(April 1, 2009) – Cabarrus, NC – Tourism is poised to continue growing in Cabarrus County as the popularity of motorsports and the county’s proximity to regional attractions draw more visitors each year.
No matter the economic climate nationwide, tourism has long been a mainstay of North Carolina’s economy. The N.C. Department of Commerce estimates that tourists brought the state $16 billion in 2008, creating and maintaining more than 190,000 jobs.
Cabarrus County is ahead of that curve: In 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available, tourism spending in this county grew by 12.1 percent to $275.4 million – the third highest rate of growth in the state. At the forefront of this growth are Cabarrus County’s tourism advocates. Even as millions of Americans tighten their belts and look closer to home for entertainment, these tourism leaders are finding success in drawing more people and more income to the community.
A cup of coffee and a road map to success
At the heart of Cabarrus County’s game plan for tourism growth is DeSales Wagster, president and CEO of the Cabarrus County Tourism Authority. Through her work as head of the authority’s public agency – the Cabarrus County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CCVB) – Wagster is leveraging Cabarrus County’s central location and diverse cultural and entertainment offerings into economic success.
“They say that, in North Carolina, you have the beaches and the mountains, and in between is Concord with its mosports attractions,” said Wagster, who was recruited to lead the tourism authority two and a half years ago; prior to that, she was president and CEO of the Alpharetta, Ga. Convention & Visitors Bureau, after a stint as corporate vice president of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau. Wagster holds a bachelor of science degree in marketing from Virginia Commonwealth University and has pursued graduate studies through American University in Washington, D.C.
Under her leadership, the CCVB is working to promote the county’s many destinations and unique features in a variety of ways. Wagster cites, as prime examples, the 42-page, full-color Cabarrus Destination Guide and the county’s tourism Web site, visitcabarrus.com.
“Visitors from far and near can view hundreds of options for entertainment, dining, special events and shows, and dozens of kid-friendly ideas,” she said.
When travelers arrive here, the Cabarrus County Visitor Center at 3003 Dale Earnhardt Boulevard offers them a fresh cup of coffee and directions to whatever they want to see. In addition to the Cabarrus Destination Guide, the Dale Trail brochure – a guide to the route honoring Earnhardt and the county’s motorsports heritage – is very popular.
On the motorsports front, the new zMAX Dragway, located adjacent to Charlotte Motor Speedway, is a prime attraction for fans across the country.
“The highly successful National Hot Rod Association Nationals held at the new $60-million facility punctuated its place on the international map,” Wagster said.
Annual events such as the Carolina Renaissance Festival and Christmas Made in the South also draw thousands of people to the county. The growing range of cultural and theatrical events makes Cabarrus County a regional destination for people of diverse backgrounds and interests.
Exit 49: The grand junction
Exit 49 at Interstate 85 is the junction that Wagster calls “The Boulevards” – where Bruton Smith Boulevard meets Concord Mills Boulevard, at the intersection of Cabarrus’ motorsports, retail and convention industries.
“Exit 49 is presently the tourism anchor of the county,” Wagster said. Within one square mile are Charlotte Motor Speedway, the zMAX Dragway, Concord Mills Mall, the Embassy Suites and Concord Convention Center and – opening this month – Great Wolf Lodge’s newest water park resort.
John Cox, president and CEO of the Cabarrus Economic Development Corporation, said that Concord Mills’ ability to draw more than 17 million visitors each year helps support 10,000-plus jobs within this key corridor.
“… That sector of our economy also benefits us in our recruitment efforts,” Cox said. “With nearly 3,000 hotel rooms planned, an expanding Embassy Suites, the opening of the Great Wolf Lodge and Resorts, and the increasingly diverse bookings at the Cabarrus Arena & Events Center, we have left the leisure market and are becoming a destination market.”
“Each of these are tourism powerhouses when placed anywhere on its own,” Wagster added. “To have them all in one location, surrounded by national franchise hotels, is a marketer’s dream.”
One of the marketers responsible for making that dream a reality is Holly Roberson, director of marketing for Concord Mills Mall, a Simon property. Roberson – a graduate of UNC-Charlotte’s marketing program – said the key to continued growth is the fact that the mall offers, quite literally, “something for everyone.”
“We continue to target our core shoppers, which are families and visitors, to the area,” Roberson said. The strategy appears to be working as tourists come by car and by bus to the mall for one-stop access to national brands alongside a variety of outlets, specialty stores, entertainment and restaurants.
The challenging economy makes Concord Mills an attractive destination for smart shoppers, according to Roberson. “We are really encouraging shoppers to capitalize on the fact that malls allow access to hundreds of top-tier stores all at once, without having to waste time, energy and gas dollars driving from place to place for what they need,” she said.
“Given the current economy, we are seeing shoppers take advantage of the values our stores offer while enjoying the entertainment offered on-site as well,” Roberson added.
And those attractions – including the NASCAR SpeedPark and 24-screen AMC Concord Mills cinema – are enough to draw families from throughout the area to invest their shopping and recreation dollars here. Special events geared toward kids, the environment and healthy living are also held at Concord Mills. Along with other Simon retail properties nationwide, Concord Mills sponsors the Kidgits Club, a children’s club focused on health and education. For a small annual fee, families with children can take part in events at the mall while receiving special discounts and promotions.
Since opening almost a decade ago, Concord Mills has become the epicenter of rapid commercial growth, bringing millions of dollars in revenue to the local economy. According to Wagster, over 86 percent of the county’s taxable tourism revenue dollars are generated within the square mile around Concord Mills Mall, where “The Boulevards” meet.
Great Wolf Lodge adds to the mix The Concord Mills corridor gains another national name this month as Great Wolf Lodge opens its 12th U.S. resort, within minutes of the mall and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“Our staff has been busy sharing the Great Wolf story at the recent military, association and corporate tradeshows, since the Great Wolf Lodge has large meeting space to host groups,” Wagster said.
“Concord was already an established family destination market. It’s a desirable area – we’re surrounded by great attractions,” said Lisa Mitchell, director of sales and marketing for Great Wolf Lodge in Concord. “We at Great Wolf Lodge felt we would be an accepted complement to these, as well as the many attractions within the metro area. We offer a unique year-round lodging experience for both leisure and business travelers.”
In addition to the four-story, 80,000-square-foot indoor water park – reserved exclusively for guests of the lodge – Great Wolf’s 402 all-suite guest rooms offer amenities such as a 7,000-square-foot video arcade, an 18-hole mini-golf course, spas for adults and children, and a fitness center.
On the business side, Mitchell said that Great Wolf’s 20,000-square-foot conference center will be able to host groups of 25 to 600 guests, with additional space for outdoor events. “We will be a valuable partner to the Cabarrus area,” she said. “From corporate events to military, religious and fraternal organizations, we are getting many, many requests within those market segments.”
According to Mitchell, Great Wolf Lodge will help Cabarrus County fill a niche market for convenient event locations that not only allow businesses to fulfill their objectives, but allow employees’ families to turn a business trip into a vacation.
“With the current economy, families usually join in,” Mitchell said. “That being said, we have the conference center and business wing, and, through our main porte-cochere, we have the world of Great Wolf Lodge. “Not only will Cabarrus County residents benefit from having a high quality, nearby ‘stay-at-home vacation’ destination, but some 500 local residents have just been hired to be Great Wolf Lodge’s newest ‘pack members,’” Mitchell said.
Wagster is convinced that the entire county will benefit from the new arrival: “Great Wolf Lodge will be a magnet,” she said. “I think it will be popular not just for young people and families, but for older couples as well.” The best is yet to come – despite challenges Tourism is poised to continue growing in Cabarrus County as the popularity of motorsports and the county’s proximity to regional attractions draw more visitors each year. “The dollars those visitors bring into our economy not only benefit our city and county tax revenues, but that industry also helps us maintain and provide jobs for a highly skilled workforce,” John Cox said.
Wagster is convinced that Kannapolis, home to the North Carolina Research Campus, will begin to generate its own tourism market in the not-too-distant future:
“The new North Carolina Music Hall of Fame and Affordable Corporate Suites are the first indications of good things to come,” she said. “We should expect more hotel, restaurant and attraction development on the northern side of the county over the next few years.”
Potential obstacles to that growth are out there, however, despite a seemingly bright future. There are two main factors that Wagster said are necessary to sustain Cabarrus County’s tourism growth – and, she said, they’re as vital as the combination of hardware and software is to a computer.
“The hardware is the public or private investment put forth in upgrading or building new roads and facilities, such as hotels, athletic facilities and attractions,” Wagster said. “The software will consist of a well-funded Convention & Visitors Bureau that can locate, introduce and grow new market segments within the lucrative leisure travel, meetings, convention and events industry.”
Take either of those parts out of the equation and the county’s rapid tourism growth might slow – or grind to a halt. Wagster said the sagging economy is adding to those challenges. Transportation is another. Cash-strapped airlines are reducing the number of flights to the area, making it harder to bring visitors in. Northbound Interstate 85 chokes down to two lanes at Exit 49, creating headaches for motorists – but widening the road will require millions of dollars and years to plan. Traffic, in general, is an issue around Charlotte Motor Speedway and the convention center, according to Wagster.
Familiarizing the rest of the nation with Cabarrus County’s name is perhaps the most basic task. That’s where Wagster’s expertise, and that of the county’s tourism advocates, will be vital. “Overall, we have a very optimistic outlook for the last quarter of 2009 and going into 2010,” Wagster said. “We have enough substantial tourism products to weather the immediate economic storm. This county has a firm foundation to build upon after that economic storm passes by.”