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Faculty and students share research results, promotional ideas for Dillsboro

Dillsboro merchants, leaders and community members heard new ideas and saw sample materials for promoting their historic town during a recent meeting of the Dillsboro/WCU Partnership Committee.

Susan Morgan Leveille (left behind table), owner of Oaks Gallery, greets students during Dillsboro on Display. Oaks Gallery is part of The Riverwood Shops, a collection of quality crafts studios featuring glass, clay, wood, and weaving.

Susan Morgan Leveille (left behind table), owner of Oaks Gallery, greets students during Dillsboro on Display. Oaks Gallery is part of The Riverwood Shops, a collection of quality crafts studios featuring glass, clay, wood, and weaving.

Held on campus in a classroom filled to capacity, the meeting featured faculty and students from across the university presenting projects ranging from tourism research to marketing ideas to a new promotional video.

John Chinners, co-owner of Country Traditions and president of the Dillsboro Merchants Association, characterized the meeting as very productive. “The professors and students brought up a lot of things the town hadn’t thought about that we need to consider,” said Chinners. “We left there with a lot of enthusiasm moving forward.”

Representing students from Debra Connelly’s public relations campaigns class, Megan Hegler, a junior communication/public relations major, recapped Dillsboro on Display, a special event held on campus in April. Dillsboro on Display was created to increase awareness of Dillsboro businesses among the WCU community.

For one of the vendors, Dillsboro on Display provided the first public exposure. David Marker, owner of Monkey Toes, Dillsboro’s newest store, debuted collapsible water bottles, one of the items in his outdoors and collegiate-themed store. Marker reported after the event that he was “very pleased to have had the exposure and the sales.”

Public exposure and sales for Dillsboro have been topics of research for more than a year for two faculty members in the College of Business. Sandra Grunwell, associate professor of hospitality and tourism management, and Steve Ha, MBA program director and associate professor of economics, shared highlights of results of three surveys they designed and administered with their students.

The first survey targeted Dillsboro merchants and assessed their perceptions of their businesses’ and the town’s strengths and weaknesses. Top challenges facing the merchants included a lack of customers, the economic downturn, competition, lack of advertising and marketing, and the lack of a major tourist attraction after departure of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. Some limited, seasonal rail service has resumed in Dillsboro.

Some of the changes they wanted to see included better signage for the town, more consistent and extended business hours, and more attractions to keep visitors in the area. In addition to asking the WCU community to become customers, merchants said they wanted WCU to provide exposure for Dillsboro, to help promote the region, and to help with advertising and marketing. Eighty-six percent of the responding merchants said they were willing to offer WCU discounts to increase the number of WCU patrons.

The second survey gauged awareness of and satisfaction with Dillsboro businesses among the WCU target audiences. More than 1,000 faculty and staff members and students completed the online survey, which was administered in April 2010. Hours of operation and marketing information were rated as Dillsboro’s lowest attributes while safety, local artisans, cleanliness, customer service, special events and historic character were rated highest.

Nearly three-fourths (71 percent) of respondents indicated that discounts with the WCU Cat Card would encourage them to visit Dillsboro more frequently. More than half (55 percent) said they would like to see a greater variety of businesses, and almost half (44 percent) said they would like to see extended business hours in Dillsboro. WCU respondents named restaurants as the No. 1 reason for visiting Dillsboro, with specialty food stores and special events and festivals ranking second and third, respectively.

Results of a survey administered April through December 2010 of 467 visitors revealed that the average number of nights spent in the area during a trip was 3.7. One-third of those stayed in Dillsboro for an average of 1.8 nights, and, for 64 percent, Dillsboro was their main destination. Respondents ranked special events, shopping, dining and recreation in that order as their reasons for being in Dillsboro. They ranked friendliness as Dillsboro’s highest attribute and marketing information as its lowest attribute.

Steve Henson, associate professor of marketing, and Nate Hunzaker, a senior majoring in sales and marketing and computer information who spoke for a student group assigned to the project, presented ideas for marketing the town. Building on the work and recommendations of Henson’s MBA class in the fall, the students explored ideas for positioning the town as a destination for families. They created an itinerary for a hypothetical family, the Smiths, and highlighted what a family might do in Dillsboro and the surrounding area during a visit. They also suggested the town combine its merchant and municipal websites, and include virtual tours of the stores on the website.

April “Dixie” Brendle (right behind display) and daughter Katie Jo Moss (left behind display) discuss the unique items like lockets, keys and other vintage pieces used in the jewelry they make and sell at Whistlin’ Dixie.

April “Dixie” Brendle (right behind display) and daughter Katie Jo Moss (left behind display) discuss the unique items such as lockets, keys and other vintage pieces used in the jewelry they make and sell at Whistlin’ Dixie.

Betty Farmer, professor of communication and public relations and special assistant to the chancellor for Dillsboro, and Haley Medford, an art student majoring in graphic design and part-time employee in the WCU Print Shop, shared a working draft of a new brochure. The piece features a new slogan for the town, “Your front porch to the Smokies,” and identifies places in Dillsboro where visitors can eat, shop, stay and play. Both the new slogan and the “Eat, Shop, Stay and Play” theme were agreed to during Dillsboro/WCU partnership committee meetings. The brochure also features a map identifying the businesses’ locations. A primary target audience for the brochure will be passengers deboarding the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad train in Dillsboro during brief layovers this summer.

Incorporating the new slogan “Your front porch to the Smokies,” Don Connelly, associate professor and head of the Department of Communication, aired sample commercials that his radio production students had written and produced. The commercials were distinct to the town—even down to the taping of actual birds in Dillsboro. Connelly also recommended that the town adopt a cooperative approach to advertising, that the advertising focus on Dillsboro as a destination instead of individual businesses, and that messages be repeated frequently and consistently.

Attendees were the first to preview a rough-cut version of a new promotional video for the town. Farmer and Jasna McElrath, a senior communication/broadcasting major, wrote the script; Justin Rhodes, a senior communication/broadcasting student, and Mike Santoro, a senior majoring in motion picture and television production, shot and produced the footage. The video showcases the town as the perfect place to launch a vacation in the Smokies and profiles Dillsboro’s nationally featured restaurants, unique arts and crafts shops, recreational opportunities and lodging possibilities.

Meeting attendees also had the opportunity to view sample media kits for individual businesses produced by students in Pam Harris’ public relations writing course and to hear about a new website Rhodes and Hunsaker created that lists local events and special deals, (link no longer active).

The Dillsboro/WCU Partnership was initiated in October 2009 in an effort to help the town recover from the loss of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and the economic downturn. The partnership committee meets frequently throughout the academic year and faculty, staff and students have given thousands of hours to the project. For more information, contact Farmer at

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Commencement 2017


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