BOONE, NC – The second annual Discover Watauga Tourism Summit took place on Thursday, November 9th, 2023 for stakeholders and tourism partners of the Watauga County and Boone Tourism Development Authorities (Explore Boone). The event occurred at Grandfather Mountain’s new Wilson Center for Nature Discovery, a state-of-the-art education facility that opened in June of 2022. Industry professionals, organizations, and businesses were recognized with awards for their contributions to Watauga County’s thriving tourism industry, and lunch was catered by Reid’s Café.

The program began with a welcome statement from Jesse Pope, the President and Executive Director of Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, followed by TDA staff introductions and opening statements. Executive Director Wright Tilley presented a symbolic check to Watauga County residents, highlighting the 2022 state and local tax savings of $646.83 per resident, as a direct result of visitor spending.

We are thrilled to recognize some of our tourism and hospitality champions each year at our annual summit for tourism partners,” Tilley said. “Without their outstanding contributions and support, the tourism economy in Watauga County would not be as strong as it has been. Watauga County currently ranks 15th out of North Carolina’s 100 counties in tourism spending, which generates jobs and supports numerous businesses.

President of Magellan Strategy Group, Chris Cavanaugh, was the keynote speaker for the event, presenting compelling information on emerging trends and the state of tourism. The awards and recognitions announced at this year’s event include:

●  The 2023 Social Media Award was presented to Emily South, owner of short-term lodging property Appalachian A-Frame for an outstanding social media presence, quality of content, and user engagement.

●  The 2023 Sustainable Tourism Award was presented to Chris Zieber, co-founder of Appalachian Mountain Brewery, for the brewery’s lasting commitment to crafting sustainable, high-quality beers and ciders while supporting non-profit organizations through its “Brew Good” initiatives.

●  The 2023 Hospitality Professional of the Year Award went to Brandon Holder, Cultural Resources Coordinator with the Town of Boone’s Cultural Resource Department, based in the historic Jones House. After the TDA solicited nominations from the community, a local industry professional cited Holder’s hard work and excitement in promoting traditional music, arts, history, & education through Town of Boone events such as the annual Boonerang Music & Arts Festival.

●  In fond memory of Explore Boone’s late colleague, the Michelle Ligon Community Service Award was presented to Blue Ridge Conservancy’s Middle Fork Greenway Director, Wendy Patoprsty for her tireless conservation efforts in completing the 6.5-mile Boone-to-Blowing Rock multi-use trail project, segment by segment.

●  The 2023 Tourism Partner of the Year Award honored RiverGirl Fishing Co. for its commitment to enriching the visitor experience with education and environmental stewardship in mind, as proven by the business’s popularity via trackable metrics and overwhelmingly positive online reviews.

RiverGirl owner Kelly McCoy stated, “Receiving the Tourism Partner of the Year with Explore Boone was a true honor and wonderful surprise! It felt very rewarding to be recognized for fostering a business culture that focuses on relationships, creating experiences that ‘spark joy’ and memories that span generations and cultures. We hope to continue building our relationships, be good stewards of the environment, and foster a positive outlook on the tourism industry in the High Country!

Five hospitality professionals pose with their 2023 awards. From left to right: Brandon Holder, Chris Zieber, Emily South, Wendy Patoprsty, and Kelly McCoy.