Travel and tourism: How Fayetteville's economy benefits from the dollars and decisions of visitors

By Stephanie Meador, posted 4 weeks ago
Downtown Fayetteville is home to some of the city’s most popular local restaurants, shops and small businesses. Photo provided by DistiNCtly Fayetteville.

Communities across the nation are preparing to celebrate National Travel and Tourism Week May 19 through 25. This week marks an important moment to highlight the impact of tourism locally. In 2022, the tourism industry had a $666.7 million impact in Cumberland County and was responsible for creating more than 4,800 jobs. 

These positive numbers are a result of the hard work and collaborative efforts of many leaders and organizations within our community.

“Tourism and hospitality are a significant part of our local economy here and have been for many, many years. As we know we are a transient community, we support Fort Liberty, and with folks traveling on Interstate 95 it is one of the larger segments of our local economy,” shared Robert Van Geons, President and CEO of the Fayetteville Cumberland County Economic Development Corporation. 

Devin Heath has served as President and CEO of Fayetteville’s destination marketing organization DistiNCtly Fayetteville for about five months now. Heath spoke with the journal about the community’s strengths when it comes to tourism and hospitality as well as some of the plans in place to continue to grow moving forward. 

Heath shared that DistiNCtly Fayetteville is working with Tourism Economics to compile further information about visitors such as where they are coming from, how long they are staying and what businesses they’re visiting during their time.

“So that’s going to help guide a lot of basically just about everything that we do here in our organization. Because you know, we have a sales team that goes out and tries to recruit conventions and sports events and visitors as a whole to come stay in our community. So when we get a better understanding of what they’re coming to see, what is really of interest to them…[the data] will give us a better idea of how to market that,” shared Heath.

Fayetteville’s status as a military town has a great impact on tourism.

“We did a research study that found that 35 percent of our visitors are what we refer to in the tourism industry as VFR, and that’s just an acronym that stands for visiting friends and relatives. And what that means is your family is coming down to see you or your friends are coming here to see you. Most markets, your average markets around the country, that visiting friends and relatives segment represents between 6 and maybe 15 percent of your overall visitation. But for us, that’s high, 35 percent, and we certainly know that a big reason for that is because of Fort Liberty. So we need to really make sure that our residents are as passionate about Cumberland County as we are,” explained Heath.

Hotel owner and Tourism Development Authority board member Pavan Patel has a unique perspective of our market. He offered some insights on how moving forward our community might continue to benefit from travelers connected to the military while also broadening our horizons to diversify our tourism market.

“Looking down the road, our market will always generate significant occupancy from military-related activity, there is room to diversify. We can look at other cities/counties/MSAs that are flourishing but have the same fundamental building blocks that align with ours. If we learn how to capitalize on the opportunities that are unique to us - our location on I-95, the numerous activities from kayaking on the river to zip lining over waterfalls or indoor parachuting, from a booming healthcare education system – we have the parts to aggregate to make this place we call home a destination,” explained Patel. 

Fayetteville has many amenities that oftentimes locals aren’t even aware of. Some of the venues and organizations that make Fayetteville a great place to live and visit include Cape Fear Botanical Garden, the U.S. Army Airborne and Special Operations Museum (ASOM), Cool Spring Downtown District, live theater, our local chamber of commerce, the Crown Complex and more. 

“I think that we have some fantastic leaders in this community… between what Robert Van Geons and the Economic Development Corporation [is doing] and what Nat Robertson is doing with the chamber, and Bianca Shoneman [with] the Cool Spring Downtown District, we’ve got some fantastic leaders in this community that all are passionate about this community and they want to work together,” remarked Heath.

As our city continues to grow our accommodations and attractions are prepared to grow with it. One of the biggest developments in the works is the new Crown Event Center to be built downtown. 

"Our current theater is somewhat of a workhorse for us, but it’s aged out, it was built in the 60s. It doesn’t meet the needs of the guests or the artists and so that’s why it was important to build something new; and what the county has landed on, through a lot of hard work and research and effort, is to build a unique type of facility that really doesn’t exist anywhere in the region,” shared Seth Benalt, General Manager of the Crown Complex. “It’s a hybrid facility in a lot of ways, and so that same room can have a theatrical performance in it one night or a concert, and the next day could be a banquet for 500…I think because of that flexibility, [and] it’s going to be built as state of the art with all the right amenities in it, people are going to want to have their event there. People are going to want to go to events there. I think it’s going to draw people from around our region to come to it.”

By building this new event center in a bustling area of town the hope is that local businesses surrounding the venue will also see a boost once doors for the new theater are opened. This new venue is just one piece of a larger puzzle that’s being put together to bring more people to Fayetteville.

There is an important relationship between locals’ opinion of and engagement with the city and the trend for new visitors and residents to come to town. Van Geons described it as a “virtuous circle of complementing business and industry.”

These efforts to bring in more visitors to our community do not go unnoticed by business leaders.

“The extensive destination marketing work being done by DistiNCtly Fayetteville with other key local partners is significant. Recruiting conferences, conventions and visitor traffic to Cumberland County for overnight stays in area hotels only increases traffic to our museum and other venues and establishments,” shared Renee Lane, ASOM Museum Foundation Executive Director.

Under Devin Heath’s leadership, DistiNCtly Fayetteville will continue to prioritize community involvement as a means to keep their finger on the pulse of what this community needs.

“I think Devin, from the moment he got here, has been open to finding ways to work together to do more together. And I think that, importantly, it's a balancing act of what the community wants to be and what in the community will attract more folks. I think that Devin strikes that balance of leading and listening at the same time,” remarked Van Geons. 

From new event centers, growing museum exhibits, Broadway level productions, exceptional dining options and much more, Fayetteville is really coming into its own. 

Ico insights



In The Current Issue

Full time family: Ross I.T. Services co-owner Kellie Ross finds balance between family and running a business

From right to left: The Ross family includes Ross I.T. Services Founder and Co-owner Sam Ross, the youngest in the family Caroline (7), Co-owner Kellie Ross and oldest daughter Hannah (14). Photo provided by Kellie Ross.For the past 18 years, Kellie

Not for profit, for people: CFVH Foundation Vice President shares about her experience navigating motherhood as a working professional

Brooks shared that her favorite part of the role that she has now is working with donors and helping them take their philanthropic investment in health care and see it put to use. Photo provided by CFVH.Cape Fear Valley Health Foundation Vice Preside

Publisher's note: Finding solutions

In May, the Greater Fayetteville Business Journal celebrated small business month and Mother’s Day! In an effort to further recognize both of these important events, we have assembled a few stories highlighting working mothers and “mom-owned” small b