Destination: Cabarrus! How Do We Stack Up?
Jul 01, 2018 08:30AM
● By Jason Huddle
Destination: Cabarrus! How Do We Stack Up?
On a recent trip to Orlando, it occurred to me that Cabarrus County and Central Florida have a lot in common. Before a certain mouse moved in nearby, Orlando was little more than a sleepy town and a lot of swampland.
In the same respect – even with the presence of Charlotte Motor Speedway, but before Concord Mills Mall was built – Cabarrus County was largely considered a bedroom community of Charlotte and not much else. My, how times have changed.
Where textiles and tobacco used to drive our local economy, now it is tourism to a large extent. Where Concord once saw a dramatic rise in tourists just twice a year (for the races), now there is an ongoing, all-year-long push to attract visitors to our area and a need to accommodate, feed and entertain them as well. Now, while this can create more traffic and some headaches for locals, Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) officials would argue the sales tax dollars tourism creates help to keep property taxes low.
So, if there is this need to attract tourists here and keep them entertained, I took the opportunity while I was in one of the most well known tourist destinations in the world to take in some of the experiences offered and compare them to what we have locally.
One of the first places I visited was Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards, about 40 minutes outside Orlando. Lakeridge is not unlike many of the wineries we have here. They have a friendly staff and produce several varieties of wines made from the muscadine grape (although they will tell you the muscadine fares better in the Florida climate than North Carolina’s, but I’ll let the experts argue that one). On a private tour, they explained how their wines are made in such a way that any given year’s batch will taste exactly the same as the next. They also taught us how to properly see and taste the wines in order to fully enjoy them. Now, I’m not a wine connoisseur but I can tell you I enjoyed just about everything they put in front of me during a tasting. Having said all that, we certainly have no shortage of wineries in our region to visit and have similar experiences at each, so check that box.
Another form of entertainment both regions have in common is the escape room. This trend in entertainment and team-building places a group of people in a room where they have to discover clues in order to escape before time expires. We had the privilege to try out two such interactive living puzzles – at Escapology and The Escape Game – both in Orlando.
Even though we chose the least difficult scenarios at both locations, we only escaped one and made it out of the other with just one second to spare. The challenge is both exhilarating and exasperating and I highly recommend trying it if you love a good challenge that requires the use of your brain. Fortunately, we have a place to do just that right here in Cabarrus County – at The Escape Artist, located in historic downtown Concord.
But what about live entertainment? Things Cabarrus County lacks are dinner shows and live acts. I had the pleasure of attending three dinner shows while in Orlando: Sleuths Mystery Dinner,
Capone’s Dinner Show and Medieval Times. Each had its own unique appeal to tourists and locals alike (we actually sat at a table full of locals when we visited Sleuths). All provided fun entertainment and food as well, so the cost could be better justified in that it was the entire evenings’ entertainment.
At Sleuths, the audience becomes part of the show, interacting with the actors and working together to solve a murder mystery. Capone’s has a speakeasy feel, as you might expect, but is more of a dinner show with a storyline rather than being focused on audience participation, although that does occur as well. Medieval Times is very reminiscent of the jousts seen at the Carolina Renaissance Festival each fall, just over the Mecklenburg County line, but with a full meal fit for a king as well as music and lights.
In addition, we had the opportunity to see the world-famous Blue Man Group at their own theater, located just outside the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando. If you’ve never seen this show, I suggest you seize the opportunity if it comes along. This is a high-energy, funny and family-friendly show that combines lights, sound and giant floating balls for the audience to bat around.
But let’s talk about the elephant in the room, or mouse, as the case may be. Cabarrus County certainly doesn’t have a worldwide destination like Walt Disney World to attract visitors, let alone several other theme parks. But while we’re on the subject, I did have the opportunity to experience the new Avatar-themed land, called Pandora, at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. While the actual land is exquisitely done to make you feel as if you are on the faraway planet depicted in James Cameron’s 2009 hit film, there isn’t a lot to do there just yet. There are just two rides: the Na’vi River Journey, which, while visually impactful, is little more than a sci-fi version of Pirates of the Caribbean, but less interesting. Then there’s the Avatar Flight of Passage, which places riders on the backs of winged banshees, through virtual reality, as they fly around the beautiful planet of Pandora.
For those of you who have experienced Disney’s Soarin’ at EPCOT, this would be a similar
experience but exponentially more intense. Ride waits for “Flight” can regularly reach up to three hours, so grab that Fast Pass Plus if you can!
Finally, there are destination resorts. Central Florida is full of them. Some might argue that they are more excited to stay at a certain resort on Disney property than they are to visit the parks themselves. Likewise, there are several resorts in the area, not affiliated with Mickey, that have come to the realization they need to be as much a destination as the surrounding entertainment.
We were able to experience the Lake Buena Vista Spa & Resort, located just a stone’s throw from Disney property. Along with full restaurants and a world-class pool, they also offered top-notch spa treatments as well as suites with full kitchens to help families save money by being able to cook a few meals in their rooms, rather than eat out.
What Do They Got That We Ain’t Got?
After spending the week in Central Florida, I could not wait to get back and sit down with CVB President Donna Carpenter. I wanted to discuss with her all I’d seen and get her perspective on how Cabarrus stacks up in comparison.
“From a destination marketer’s perspective, I think we, as a destination, can stand on our own,” Carpenter explains. “If we’re comparing ourselves to Disney…the (Charlotte Motor) speedway is our Disney.”
Much in the same way Walt Disney converted worthless swampland into a tourism mecca, Carpenter says when Bruton Smith decided to cut a road to the interstate (I-85) from the speedway, it opened up a whole new opportunity for this area (Concord Mills and the Exit 49 area). “We are very ‘Disney-esque’ in that sense,” she says.
If you’re reading this thinking there’s no way Cabarrus County compares to Orlando, consider this. According to Carpenter, the Exit 49 corridor (Concord Mills) generates more tax revenue than any other exit in the state.
“Other than the beach and the mountains, which are not man-made, we are the Disney of North Carolina,” Carpenter proclaims.
However, the potential problems for Cabarrus County on the distant horizon, I point out, are that both malls and NASCAR, as a brand, are on the decline nationally. Can we count on Concord Mills and the speedway to continue as the backbone of our tourism industry in the decades to come?
Carpenter points out, “The speedway is not only NASCAR. We have the dragway and the dirt track. When you look at those three things, they put on many events each year. It’s not just about the three races.”
She also notes, regarding live entertainment, “We also have annual events like the Carolina Rebellion, which puts room demand on our hotels in line with All-Star Race numbers.”
According to the CVB, the Fall 2017 NHRA (drag races) sold out, meaning our local hotels were filled to capacity, as did the World of Outlaws. “We’re ‘Where Racing Lives’, not ‘Where NASCAR Lives,’ ” Carpenter says.
As for Concord Mills, she says that Simon Corp. (owner of the mall) understands that online (shopping) is a big competitor. However, they aren’t allowing that to deter them from creating a shopping experience that will cause people to get out from behind their computer screens.
“They are continuing to invest in renovations and, as long as they are willing to invest in their product and talk about the future, I feel pretty good that our destination will be even better in 10 years than what we currently are,” Carpenter explains.
However, don’t mistake Carpenter’s confidence for complacency. “We know our weaknesses. We need more attractors and high-end restaurants. We need things that cause people to want to stay overnight.”
Carpenter says she would like to see a permanent dinner show – like the ones from Orlando – take up residence in the Exit 49 corridor. She also explains the CVB is working closely with Cabarrus Economic Development (EDC) on being very particular in looking for new attractions to bring to the area.
In addition, the Destination 49 committee meets regularly to discuss the future of this area. Some upcoming attractions to look for include The Mustang Museum (opening April 2019) and the I Fly (indoor skydiving) facility, opening up tentatively in 2019 as well.
Regarding more destination resorts – like that of Great Wolf Lodge – Carpenter says we don’t want too many resorts like those, although we could handle another one.
Regardless, she says the CVB is working hard to promote the area with as much vigor and enthusiasm (albeit less money) than the folks at Visit Orlando. “We have done well with diversifying our product as far as selling leisure, group and convention travel. I’d put this team up against any other tourism group in the nation.”
One noticeable fact about Orlando stores is, while they do appreciate the work their CVB does to attract visitors, they also realize it is up to themselves to get consumers to spend money at their specific locations.
I had the honor of speaking with Elvin Gonzalez and Emmanuel Ortiz, manager and assistant manager, respectively, of the PUMA outlet store located at Orlando’s I-Drive Premium Outlets. This store happens to be the highest grossing store in the PUMA corporation, nationwide. They do this despite being in a location that sits side-by-side with all the other shoe retailers in this large shopping destination.
Gonzalez says they were able to accomplish this by: 1. Acknowledging what the locals wanted and providing that, rather than only catering to tourists; and, 2. Forming strategic partnerships with other local businesses and organizations that both increased awareness of the brand and formed a loyalty with consumers to the store. These two tactics have been key to this store’s success.
Likewise, our own CVB is doing its best to utilize innovative marketing tactics, such as making their printed destination guide “come to life” through augmented reality, utilizing the Visit Cabarrus phone app. They have also developed a mascot for branding purposes – a bear named RevPar. “They have a mouse, we have a bear,” Carpenter quips.
At the end of the day, Carpenter says we’re not so far removed from being the next Orlando as one might think. “We (just) have to find the right mix of the right visitor, not just cast a big net.”
Maybe all we need now is a huge theme park located on the old Philip Morris property. Hey, it could happen!
Article by: Jason Huddle
Photos Courtesy: Jason Huddle, Lakeridge Winery, Medieval Times, Inc., Lindsey Best, Lake Buena Vista Resort & Spa, Escapology