Lee Nettles on plans to manage OBX’s exploding visitor business
According to its Executive Director Lee Nettles, the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau is embarking on a number of initiatives at this moment. One of them, “Careers Beyond the Counter,” is designed to encourage local students to pursue rewarding vocations in the tourism industry. On June 6, the bureau will host a public meeting on the conceptual plan for a new event center on The Soundside Event Site that has been re-imagined as more of a community than a convention facility.
The bureau is also implementing a marketing campaign to attract “better visitors” who will be more respectful of both the local culture and the Outer Banks’ natural treasures. And it has also just hired a firm, at the cost of about $180,000, to develop a long-term tourism management plan, a task expected to take the better part of a year.
In a recent interview with the Voice, Nettles tied these efforts together under one strategic umbrella.
“The level of visitation that we’ve had in the last year and a half is not necessarily sustainable,” he said, “particularly when you combine it with a limited workforce and some of the other challenges we’ve got…There’s a price for that growth. The impacts of tourism are both positive and negative.”
The current initiatives, he added, are designed to answer the question of, “How do we grow and manage what we’ve got, and not kill the golden goose or not change this community into something that we don’t want?”
The ‘Careers Beyond the Counter’ initiative
In the interview, Nettles discussed the “Careers Beyond the Counter” initiative which the bureau is discussing with local high school officials in order to prepare students for tourism careers that offer considerably more opportunities than basic service sector jobs.
“If we could encourage high school students to become more aware of the tourism industry and the opportunities that are involved, we could potentially grow the workforce without having people coming into the market looking for housing…” he said.
Nettles added that the perception of many families and students here is that “the tourism industry is limited to the counter jobs that those students have had. And meanwhile, it’s horticulture, it’s culinary…it’s marketing, it’s advertising, it’s web development…The industry gets knocked for having low-paying jobs, but nobody talks about growth [or becoming] a manager quickly.”
The status of the event center in Nags Head
Nettles described the planning process for a new event center as “an evolution of thought…The center kind of went from more of a meeting and traditionally visitor-oriented space to more of a community-oriented space, like a civic center.”
Having a hotel on the site has been discarded as an option and Nettles cites uses such as concerts and sports and smaller trade shows for the roughly 48,000 square-foot center, which he says is comparable in size to the Publix in Kill Devil Hills.
“We recognized always that it’s not a big enough piece of property for a convention center, and also that that’s not really our market,” he stated. “We’re an hour-and-a-half away from the nearest international airport” so the idea is to “provide a big enough indoor space for events that’s we’ve grown already…We will do meetings, we will do smaller trade shows…That was the biggest challenge, I think, trying to right-size the building.”
Speaking of the public meeting scheduled for June 6, Nettles notes that currently, the event center “is just a concept, it’s not really a final design…There are big issues still to be addressed…If everything went great, I would see the building coming up out of the ground in two years, three years.”
The quest for the ‘better visitor’
The executive director said the concept started “as a rhetorical question…Maybe we don’t need more visitors, we need ‘better visitors’ that are better stewards of the area, kind of take better care of the place or are more respectful of the culture of the place.”
The goal, he added, is to find more visitors who “want to know why you shouldn’t run around on the dunes or leave big holes on the beach [and] why it matters a lot to go to a locally owned business.”
In terms of marketing, Nettles said the bureau is targeting “enthusiast audiences, the people that have particular passions for this place, whether they’re kiteboarders, whether they’re aviation nuts…National Parks Service people. And the thing that ties all those things together…is that their passion says when and where they travel…If it’s their passion, then it’s not just the three months of summer.”
Asked if he believes, as some residents complain, that tourist behavior on the Outer Banks has worsened over the years, Nettles responded that, “I would say that respect and manners has deteriorated for our society as a country. I don’t think it’s germane to our visitors. I think that people just don’t care for their fellow man [as much] and we’re just more of a disposable society than we used to be.”
“Part of the whole sustainability of tourism is just making it less of a stigma, or a separation” between visitors and locals, he added. “I want to build a community.”
Launching the long-term tourism management plan
Nettles said the bureau has hired MMGY NextFactor, a company out of British Columbia, to carry out what he describes as a three-part assignment.
“The first is a community engagement activity, where we really want to bring folks together and let’s have a conversation, let’s figure out what are our shared values, what do we think it is that makes this place so special…So we have these discussions and we’re able to identify the golden eggs and then we can take care of the geese that lay them,” he said.
“Another big area is the predictive models, the models of what happens with the tourism and what’s the cost of that. What are different scenarios we can run to figure out how to grow so that we don’t overburden what we’ve got,” Nettles added. “The third major part of it is just developing the plan.”