overrun with the wrong traveler. It will lead to resistance from the local community,” he said. He and his 360i colleagues, however, would not give an example of whom such a tourist might be.