From articles in Rolling Stone to features in The New York Times, Asheville’s ongoing positive press combined with word-of-mouth from visitors had hospitality experts predicting another record tourism year at the start of 2020. But now, in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, with restaurants and merchants struggling to keep their doors open, the city is losing it’s top marketing leader. Stephanie Brown, CEO and president of Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, has decided to move on from the position she’s held for eight years when her contract expires this month.
Brown is taking an executive vice president job with Strategic Marketing and Research Insights based in Indianapolis.
Those who know her work said her shoes will be hard to fill.
"The main thing is she gets results,” Grove Park Inn executive director Gary Froeba said. "And she loves Asheville. The job she’s done here in the last eight years has been incredible. She’s had double digit growth in hotel demand."
"She’s so supportive of the community and of all our businesses, whether we’re catering to tourists or not," said Kevan Frazier, owner of Well-Played, a board game cafe on Wall Street.
The COVID-19 pandemic
But COVID-19 has brought merchants to their knees, forcing Brown to pivot in her role of trying to market the city and attract tourists to book hotel rooms and spend money.
“She came up with this grant idea, said Liz Button, co-owner of Curate restaurant on Biltmore Avenue. “Five million dollars would go to merchants and restaurants who need help.”
“This has been a very painful time for the people of Asheville and this whole country,” Brown said, well-aware how important the businesses are in attracting tourists.
While Brown has said unequivocally the Biltmore estate is by far the city’s biggest driver for attracting tourists, the local flavor is continuing to get attention in non-advertorial stories written by reporters.
Five million in cash grants have gone out to support nearly 400 businesses in the Tourism Jobs Recovery Grant program. The money came from reserves in what’s called the Tourism Product Development Fund, TPDF, for short. The fund typically gives money to public entities and projects members of a tourism development board, largely comprised of hotel general managers, feel will continue to build Asheville’s draw and get heads in hotel beds. The surcharge when someone stays in a hotel room is the tax money that goes into the TPDF fund. The General Assembly in the House and Senate along with the governor had to approve the one-time exception in using funds for the Jobs Recovery program.
Brown’s stewardship in new branding ideas and projects led to articles in top magazines, from Conde Nast to National Geographic to Travel and Leisure magazine.
“Increasing the reach of our marketing is the core of what we do,” Brown said.
Peers point to Brown's focus to develop a marketing campaign around the city’s burgeoning music scene. The campaign's biggest hit was a major feature about Asheville music in Rolling Stone magazine. Brown’s reputation as a collaborator who fosters her team to come up with ideas led to the creation of a music-focused website on the Explore Asheville platform.
On the ground, Brown convinced tourism executives to grant $7 million from hotel tax revenues in the Tourism Development fund to support development and infrastructure in the River Arts District.
“There was a gap in funding, it was really critically important,” Brown said.
The program that includes federal matching funds is underway all over the RAD, with new bike paths and greenways that will stretch 15 miles, from Amboy Road to Woodfin. The point, she said, is improvements like this are ones everyone in the region can enjoy.
Brown is aware of concerns that tourism could overrun the city’s authentic vibe.
“Asheville doesn't want to be Gatlinburg and Explore Asheville doesn’t want Asheville to be a Gatlinburg or a place that’s mostly about tourism," Brown said.
Brown has also been heavily involved in discussions to dedicate hotel tax dollars for the city’s infrastructure, including sidewalks.
“I hope we can all come together to understand this is a role that needs to be filled and it needs to be filled with someone who is similar to Stephanie,” said Button, who has served as chair of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association and praises Brown’s efforts to promote restaurants and teach owners how to do their own marketing.
“She understands our market, how unique we are, how important tourism is for our industry, for our community. It affects all of us,” Button said.
Brown's last day on the job is Tuesday.
“My wish for Asheville is that the people who live here will work together and trust in the good intentions of other people,” Brown said. “The coming year is going to be tough for Asheville and for the country. This is a time of change. And I think the most powerful change will happen as a result of people coming together here in a spirit of acceptance that has characterized this community for a long time."