If the University is closed, how do you get people to visit Chapel Hill?


By Laurie Paolicelli

OK, let’s face it: Chapel Hill is a college town. The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill was here before there was even a downtown – before there was even a government! As the University grew businesses came to support it. Flash forward 250 years and you have a whole economy derived from the University, and that includes a lot more than Chapel Hill. Students pack in downtown Carrboro clubs, its apartments and recreational opportunities. Alumni who stayed here have moved to neighboring towns like Hillsborough and Pittsboro and every year the University related economy helps sustain a $218 million tourism industry with countless jobs that depend on it.

Today Chapel Hill and surrounding area, with its hundreds of restaurants and coffee shops, brew pubs, retail outlets and historic museums, performance centers and gardens, art and sculpture are, in effect, the byproduct of being in a University town.

So this is the $218 million dollar question: if the University isn’t running on all cylinders how does a business community in a college town attract people here to sustain its businesses, keep employees employed and plan for a future?

Marketing our Hospitality Assets to Help Rebuild our Economy

Tourism is one of those industries that is working hard to help our businesses thrive but it’s an uphill climb.

“There’s no question that in Chapel Hill and the nation, this pandemic has shuttered the tourism and travel industry,” said Laurie Paolicelli, director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau. “Governments and businesses all over the world have cut their outbound travel budgets and demanded that employees rethink travel. Airplane travel still frightens consumers. A gathering of more than 25 people indoors is the new normal so our typical conferences of 50 to 200 plus have all had to postpone. The new indoor limits on congregating make it near impossible for any restaurant or banquet center to survive if they can’t feed a full house.”

Paolicelli said that with travel discouraged, Orange County’s 1500 hotel rooms are not at their normal “2/3 full” mark and, as a result, those visitors are not spilling out into the streets, shops, gas stations, beauty parlors and music joints.

Inviting People to Orange County Now and in 2021

When the pandemic hit our nation and forced the travel industry to shut down, agencies like the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau shifted into recovery mode.

“The first step we took was the responsible one: we encouraged our national and international travelers to hold off on travel for awhile. We believe in science, and did our part to flatten the curve. You can see our original video statement here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gi6l-T8lAEk

Taking the Lead of NC Commerce and the State Travel Office

Eight months into the COVID 19 Pandemic, Paolicelli said the Visitors Bureau, like many government and private sector industries, is focused on rebuilding the economy safely. The Orange County hospitality industry received training and certification from the state of North Carolina. Visitors Bureau staff and hundreds of front line employees in Orange County participated in Count On Me NC – a public health initiative providing training and implementation of new procedures, such as ensuring staff wear face coverings and undergo health checks before each shift, providing hand sanitizer stations at all entrances, making sure indoor and outdoor seating meet all physical distancing guidelines, and cleaning and sanitizing all tables and surfaces after every use.

Marketing What’s Open and How to Safely Visit

To educate people on safe and socially distant ways to travel while hoping to prevent community reintroduction of the pandemic, Orange County and NC Department of Commerce granted the Visitors Bureau $200,000 to develop and implement COVID-19 specific concepts, strategies and materials focused on this.

“These grant programs provide direct support for struggling travel and tourism businesses and give us more opportunities to show the American people we are safely reopening.”

“With the pandemic far from being under control, and travel still risky, the Visitors Bureau, as always, is focused on the health and safety of people first. But we are laying the groundwork for a future – a not too distant future, we hope – when visitors will once again fill our hotels, restaurant and retail establishments, and this University town will thrive as it once did, colored in Carolina Blue.

Highlights of Orange County’s Tourism Program

  • Southern Living Magazine
  • Our State Magazine
  • Our State Travel E-newsletter
  • Garden & Gun Digital
  • Digital banners on AccuWeather Channels, which influences over 40 million consumer’s everyday.
  • Cox Premium Digital Video Cox Media, a wholly owned subsidiary of Cox Communications Inc., is one of the country’s largest cable television advertising sales organizations, reaching more than eight million subscribers.
  • IndyWeek
  • NC Brides LGBT Campaign
  • WCHL Chapelboro Spotlight on Local Retail

New Idea for Locals

The holidays are here and we are grateful to all locals who choose Orange County for their leisure. Whether it’s long hikes, meals out, Thanksgiving at a restaurant or a family outing for Christmas or Hanukah, here suggestions on how to celebrate locally:

Staycation Ideas: https://www.visitchapelhill.org/staycation

Check-out Carrboro’s new website: https://visitcarrboro.com

Colonial Inn is opening in Hillsborough: https://colonialinn-nc.com &https://visithillsboroughnc.com

Thanksgiving Takeout and Dine-In Ideas: https://www.co.orange.nc.us/1710/Visitors-Bureau

12 Days of Christmas at Carolina Inn: https://store.carolinainn.com/collections/12-days-of-christmas

Community Hanukah Candle Lighting: https://www.jewishforgood.org/calendar

Check-out the new website that helps parents navigate Tobacco Road campuses: www.trianglecampusguide.com

Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.

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