Donna Bailey-Taylor, Director of the Johnston County Tourism Authority, recently celebrated 20 years in her position. I sat down to ask her a few questions about how Johnston County's tourism industry has grown over the two decades since she started working to bring tourists to JoCo. I also asked about her experience in the Travel Tourism industry and what she thinks the future holds for tourism in Johnston County.
You’ve been at the JCVB for 20 years, but how long have you worked in the Travel and Tourism industry?
So all together I have been in the hospitality industry for thirty-five years. I began my career working in the hotel industry, first in sales for Hilton Hotels and later working for hotel development companies in regional sales and marketing. I have opened hotels from the ground up and traveled extensively to support sales efforts for multiple brands.
As I started a family, the need to get off the road was important to me, so I transitioned to work for a convention and visitors bureau. Since I was used to promoting whole communities and selling experiences, the move was a natural fit for me.
What drew you to this industry?
After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in Industrial Relations, the jobs available to me all seemed to be in manufacturing or banking. Also, it was 1981 and the unemployment rate was 22% in North Carolina. I tried hotel sales and found out I was good at it! I discovered I enjoyed meeting people and providing a service.
What keeps you in this industry?
The variety of tasks each day continues to make my job rich and enjoyable. From designing the next ad campaign or revamping the Visitors Guide, then community planning for new wayfinding signage or working with area museum boards to provide engaging visitor experiences….it’s diverse and ever changing. I don’t think I could do the same task day in and day out.
What has changed in tourism for Johnston County over the course of 2 decades?
With Johnston County being one of the fastest growing counties, not only in North Carolina but in the nation, tourism has grown fast as well. When I started here in August of 1996, our annual operating budget was around $325,000 and today it tops $1.2 million. Tourism marketing today has changed tremendously with the creation of social media, hand-held marketing devices we call mobile phones, and the niche marketing campaigns needed to reach the right customer, at the right time, with the right message.
I would have to say 20 years ago, having billboards and a visitors guide were our primary goals, and today our marketing plan targets leisure travelers, sports tournaments, girlfriend shopping get-a-ways, and culinary travelers with the development of the Beer, Wine and Shine Trail.
What challenges do rural destinations face in marketing themselves?
Funding and staffing resources are often the first challenges because there never seems to be enough of either in small Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs). And second, getting the attention of community leaders, state offices and residents on the importance of tourism to the community. Our industry is made up of small businesses, but collectively visitor spending in hotels, restaurants, travel services, dining, shopping and area attractions is huge…it’s a big deal and in some rural communities it may have the potential to be their number one industry.
What have you accomplished at the JCVB that you’re particularly proud of?
Tourism development projects where our staff has volunteered countless hours helping to establish the Ava Gardner Museum, the Benson Museum of Local History, marketing for the Bentonville re-enactment, completing the county-wide Parks & Recreation Master Plan, and serving on many boards to lend our talents to the tourism industry…I feel this has been a grass-roots effort to build up the tourism infrastructure in the county. You don’t see that commitment in many bureaus, who only see their job as driving visitors to the area. In an emerging destination, building up the visitor experience is so important. We want to be more than a stop-over on the way to some other destination – and more than “half-way between New York and Florida”.
What would you like to accomplish still?
I would like to see the completion of the Mountains to Sea Trail between the towns of Clayton and Smithfield and the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site get a new state of the art Visitor Center with new exhibits, something the Friends of Bentonville group has been working on for many years.
Also, I would like to see the Visitors Bureau secure a permanent home for our offices, as we have been renting space for more than 25 years.
You have family roots in the Benson area, what does working to promote Johnston County mean to you?
To me, this job is more than working to promote Johnston County – my heart is full of wonderful memories spent on the Bailey Farm just outside of Benson. I feel we need to work toward preserving our heritage, whether it be farming, Civil War battlefields, or our connection to Hollywood. That’s why over 12 years ago, we held classes on agri-tourism as a way to sustain the family farm and bring revenues to area farmers. That’s why I continue to volunteer my time and talents to area non-profits.
I believe if we all work together we will all succeed!
How does tourism positively effect residents in Johnston County?
Tourism means dollars for small business owners – in 2015 more than $215 million was spent in Johnston County by visitors. If the county did not have a strong tourism economy we would not have national brand shopping at our fingertips at Carolina Premium Outlets and dining opportunities like Starbucks, or Chipotle’s which just opened in Smithfield this year.
But just as important to us is showcasing local, independent business owners like Ray Wheeler at Atkinson’s Mill, Rufus Brown at Johnston County Hams and many others that have wonderful stories to tell. Visitors are interested in authenticity and we have plenty to share with them in Johnston County.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
Something creative is my first choice…painting, pottery, and photography to name a few. Watching movies with my son Trey and reading detective novels on my IPAD. Nothing fancy… for me, spending time with family is just a perfect day!