The quiet leader behind Haywood’s tourism success story | New
The longtime executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority has announced she will retire by the end of the year, capping an era marked not only by dizzying growth, but also by an ever-changing tourism landscape. evolution.
During Lynn Collins’ 14 years in office, she has led the tourism industry through nothing short of a revolution.
When she took the helm in 2009, AirBNB was a fledgling start-up, but is now one of Haywood’s biggest overnight businesses. Tourism advertising has been done in the pages of magazines and newspapers, but now comes in the form of integrated digital video ads and social media influencers. And measuring tourist habits used to rely on surveys – now the TDA tracks tourists’ movements through cell phone geo-tracking.
“It tells us everything we need to know about what you did while you were here,” Collins said of the mobile data analysis.
The results under Collins’ leadership speak for themselves: Room tax collected on overnight accommodations has nearly tripled since 2009. It’s on track to hit $2.5 million this year.
“When you look at the numbers, it tells the story. We’ve had phenomenal growth,” said TDA Chairman Chris Corbin of the Waynesville Inn and Golf Resort. Lynn’s arrival. She leaves us in a very good position.
However, Collins’ time at the TDA hasn’t been all peaches and cream. She led the county’s tourism industry through tough times: the Great Recession, landslides blocking I-40, the government shutdown of the Parkway and the Smokies, and COVID.
“There are always challenges, and you have to constantly look for ways to adapt and navigate through them,” Collins said.
Collins is known as a workaholic to those around her. She hasn’t taken off for more than a few days in a row in her 14 years, let alone a two-week vacation. As for his list of places to travel after retirement?
“I’m not at the point yet where I can think about it,” Collins said. “I have seven months left and there’s a lot to accomplish between now and that’s my focus right now.”
Chief on his to-do list is to complete a strategic destination plan to lead Haywood’s tourism into the next decade. The latest strategic plan was drawn up in 2014, and all of its goals have now been ticked off except one – an almost unheard of feat in the world of strategic plans.
But for Collins, not following through was not an option.
“That was the whole point: how can we move forward and have a bigger impact?” said Collins.
As for the one who got away? It was boosted by outside forces. The goal of expanding the overnight stay tax from 4% to 6% failed to garner support from Haywood’s GOP legislative delegation.
One of Collins’ key accomplishments has been leading the TDA through the digital revolution and adapting tourism marketing to the age of the internet and social media. When she first came on board, TDA’s marketing dollars were mostly spent on magazine ads, radio spots, billboards and the Sunday travel sections of newspapers.
Now, the TDA’s digital campaigns deliver advertisements and videos across the internet to individual online users who have searched for trigger words. The TDA has also tapped into the well of Instagram and Snap Chat, even hiring bloggers and social media influencers to work behind the scenes.
“If you don’t keep up and go, you’re just not going to be competitive. It’s about being competitive,” Collins said.
Despite the booming tourism industry in Haywood, Collins has never been one to rest on its laurels. She always had a penchant for cold, hard data to measure the results of how tourism dollars were spent.
“At the end of the day, if you don’t spend it wisely, you’re not getting people to come here and you’re not regenerating the dollars to continue promoting the area and developing products,” Collins said.
End the infighting
When Collins came on board as director of the TDA, the organization was known for its tumultuous board meetings, infighting among tourism stakeholders and its relentless tussle over tourism dollars and spending. tourism. Collins ushered in a new era for the County Tourism Authority, uniting stakeholders for the greater good and creating a more professional operation.
One of his accomplishments has been to bring fairness and equity to the way the TDA distributes mini-grants to geographic locations across the county. Controversy once abounded in the annual exercise to allocate tourism dollars for festivals and special projects across the county.
Gradually, Collins convinced those who were vying for a slice of the pie to think collectively.
“That was really the turning point,” Collins said.
Now the process is much more transparent – from a uniform application process, defined benchmarks for awarding funds and quantifiable scoring.
It has often been a work in progress, with Collins coming up with new criteria along the way in response to tourism needs, from TDA event sponsorships to this year’s new capital projects fund.
Defy the odds
A real test of Collins’ leadership came when COVID hit.
“She called us and said, ‘We need to unplug marketing right now.’ Within hours, we immediately cut off the flow of ad dollars. It was a big decision. We could have left all the tokens in there,” Corbin explained.
Preserving cash flow during the early days of the pandemic allowed the TDA to double down on its message, positioning Haywood for what has become the greatest achievement in Haywood County’s 150-year tourism history.
The new campaign, titled Embrace Unusual, marketed Haywood as an escape destination.
“We hit people with ‘Come work from the balcony of your vacation rental in the mountains.’ She was on top,” Corbin said.
Result: 80% growth in night tourism in just two years.
“I know a lot of destinations that for all intents and purposes have almost closed shop,” Collins said. “How lucky are we as a destination to not only have been able to keep the majority of our small businesses open during COVID, but also to have new businesses open?
Retirement might have come sooner for Collins had it not been for COVID.
“She felt it was a duty to see us in the heart of COVID,” Corbin said. “Since it was a crisis, she hung on and helped guide us. We can’t thank her enough for that.
Collins avoided the limelight during his time with the TDA, preferring to work quietly behind the scenes. She attributes the county’s tourism success to a team effort, from those working on the front lines of the industry to the marketing agencies hired by the TDA.
“Most importantly, much of the credit goes to the excellent staff and board members. You couldn’t do without the countless volunteer hours the board has put in or the talents of the staff,” Collins said.
Collins has a long view of tourism in Haywood County. She grew up in Clyde, served as Ghost Town’s marketing director for nearly 10 years in its heyday, and served on the county’s first TDA board in the 1980s. She later moved to Florida and held the Director of Tourism in Polk County, which borders Disney World.
She returned home in the mid-2000s and became executive director of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce before joining the TDA in 2009.
Now, as the TDA begins its search for a new executive director, the million dollar question is whether the pandemic-induced gains in tourism can be sustained.
“I think we have a good base, but things are still changing. We have a booming vacation rental segment and it’s important to keep the pedal low,” Corbin said. “At the same time, we need to help hotels get back on their feet.”