An empty downtown Asheville, midmorning, late March./ photo by Jason Sandford

Editor’s note: Tyler J. McCall is an entrepreneur, business coach, marketing strategist and podcaster. He was born and raised in Transylvania County, attended college in the N.C. foothills and made his home in Asheville in 2012. He’s the CEO and Founder of the Online Business Association, a global professional association for online business owners and digital entrepreneurs that’s based in Western North Carolina. He and his husband, Eric, live in West Asheville. Find Tyler online at tylerjmccall.com and on Instagram @tylerjmccall.

Tourism is on hiatus.

An industry that has grown to have a total economic impact of more than $3.1 billion per year in Buncombe County has dried up more quickly than we could have ever imagined.

And now, with Buncombe County hotel occupancy at 15 percent or less, and the TDA estimating “no additional revenue through the end of this fiscal year, which ends June 30,” according to Stephanie Brown, soon to be ex-president and CEO of Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, it’s time for local business owners to face the reality of an Asheville without visitors.

As long as the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the world and stay home orders are in place, every passing warm spring evening and sunshine-filled afternoon means lost dollars and longer layoffs.

Patios are closed. Taprooms are quiet. The sidewalks are empty. And if you’re like me, you’re probably asking yourself: Will hotels be full again? Will restaurants be overflowing? Will retailers and breweries have another best year in business?

Maybe. But it won’t be this year.

I fear that Asheville’s 2020 tourism season is dead on arrival — and I’m not sure there is a way for it to bounce back as fast as it fell apart. Businesses large and small from Biltmore Estate to your favorite local coffee shop depend on spring break visitors, Easter and Mother’s Day brunches, tipsy bachelorette parties and outdoor spring weddings to jumpstart their revenue after a slower winter. Without money flowing in from out-of-towners in March, April, and May, I’m not sure how so many of the businesses we know and love will make it to summer or the booming fall leaf season.

When this does end, and how quickly might visitors return? Economists say it could be anywhere from 2021 to 2031 before the economy returns to something like the pre-coronavirus “normal.” They also agree that it may never be entirely the same. When we look back to the 2008 recession – that one not caused by something unknown like a pandemic – it took national unemployment nearly seven years to bounce back to below 5 percent from a high of 9.5 percent. This crisis already has a higher unemployment rate than that. I worry that past due bills, delayed mortgage payments and months of living off of unemployment or savings will keep the traditional Asheville visitor away.

Sure, folks from Charlotte or Raleigh may still make their weekend trip to drink at Wicked Weed or take a Lazoom comedy tour by the end of summer. But those from far away may choose to stick closer to home for their vacations for the near future. After all, the economic impact of the pandemic is affecting all Americans, not just businesses owners.

According to the US Private Sector Job Quality Index, food and beverage services, clothing and retail, support and accommodations services, and travel and attractions account for nearly 30 million American jobs, all of them considered vulnerable to layoffs during the pandemic and a majority of them paying low wages. To bring it back home: in Buncombe County, tourism supports nearly 30,000 jobs, or 15 percent of our workforce, in those same job categories.

The fallout is real and it’s happening now.

As we face the sober reality of an Asheville without outsiders – at least for the foreseeable future – it’s time for us all to decide how we are going to make this work together.

The first thing is that businesses that are able to stay open should commit to keeping the lights on. While there are challenges associated with navigating social distancing, enhanced cleaning to prevent the spread of the virus and securing personal protective equipment, it’s important that businesses work as hard as possible to keep their doors open and their employees paid.

Max Puterbaugh, co-owner of Farewell coffee shop, now sells coffee and some food offerings through a roll-up window to comply with new COVID-19 health and safety rules. The coffee shop opened in January./ photo by Jason Sandford

Maintaining revenue, product delivery, customer connection and employee relationships throughout the pandemic, even if it means the business breaks even or loses money for the foreseeable future, will help ensure businesses are prepared to bounce back more quickly when stay-at-home orders are lifted or eased. If businesses are struggling to stay open, they should look into funding available from the Small Business Administration in the form of the Economy Injury Disaster Loan (available through the SBA website), the Paycheck Protection Program (available through your bank or credit union), or the SBA Express Bridge Loan (available for those who have an existing SBA lending relationship).

It’s also important for business owners to contact their banks, lenders, landlord, mortgage company, utility companies, insurance company, payment processing company and credit card companies as soon as possible to discuss options for delaying payments, forgiving past due payments, waiving interest rates, waiving late fees, and preventing negative credit reporting for missed or delayed payments. When you call, be sure that you clearly explain that your business has been negatively impacted by coronavirus. This allows them to give you the help you need.

More local support is also available through the One Buncombe fund where businesses can secure up to $10,000 in low-interest loan funding with no payments due for the first six months. Eligible uses include payroll, accounts payable, fixed debts, or other bills the business is unable to pay due to the impact of COVID-19. You can learn more at onebuncombe.org.

This is also a time for businesses to look for ways to diversify their revenue and how they deliver their product or service. For example: local gyms and fitness centers have moved their training and classes online and are now serving existing – and even new – members through virtual workouts. This is a perfect example of a creative solution to this collective circumstance. It allows these businesses to stay open, keep people paid, and continue to serve their customers. Thanks to free and low-cost tools like Facebook Groups, Facebook Live, Zoom, and Google Meetings, businesses can transition their service delivery online quickly and affordably.

Other solutions include: restaurants that are selling their wholesale products to customers at retail prices to support their vendors and generate a profit; food brands offering heat-and-eat meals instead of a full dining menu to reduce overhead and staff costs; hair stylists offering at-home root touch-up kits to their clients complete with dyes and instructions; businesses offering pre-orders or gift certificate purchases for future products or services; and businesses considered non-essential that have shifted to offering local, contactless curbside pick-up or delivery of their products. The opportunities are endless; however, business owners must be committed to seeking a creative way to stay open. Leveraging social media and email marketing is a great way to maintain connections with your customers and communicate how they can support you now.

The next step is for locals like you and me to double down on our commitment to the buy local effort. In the past, it was easy to let yourself off the hook when you spent your money elsewhere. “The tourists will keep them in business, it’s okay!” But now, it is entirely up to us. Without our continued financial support, the businesses that are open now won’t make it through the pandemic. (Check out the Asheville Grown Business Alliance here.)

I know it’s hard and I know you’re being mindful about where your dollars go at the moment. But, if you’re going to spend, do your damnedest to keep your money here. If you’re looking for simple ways to get money into the hands of your neighbors right now, check out avl.tips, a website that allows you to virtually tip local service industry employees via Venmo or Cash App. Also check out ashevillestrong.com, a website that allows you to buy gift cards to a variety of local businesses.

I’d also be remiss in writing this piece without speaking to the fact that if there was ever a time for the Buncombe County TDA to step in and support the local economy and its workers, this is that time. A great example of how to help is what has been done in Washington, D.C. by Events DC, the official convention and sports authority for the city. The organization recently approved an $18 million relief package to help bolster the hospitality and tourism industry in the nation’s capital.

Locally, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority is currently sitting on $4.5 million in its Tourism Product Development Fund. This is money that is not earmarked for advertisements and can be used for local grant-making. The TDA also recently made the decision to cancel $6.7 million in advertising for the second quarter, although the authority reserved $3 million to restart ads once the pandemic is over.

Those ad dollars and the money available in the TPDF gives the TDA $8.2 million that could be used now to support local businesses and workers. However, the Tourism Development Authority and its leadership continue to say they’re limited by regulations from the General Assembly that require 75 percent of its revenues to go toward advertising and promotions and only 25 percent to the Tourism Product Development Fund for tourism-related grants.

Still, the TDA could begin the process of working with the N.C. General Assembly or Gov. Roy Cooper to change those mandates. And while their recent $50,000 contribution to the One Buncombe fund is a kind gesture, it’s simply not enough. The TDA is our community’s best source of immediately available funding to provide relief to local businesses and their workers.

Lastly, our community must continue the serious conversation about the risk and inequity a tourist-centric economy creates for those who call Asheville and Buncombe home. For many, a dip in tourism is a welcome reprieve from the years of growth and change that has created an Asheville that’s almost unrecognizable to the Asheville of 20 years ago.

If anything, this time of pause allows us to think critically about what we want for our community. It gives us a chance to ask ourselves: is the Asheville of the past the Asheville we want for our future?

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