The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday December 10th

Orange County brings in more tourism dollars than ever

Hampton Inn & Suites General Manager Kevin Rooney talks with Katie Henning, Sales Manager, while Jack Bowen, Front Desk Agent, takes calls.
Buy Photos Hampton Inn & Suites General Manager Kevin Rooney talks with Katie Henning, Sales Manager, while Jack Bowen, Front Desk Agent, takes calls.

Tourism in Orange County reached an all-time high last year — and Kevin Rooney made sure Carrboro can provide those added visitors with a new place to stay.

Rooney is the general manager of the Hampton Inn and Suites in Carrboro, which opened in August. He said the company decided to open the hotel after it noticed a spike in tourism in the county during the last few years.

top 5

Five most popular attractions in Orange County

1. Triangle SportsPlex – A sports and recreation facility in Hillsborough that offers an ice rink, three indoor pools and a fitness center.

2. Dean E. Smith Center – The fifth-largest collegiate basketball arena in the U.S. and the home of UNC’s men’s basketball since 1986.

3. Kenan Stadium – The 60,000-seat epicenter of UNC football since 1927 often regarded as scenic because of its tall pine trees.

4. Morehead Planetarium – One of the largest planetariums in the nation that used to provide training for U.S. astronauts.

5. NC Botanical Garden – One of the largest gardens in the Southeast dedicated to the research and conservation of plants native to the state.

“It’s a perfect time because Carolina is not going away, and there is always opportunity for different guests to come into the downtown area,” Rooney said.

Visitor spending in Orange County peaked in 2012 — generating an economic impact of $161.6 million, a 3 percent increase from a year earlier.

Local hotels are benefitting from this uptick in tourism.

Laurie Paolicelli, executive director of the Orange County Visitor’s Bureau, said there has been an increase in hotel occupancy throughout the last several years. This year, hotel occupancy has reached 67.3 percent, the highest since 2006.

“Things are picking up, the fall seems to be a great time for Chapel Hill because of football games and weddings, but also the weekends are busy because of corporate meetings and business travel,” Rooney said.

Tourism in the county bottomed in the midst of the economic recession, reaching as low as $136.3 million in visitor spending in 2009.

“We were really heavily affected by the recession,” Paolicelli said. “We had an 8 percent loss in spending in 2009.”

Since then, visitor spending has increased almost 20 percent.

“I think that a stronger economy is always the beginning of growth in tourism,” said Anthony Carey, general manager at the Siena Hotel and the chairman of the Visitor’s Bureau.

’The mouse trap’

Carey said the area must provide tourists with a new attraction if the county hopes to keep up its tourism growth.

“For Chapel Hill, we are bringing in people for the University,” Carey said. “But we need more diversity.”

Paolicelli said the Bureau is focused on marketing the area’s festivals, restaurants and music scene.

“We have the mouse trap,” she said. “We just have to make it better.”

Paolicelli said three broad areas of travel – leisure, business and conference – created the increase in tourism in Orange County in the last year.

“This increase has given us stronger leisure travel, stronger business travel and bigger celebrations,” Carey said.

Celebrations include graduations, reunions and weddings, especially those of Carolina graduates.

Carey said local hotels are also doing a good job of advertising their options and making renovations to attract more visitors to the area.

“Places like the Carolina Inn are freshening up while we are also getting new faces, like the Hampton Inn and Suites in Carrboro,” he said.

Rooney said most of his guests are families looking into the University, local businesses looking for meeting places, leisure groups and wedding parties.

Working hard

The tourism spike also created new jobs for Orange County residents.

The county provided 1,650 tourism-related jobs in 2012, according to data provided by the Visitor’s Bureau.

“Most jobs are coming from the hotel and restaurant industry,” Paolicelli said. “And these jobs are at all skill levels, whether it be wait staff, reception, management or financial.”

Carey said this increase in jobs is what attracts more visitors to the area.

“When we feel more confident in our jobs and our community, the more likely tourists will want to spend their money and time here,” he said.

Tourism dollars go to four key areas — restaurants, retail, gas stations and hotels.

And as more people are willing to spend money in the area, hotels are able to increase their rates. Carey said the increase in daily rate and room revenue is proof that hotels are coming back.

On average, hotels charge about $106.71 a night for a room — a $2 increase from last year’s figures.

“They are strong increases,” Carey said. “It’s continued growth and we continue to forecast this.”

Paolicelli said she hopes this increase will encourage future tourists to visit the area.

“We are a destination that people want and continue to want,” she said. “And now they are able to buy it again.”

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