It is not news that tourism is an essential part of the local area economy, but the true impact of the tourism and hospitality industry is clearly reflected in the results of the latest Convention and Visitor’s Bureau Visitor Profile and Expenditure Research Study.
Ninety-five percent of surveyed visitors to Wilmington and area beaches reported being satisfied with their experience. Feedback provided will guide decisions in coming months as the tourist destination hopes to rally from a setback due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The study to research target visitor markets, prepared on behalf of the Wilmington and Beaches CVB by Destination Analysts, a market research company that specializes in travel and tourism research, aims to serve as a compass for the CVB’s newly adopted three-year Strategic Destination Plan.
A total of 2,157 completed responses were collected between April 6 and May 3 this year, of which 1,227, or 57%, were from recent visitors who took a trip to the Wilmington area and its beaches during the 12-month period between March 2019 and March 2020.
“The data gathered from this study indicates that the vast majority of recent visitors are highly engaged, loyal and mostly repeat visitors, with 91.5% of them having taken 14.1 trips to Wilmington and its beaches. The value of repeat visitors to a destination cannot be overstated, and retaining this strong base is vital to growth,” said Kim Hufham, president/CEO of the New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority, which does business as Wilmington and Beaches CVB.
Aligning with the timeframe of the Visitor Profile and Expenditure Research Study, Wilmington and local beaches experienced record visitor spending and tourism employment during 2019. County wide room occupancy tax collections also set a record in 2019 with $15.5 million in total collections, representing a 9% increase over the prior year. The research period ended in early 2020 just before the outbreak of COVID-19.
“This study is especially timely as repeat visitors are highly valuable during the pandemic as we implement our current strategic recovery plan to reach visitors who are more familiar with the destination, more receptive to messaging and most likely to return for a visit,” Hufham explained.
Visiting the beaches (82.2%), dining (82%) and shopping (67.7%) were the top activities that were part of a trip to the area, and the city of Wilmington was the most commonly visited destination as part of a Wilmington and beaches trip. The average travel party to Wilmington and the area’s beaches spent nearly $520 per day.
In addition, the tourism/hospitality industry in New Hanover County employed more than 6,680 people in 2019, according to the CVB.
“Our repeat visitor numbers are off the charts, so it is important to keep it fresh and offer new experiences. There are a lot of different ways that visitors can experience destinations,” Hufham said.
Recognizing the value of repeat customers encourages businesses and attractions to keep visitors interested in return trips by offering new incentives. The pandemic has allowed many destinations to reimagine how their attractions are shared with their visitors.
“It has been a chance to rethink, as an industry, how we attract visitors back. Many have adjusted completely in the short term, hopefully not forever, but as visitor confidence rises, especially with our drive-in market that is very strong for us, people will return and feel safe doing so,” Hufham added.
Most visitors come from in-state or contiguous states. Over half of respondents who reside in the United States live within the state of North Carolina (58.6%). About 5% or more of survey respondents reside in Ohio (6.1%), Virginia (5%) and Pennsylvania (4.5%).
Visitors who reported being satisfied or very satisfied with their experience stated that the reasons for their level of satisfaction were the relaxing experience, quality of restaurants, friendly locals, beaches and the beauty of the area.
“This information helps us when we market because it gives us an idea of who are visitors are and who we should appeal to,” Hufham said. “Overall, the results are positive. We are not surprised by any of the results. We knew that one of the areas we can improve in is parking. We have had parking issues for years.”
Parking was the top recommendation for enhancing the visitor experience in the Wilmington area, including better parking (16%), free parking (9%) and more parking (8%).
“Businesses who read the study can take a lot away from the study. They can use the results to advocate for better signage and more parking,” said Connie Nelson, CVB communications/ public relations director. “It provides a good perspective on who visitors are and what they are wanting.”
To address this issue, the CVB is developing a new tourism website that will help direct visitors to available parking areas by expanding content to include parking options and maps.
Making sure that visitors feel safe and comfortable traveling to the area will be pivotal to a healthy recovery moving forward, officials said. Ensuring that businesses and individuals are working diligently to maintain safety protocols is the main goal.
The survey’s results have been shared with local town leaders to provide them with information they can use in regard to regulations and infrastructure, as well as an overall approach to welcoming visitors.
“Positive and negative feedback from repeat visitors is also essential as we address their needs and concerns to provide a more satisfying visitor experience, along with ongoing marketing of all that’s new to see and do,” Hufham said.
The mild year-round weather with plenty of outdoor activities to sustain a tourist market throughout all four seasons, combined with safety protocols, makes Hufham confident the area is headed toward a strong recovery.
Hufham said, “The survey’s positive results as a whole tell us that the industry is doing something right.”