For more than two decades, the William A.V. Cecil Tourism Leadership Award has honored those who have made a significant contribution to the tourism sector in Asheville and Buncombe County and who have provided exceptional leadership in making the community a special place to live and visit.
This year, the award went to Asheville Independent Restaurant Association, better known as AIR, presented at the virtual Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority annual meeting on Oct. 7 by Chris Cavanaugh, interim executive of Explore Asheville.
AIR is a membership organization of independent restaurants located in Buncombe County now numbering more than 100 establishments, including fine dining restaurants, coffee shops, fast casual outlets and ice cream purveyors. Led by Executive Director Jane Anderson, AIR supports its members through advocacy, education, workforce development and collaboration.
In making the presentation, Cavanaugh described AIR as a “community of passionate, dedicated people who have shaped Asheville’s reputation as a unique culinary destination.” Noting that the organization is perhaps one of the nation’s largest of its kind, Cavanaugh continued, “Independent restaurants are a huge part of the appeal of Asheville and Buncombe County, and they are part of an ecosystem that includes local farms and many different kinds of makers.”
Accepting the award with Anderson were Michel Baudouin, of Bouchon and Rendezvous, and Eric Scheffer, of Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian and Jettie Rae’s Oyster House, two of the original four chef-owners who started the membership organization in 2003.
“Thank you all very, very much. This is an incredible honor for us. We’re humbled and honored,” said Scheffer. “I can’t believe that more than 18 years later we’re here together, all three of us, still standing.”
“And still talking to each other!” chimed in Baudouin. “This is beautiful. This was very much unexpected and so was the help that we received from the BCTDA earlier, a few months ago,” referring to the $5 million Buncombe County Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund created by the Buncombe County TDA in collaboration with Asheville Buncombe Hotel Association and local and state elected officials, a pandemic relief initiative that provided grants to help nearly 400 local small businesses reopen, including restaurants and cafes.
“I’ve never seen anything like that anywhere else and I’ve been around a little bit,” said Baudouin. “It was very encouraging and really showed the support of what this town is all about. Our businesses can work together and support each other and that’s why we started the restaurant association – it was to help each other.”
Created in 1999 as a tribute to the late William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil, owner of Biltmore Estate and a champion of its preservation and success, the award honors the leadership, creativity and commitment of the people who have made it their mission to help guide the tourism sector in Buncombe County.
Among the past recipients of the award are: Karen Cragnolin, longtime former executive director of RiverLink, spearheading redevelopment along the French Broad River; gallery owner, businessman and downtown visionary John Cram; N.C. Senator Martin Nesbitt, sponsor of the room tax bill in 1983 to fund a full-service destination marketing organization and create a comprehensive strategy to market Asheville and Buncombe County; Mark Rosenstein, restaurateur and early advocate of the farm-to-table movement; and Oscar Wong, pioneer of the local craft beer movement and founder of Highland Brewing. View a complete list of award recipients here.
>> View a recording of the presentation here (starts at 00:22:44 and runs to 00:31:08).
ABOUT BUNCOMBE COUNTY TOURISM DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY: Established by state law to administer the occupancy tax paid by overnight visitors according to the enabling legislation, the BCTDA is a public authority with a public purpose to enhance the economic vitality of Buncombe County. It is led by 11 appointed, local volunteers who provide professional expertise to ensure the effective use of the tax to benefit our community and the people who live here.
Explore Asheville works under the oversight of the Buncombe County TDA to execute an extensive strategic marketing and sales program that inspires visitation and group meetings and travel while showcasing and providing free marketing opportunities to more than 1,300 local businesses and nonprofits, many of them small and micro-sized operations. In 2019, more than 4 million overnight visitors contributed to annual tourism expenditures of $2.2 billion in Buncombe County, generating $881 million in income for nearly 28,000 jobs.
Since the start of the global pandemic, BCTDA has worked closely with leaders from the County, City and business community on pandemic recovery efforts that will continue to be a priority into 2021. Among the initiatives that also included collaboration with local and state elected officials was the establishment and disbursement of a $5 million relief grant program to help nearly 400 local small businesses reopen, creating or restoring 4,800 tourism-related jobs.
Kathi M. Petersen, Director of Public Information