The first area of focus is driving visitor demand.
“This is accomplished through a targeted sales and marketing process that promotes our abundant outdoor recreation assets,” said Applegate. “Reinforced through our county’s (successful promotional campaign) ‘Get Outside/GO’ positioning, we consistently convey an active outdoors lifestyle in our print and digital media placements. Secondly, to enhance the visitor experience, we strive to be effective destination managers in conjunction with other community agencies, such as other County departments and the municipal tourism development authorities, to develop additional venues that bolster our brand and stimulate increases in tourism demand. The third and final focus is to communicate our relevancy and viability, which we do both through effective departmental performance and influential partnerships. We recognize and appreciate the investments our local hotel, restaurant, attraction and retail owners have made in our county, and we will perform at a high level as a staff and as a board to help them achieve even greater success. As always, we remain accountable in this area with monthly and annual results reporting.”
One of the biggest things Gaston County Travel and Tourism does for its community is promote visitor spending.
“Visitor spending is economic development,” Applegate emphasized. “We’re here to serve our local hospitality industry and our local residents by attracting new spending into our destinations. The spending visitors leave here is in our common interest and benefits us all.”
According to an annual study by Visit North Carolina, in 2018, visitors to Gaston County spent $276.6 million. That’s an increase of 5.7 percent from 2017. The travel and tourism industry directly employs more than 2,000 people in Gaston County. The total payroll generated by the tourism industry in Gaston County was $46.9 million. State tax revenue generated in Gaston County totaled $15.7 million through state sales and excise taxes and taxes on personal and corporate income. About $4.6 million in local taxes were generated from sales and property tax revenue from travel-generated and travel-supported businesses.
“Each Gaston County household annually saves $238 in state and local taxes as a direct result of visitor spending in our county,” Applegate revealed. “We are quick to point out that these impressive figures simply would not happen but for our abundance of tourism attractions and the dedication of our local hospitality professionals.
“Through our group sales efforts,” he added, “we are actively focused on the sports and conference markets in order to recruit business meetings, decision-makers and sports events rights holders and encourage them to select Gaston County as a host site for their conferences, gatherings and tournaments. Opportunities such as these attract out-of-town guests, while also requiring space rental needs, food-and-beverage purchases, overnight hotel accommodations and a wide variety of additional destination services, all supplied by our local businesses.”
Recent examples of such bookings on the meeting side of things include the North Carolina Invasive Plant Council, Environmental Educators of North Carolina and the N.C. Museums Council.
“On the sports side, we’ve hosted the Santa Hustle North Carolina Half-Marathon and Five-K and the Red Bull Pump Track World Championship Qualifier,” Applegate informed. “With our individual leisure marketing, we want to bolster Friday and Saturday night hotel stays and attraction visitation by promoting getaway weekends for outdoor recreation enthusiasts and families. These initiatives are currently being activated through our 11 Mills Blueway Trail and our Ridgeline Craft Beverage Trail for outdoors experiences and our Christmas in Gaston County Trail for creating family memories. Our themed trails are promoted through digital and print, and they align with the changing seasons of the year. We’ve found that using these itineraries of places to explore, along with lodging and food and beverage options, is an effective way to cross-market our partners, our communities and our destinations.”
More about Applegate
A native of Boston, Applegate is a CDME or certified destination management executive. Prior to taking over the reins at Gaston County Travel and Tourism, he spent four years as the senior vice president of sales and destination services at the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Before that, he spent nine years as the director of research for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.
One of the 11 children of Alice and the late Lawrence Applegate, he grew up in the Boston suburb of Melrose, Mass. His father was a police officer for the City of Boston.
Michael Applegate moved down here some 28 years ago. A 1989 graduate of Purdue University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, he is also a 1993 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned a master of arts degree in sports administration.
He and Janet, his wife of 23 years, reside in Charlotte. They have two children, daughter Meredith, 20, and son Patrick, 17.
Mr. Applegate takes the rugged outdoor lifestyle very seriously. He is a member of the Belmont Rowing Club, and he enjoys playing golf on Gaston County’s many courses.
The impacts of travel and tourism upon our economy cannot be overstated. It’s a thing with local, regional and statewide implications, and such phenomena greatly affect the broader socio-economic picture. Gaston County is really getting itself on the map and on state and regional radar these days.
Applegate is a big believer in collaborative efforts, and that’s just the sort of thing that is helping travel and tourism bring together partners for shared success, including through grant initiatives.
“We are supportive of local entities embarking on tourism-related initiatives through our annual grants program,” he said. “And we actively seek to collaborate and engage our industry through these partnerships.”
The application may be found on the Website at www.visitgaston.org.
Gaston is a county that truly has it all, where outdoor recreation choices are concerned, as Applegate noted. Whether you want to go rappelling or hiking at Crowders Mountain; enjoy walking along the greenways or seeing the lovely flowers and horticultural exhibits at the Stowe Botanical Garden in Belmont; go canoeing or kayaking down the South Fork or Catawba rivers; or take advantage of the downtown concert series and seasonal events of the county’s 13 municipalities, with Gaston County, you’ve got a lot of choices, says Applegate.
“We have it all,” he said. “There’s really something for everyone in that regard. I’m thrilled with a lot of the programming our municipalities are doing. I truly believe Gaston County can be the premier outdoor destination in North Carolina’s Piedmont region. We want to position our beautiful county as the number-one outdoor recreation destination for our growing metropolitan area. We have the resources and products to do that. And I think we can grow that. We’re absolutely working our way toward that goal.”
Amongst Applegate’s duties are growing industry revenues, strategically managing the development of future tourism assets, client satisfaction and partner engagement. Gaston County Travel and Tourism seeks to improve spending on all things local, from restaurants and hotels to unique attractions, and to drive more visitations. Whether folks are coming from within an easy drive of a 50-mile radius or from as far away as Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia or even Florida, there’s something to bring them here for an unforgettable experience and a truly good time.
Applegate explained that his department’s funding comes from the hospitality tax at local hotels. This money is used for programming and improving the travel and tourism industry.
“We strive to help our hotel partners to improve demand on the weekends,” he said. “And we want to help our partners at the Gastonia Conference Center. I think there are real opportunities there for state association business.
“Gaston County is an easily accessible place, with our centralized location for the Carolinas,” he continued. “Our community here has a story that I’m looking forward to sharing with so many others around the state. I want to help our restaurants, retailers and attractions. It all ties into one big collective.”
Applegate extolled Gaston County’s small-town feel.
“We have a lot of quaint, little downtowns with restaurants and an eclectic mix of events,” he said. “It’s wonderful, what they’re doing.”
He also cited the many outdoor festivals, such as the varying versions of Springfest in Gastonia, Mount Holly and Belmont, the Cherry Blossom Festival in Cherryville, Down-Home Days in Bessemer City and more. Then there’s the Tailrace Marina in Mount Holly, the Riverside Marina in Belmont, the boat launch in McAdenville, Goat Island in Cramerton and Poston Park in Lowell––just to name a few.
Gaston is a beautiful county with a bright future, “all because of what God put here and what others contributed along the way,” Applegate observed.
Gaston County Travel and Tourism’s offices at 620 N. Main St. in Belmont were built in 2004. Their stained-glass windows reflect neighboring Belmont Abbey College, and the offices are situated on what is still Abbey land. The travel and tourism department has a 30-year lease on the building, with two 10-year options after that.
As for his own career goals and what he wants for Gaston County, Applegate said it’s quite simple.
“Just to accomplish big things,” he said, “to work collectively and accomplish things together, hopefully helped by the energy and passion I bring to things.”
To learn more about Gaston County Travel and Tourism, Applegate encourages you to call the offices at (704) 825-7517.
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