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Visitor spending jumps 5.1% in Johnston

By John Hamlin, Reporter
The Smithfield Herald

Visitors who traveled more than 50 miles to Johnston County in 2014 spent $215 million, according to a recently released report.

That’s up 5.1 percent from 2013, when out-of-towners poured $204.5 million into Johnston’s economy, according to the report, titled “2014 Economic Impact of Travel on North Carolina Counties.”

The U.S. Travel Association prepares the study each year for Visit North Carolina, a unit of the public-private Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. The report uses employment figures, sales tallies and industry data to estimate how much travelers spend on hotel stays, food, transportation, shopping and recreation.

Statewide, visitor spending saw an even greater increase of 5.5 percent to a record $21.3 billion, according to the report. In a ranking of North Carolina’s 100 counties, Johnston outperformed the pack by placing 29th in growth and 21st in total spending.

The Johnston County Visitors Bureau was aiming for 5-percent growth over 2013, and the staff is pleased to have realized that goal, said Donna Bailey-Taylor, the bureau’s executive director.

“Things are on a really healthy upswing,” she said.

Most visitors come to Johnston via Interstate 95, Bailey-Taylor said, and that corridor is home to 28 of the county’s 34 lodgings. That means Johnston’s main competitors are the other counties along I-95, she said, and Johnston grew faster than anyone else on that corridor.

Bailey-Taylor attributes some of those gains to a new billboard campaign the Visitors Bureau began in 2014. Located along I-95 from Dunn to Halifax County, the signs feature a uniform design that urges motorists to pull off at several exits in Johnston. Promoting exit numbers specifically instead of the county generally was a big step, Bailey-Taylor said, and it seems to have paid off.

“Probably 99 percent of our visitors don’t realize what county they are in,” she said. “They remember, ‘Oh, I want to stop at that exit that we always stop at.’”

The Girlfriend’s Getaway promotion also contributed to the success, Bailey-Taylor said. That program encourages women to spend the night in Smithfield, and it features discounted hotel rooms for groups. The package also comes with gift bags, which are loaded with coupons for wine tastings, spa treatments, outlet shopping, tours of the Ava Gardner Museum and meals at restaurants.

“It’s trying to pull together the businesses in the area that go along with girlfriends getting out of town together,” she said.

Trend should continue

The Visitors Bureau receives its funding from a 3-percent tax charged on hotel stays in the county, and Bailey-Taylor said the trends in those revenues paint a bright picture for 2015.

Johnston’s occupancy-tax revenue jumped 12 percent to $705,626 in the last fiscal year, which was made up of the second half of 2014 and the first half of 2015.

Smithfield, Selma, Benson and Kenly each collect an additional 2 percent occupancy tax, Bailey-Taylor said, and those revenues also increased across the board.

“It seems that we are on the path to have another healthy and strong year in 2015 as well,” she said.

Looking even further ahead into 2016, Bailey-Taylor said Johnston should get a boost from a new hotel opening in December near the outlets in Smithfield.

The 77-room hotel will be the first Country Inn & Suites in the county, she said. Many travelers become loyal to certain hotel brands, she said, so it should benefit Johnston to have a new option on the menu.

“It’s like when we got our first Fairfield Inn & Suites, she said. “That brought customers in who had been driving to other Fairfields.”

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