Tourism officials are turning up the volume on a campaign to make sure LGBTQ travelers know Orange County still welcomes them.
The Chapel Hill-Orange County Visitors Bureau could spend about a third of its $350,000 media budget to post that message in travel and business publications over the next year. The website – visitchapelhill.org – also could have a new look next week, including a section on LGBTQ travel.
The new strategy expands an existing campaign, targeting same-sex weddings and LGBTQ travelers, by reminding people that Orange County has always been on the forefront of social justice, executive director Laurie Paolicelli said.
HB2 – the state’s controversial law requiring transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender at birth, among other measures – already has cost the local economy about $1.2 million, she said.
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The final numbers won’t be known for some time, she said, because some visitors may have canceled quietly or taken the county out of consideration. Other groups have wanted to cancel but couldn’t afford to break their reservations, she said.
“From an economic development standpoint, canceled meetings – even a drop in attendance as low as 10 percent – will affect local businesses,” she said in a recent email. “Based on the feedback we’ve received, HB2 is a guarantee that our tourism economy could be severely damaged.”
The latest and biggest hit was a Public Management Research Association decision last month to move its 2017 conference from UNC’s School of Government. That decision, Paolicelli said, will cost Orange County 1,780 room nights in local hotels and $453,615 in potential economic impact.
The university is a contender for future conferences if the state changes the law or a court rejects it, PMRA President Donald Moynihan said.
The event was canceled early enough that The Franklin Hotel can continue marketing a large number of rooms that were booked, owner Jay Patel said. They are watching HB2 but not worrying about it, he said.
“We’re having a very laissez-faire attitude about it. We don’t care what the legislators want to do, because we’re not going to enforce it,” Patel said. “We’re just going to continue treating everybody like we always have.”
The Public Management Research Association’s decision to move its 2017 conference will cost Orange County 1,780 room nights in local hotels and $453,615 in potential economic impact, the bureau says.
The university’s role as host of larger conferences appears to be the county’s biggest hurdle. University buildings are public, which means they have to uphold HB2, while private facilities can set their own policies.
Owners of private venues, including the Barn at Valhalla and Merry Hill Farm, said they have single-occupancy bathrooms and no plans to enforce the law.
Meanwhile, two August conferences scheduled for UNC’s Gillings School of Public Health – the Maternal Child Healthcare Training workshop and the National Maternal and Child Health Skills Institute – were canceled. The skills institute, a loss of about $120,000 in direct revenues, went to Chicago, said David Pesci, the school’s communications director.
Paolicelli estimated the training workshop loss at $17,000.
The Gilling School also lost its annual two-day meeting to talk about tobacco control research after out-of-state attendees refused to come to North Carolina. It was relocated to Missouri.
Orange County doesn’t have any large, private conference facilities. That’s why the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners is in Durham this week instead of at the Marriott Courtyard and the Friday Center in Chapel Hill.
That decision cost Chapel Hill at least $200,000 in direct revenues, said Marlene Barbera, sales director for the visitors bureau.
While it wasn’t possible to leave North Carolina on short notice, ESIP officials said, they moved the event to the publicly owned but privately managed Durham Convention Center to ensure “that we are in a space that does not discriminate.” They also cited the city’s resolution calling for HB2’s repeal and a pre-existing policy about “a desire for firms doing business in the city to not discriminate based on gender or sex.”
Shelly Green, the chief executive officer of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, estimated the 300-person event could bring about $250,000 to Durham hotels, restaurants, gas stations and other businesses. Chapel Hill and Durham use different formulas to estimate tourism’s economic impact.
But Green noted Durham isn’t immune from HB2’s effects. More than a dozen conferences and retreats have been canceled since April, she said, including the $1 million B Corp Champions retreat, a group of over 500 leaders of socially and environmentally conscious companies.
A critical event for Orange County may be the North American Travel Journalists Association conference in May, Paolicelli said. The group’s president reminded them of their mission to report on HB2 after some writers threatened to not attend, she said.
All three towns could share roughly 100 travel writers during the four-day event. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce reported it could generate a roughly $8 million return on the investment in social media and travel articles.