Food and Tourism Entrepreneurs in North Carolina
A Program of the Center for Sustainable Tourism and the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, East Carolina University
Entrepreneur Profile: Kristina Ayres
Entrepreneur Organization: Tourism Development Authority, Duplin County
Kristina Ayres served as the Executive Director of the Duplin County Tourism Development Authority from June 2010 to August 2012. The mission of the Tourism Development Authority (TDA) is to market Duplin County as a visitor destination, increase visitor numbers to the area and to develop its overall tourism product.
Kristina’s Entrepreneurial Traits
Kristina was the first non-native of Duplin County to hold the position of Executive Director. She exhibited her resourcefulness, adaptability, and willingness to learn from others in tourism by successfully building on the expertise of the previous supervisor. While working as an intern at Winston-Salem Visitors Bureau, she adopted the philosophy of her director; “working in the tourism sector means getting up everyday to support X numbers of hundreds of jobs, which supports this many families, and changes this many lives.”
Under Kristina’s direction, the Tourism Development Authority took a holistic approach to developing tourism and the economy, and considered that “what works for others may not necessarily work best for Duplin County.” Her strategy may have been different from other North Carolina counties because of its location between the beach and the Piedmont. Also unlike neighboring counties, Duplin County does not have a military base.
The rural locale was one of the biggest challenges in her position because “many do not know what the destination offers, or even its existence.” Small towns generally have limited funding and access to resources. A small budget results in a smaller staff; there were only two working in the office. Because of this, limited research and information hindered the ability to make decisions at the highest level of efficiency.
Another major challenge had been controlling the quality of the experience. “When a visitor has a negative experience anywhere within the county, there is a negative impression of Duplin County as a whole.” Kristina relied on other businesses, organizations, and people to enhance the visitors’ experience.
What Inspires Kristina
Kristina tackled her work with a passion fueled by a “deeper drive than just increasing heads and beds.” She enjoyed building personal relationships as well as identifying other people’s opportunities and interests. In her position, she was able to connect individuals with similar interests and complementary products in order to combine their resources. She enjoyed outreach and fostering self-sufficiency for stakeholders. She loved testing new ideas to discover what worked and what truly helped the community.
Positive Aspects of the Entrepreneurial Climate
The board was supportive of the overall goals and mission of the office. Many individuals and organizations embraced Kristina during her time as the Director. People enjoyed sharing their thoughts and ideas with her, and she was not afraid to ask for guidance from those who were in the industry longer. One of her favorite magic phrases was “will you help me?”
“One of the ways to increase search rankings on Google is to have a blog,” noted Kristina, and while she did not have time to spend writing, she hired a recent college graduate with a journalism degree to update the blog monthly. This was just one example of the multitude of innovative methods that Kristina employed to increase the county’s visibility within the target market.
Kristina cites her partnership with Lynn Davis in the Small Business Center at the community college as one of her most successful partnerships. Davis is open to new ideas, is very approachable, and has access to many resources on campus. The Small Business Center offers the opportunity to develop business plans, find loans, provide customer service training, and personal development training. The classes include speakers that the TDA cannot afford, so the partnership really helps to stretch county and state dollars. Kristina took a regional approach to tourism by creating cross-county itineraries with Thersa Carter, Director of the Jacksonville CVB. She also collaborated with North Carolina Coast Host, which has a regional marketing approach across Eastern North Carolina.
Sustainability Factors of TDA
Kristina worked to market Duplin County while promoting all three sustainability factors; economic, social, and environmental. Encouraging visitor numbers maintained a sustainable operating budget leading to continued tourism marketing efforts, which in turn helped to maintain a viable economy for the town. Her strategy, however, was focused on developing both the community and the region. She worked to ensure that the town received the proper customer service training so that they could offer quality experiences for the visitors. The culture and history of the people were and are important to both Kristina and to the residents of Duplin County, therefore she tried to protect those features. Some restaurants purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables to help support the local economies. The TDA office also utilized more web-based technology, such as posting the meeting agendas and minutes, as well as the Visitors’ Guide on their website.
Focuses for the Future
While Kristina was in her position at Duplin County TDA, she had three main focuses for the future: research data, collaboration, and web marketing. The office was in the process of looking towards future research on visitor demographics in Duplin County, as reliable data will be the first step in understanding current and potential visitors. Kristina had plans to continue collaborating and developing new relationships. She had also hoped to utilize web marketing through social media in order to reach a broader audience. Kristina is a lifelong learner with a strong work ethic. She loved being in Duplin County, and is extremely thankful that she was welcomed there. Kristina is now working at Win Anyway Consulting, which is a professional consulting agency that specializes in tourism marketing and community development.