Nov 19, 2023 - Business

Lessons in Charlotte tourism, from the man who spent 12 years directing it

Tom Murray took the helm of Charlotte’s tourism arm a dozen years ago, and since then the city’s endured political boycotts, a global pandemic, a rush of new development and an ongoing influx of new residents.

No doubt, the Charlotte of 2011, when Murray became CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, is a very different Charlotte than today. The city’s tourism industry has changed significantly, too.

Driving the news: Murray stepped down as CEO this month. He’s succeeded by Steve Bagwell, who’s been with CRVA and currently serves as the organization’s VP of venues.

I sat down with Murray to chat about his time as CEO.

A few takeaways about tourism in Charlotte from our conversation:

1. Charlotte is resilient.

North Carolina’s House Bill 2, also known as the bathroom bill, drew quick backlash in 2016. Performing artists canceled N.C. shows, the state lost jobs expansions and entire local governments forbade public employees from traveling here. Charlotte’s tourism industry spent millions to repair the reputation, and to convince would-be visitors that Charlotte is an inclusive place.

  • “We tried to assure the business community who we were as a city. We launched a campaign called Always Welcome,” Murray said. “The boycott was on North Carolina; I don’t think they would have boycotted Charlotte if it wasn’t in North Carolina.”

The AP estimated HB2 cost North Carolina $3.76 billion. But Charlotte’s recovered since the law’s 2017 repeal, Murray said, as evidenced by the return of major events and by the city’s routinely full Uptown hotels.

2. Charlotte fared better during the pandemic than other markets.

When Murray became CRVA’s CEO, Charlotte was dominated by business travel — such as big conventions and bank staffers flying in from New York and California. During the pandemic, business travel took an enormous hit. Big meetings that would’ve required teams to travel here went virtual.

  • That travel segment hasn’t quite recovered in Charlotte to its pre-pandemic levels. But leisure travel has surged, buoyed by performances by megastars like Beyoncé, big events like college football games and the lure of an increasingly prominent restaurant scene.
  • In Uptown, there was about a 40% lift in hotel occupancy and a 26% lift in rates on concert compared to the average hotel performance over the prior six months, according to the CRVA.

What he’s saying: “Where we’re not quite back yet is business travel. We’re better off than many other cities,” Murray says.

By the numbers: Charlotte now ranks 26 out of more than 50 major U.S. cities in terms of post-pandemic downtown recovery, with a 74.5% recovery rate, per data from the University of Toronto‘s Downtown Recovery project, Axios’ Alex Fitzpatrick and Kavya Beheraj report.

Of note: Charlotte had a record year for all its venues last year, Murray notes, from the Spectrum Center to Bank of America Stadium.

  • What’s more, the city can accommodate more large-scale events (conventions) than it had before thanks to the city’s newly expanded convention center Uptown.
  • In fiscal year 2022, the Charlotte Convention Center hosted 141 events with 266,220 total attendees, producing $13 million in revenue and surpassing budget by 4.2%, per CRVA’s annual report.

3. Expect more big-name events in Charlotte moving forward.

Murray expects the NFL to pick Charlotte as a future NFL draft site. “It’ll happen. And that’s exciting.”

  • He couldn’t say when it’ll come to Charlotte, though.

What’s next: Murray plans to spend a lot of his time in retirement with his young grand-daughter, on his extensive honey-do list, and on various projects, including refurbishing a ’65 Mustang with his son-in-law.

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