Haywood County’s tourism economy is largely driven by various events held across the county.
While the scenic beauty draws many to the region, it’s the shopping, dining and entertainment options that entice visitors to spend the night.
Many find certain events so appealing, they time annual vacations around them.
Here’s a look at two long-standing events that typically draw large crowds — as well as a brand new one — and how they did this summer.
Smoky Mountain Elk Fest
The first-ever elk festival held in Haywood County drew more than 3,000 for the Saturday festivities — and that’s despite a brief early evening rain.
Otherwise, said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Authority, who knows how many might have shown up?
The tourism promotion agency never organizes events, but the board made an exception in this case, Collins said, because the idea had been discussed for five or six years, and no entity was willing to take it on.
The importance of elk in the region, plus all the efforts to expand elk habitat — which can also become outdoor recreation areas — was the impetus for forging ahead.
“The whole idea was creating awareness about the elk,” said Collins, of the first event organized by the tourism promotion agency. “People need to understand why is it so important we have them here and why we need to take care of them — how it all fits together.”
In addition to a full entertainment lineup, arts/crafts booths and even a NASCAR show car, there were many educational displays and demonstrations about not just elk, but celebrating the outdoors. The elk bugling contest was a highlight, with individuals competing in different divisions to see who could best replicate a bugling elk.
“Two guys started making bugling noises and then got down and pretended to lock antlers,” Collins said. “They really got the crowd going.”
By the creek side at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds, a number of organizations highlighted outdoor recreation. There was a trout race and a kids fishing demonstration where the proper way to release the fish was part of the instruction.
“There were lots and lots of activities for kids so we had lots of families,” Collins said, noting the displays and demonstrations were educational while being fun at the same time.
Collins considers the first-time a great success, and said the TDA made a commitment to continue hosting it for several years until another group agreed to take it over.
All proceeds from the $5 a person admission fee, plus the $40 wild game dinner held on Friday night for an estimated 250-275 people will be earmarked to support the elk and habitat program in Haywood County and the Qualla boundary.
The budget for the event was $64,000, but the costs might come in under budget, Collins said.
This year’s Folkmoot USA festival was one of mixed results.
While several new events proved wildly successful, last-minute changes to the festival performing schedule that were beyond the organization’s control depressed ticket sales.
“We just didn’t have enough groups,” said Angie Schwab, Folkmoot’s executive director. “We lost Cuba and Nepal, and two days before the festival, Colombia couldn’t come.”
Since the changes happened so close to the festival date, it left little time to find replacement groups. The ones available at the last minute were very costly.
The first question people ask when calling for tickets is about the number of groups performing, Schwab said, so the fewer number of groups led to fewer ticket sales.
In addition, the original group from Bermuda was unable to come, so Folkmoot had to pay for travel expenses for the first time ever for the far different group that ultimately came to ensure the country would be represented.
While 300 groups apply to be part of the N.C. official folk festival, the number is culled to a dozen or so, with the expectation there will be some visa problems and that at least eight will show up, Schwab said. This year there were five visiting groups, joined by Appalachian and Cherokee troupes.
On the bright side, the first-year lantern parade through Hazelwood was a hit, as was Folkmalt held in Canton in conjunction with Bearwaters Brewing and Mootenanny, which was an event to tie the international festival in with local folk culture.
“The lantern parade was gorgeous,” Schwab said. “It felt like the very best thing we did as far as community participation.”
Based on attendance trends, along with a new direction to concentrate on year-around programming, the board has decided next year’s festival will be reduced from 10 to seven days, the very successful first-time event, Mootenanny, will move to September and another first-time event, Folkmalt, will become a spring festival, Schwab said.
Meanwhile, having a year around tenant for one section of the Folkmoot Friendship center will allow the organization to upgrade the heating and cooling system in the building, Schwab said.
This is vital to helping the organization pivot in the new direction its been forging for the past several years — to become a 12-month-a-year art and cultural center in the middle of Hazelwood that serves the entire county and beyond.
The essential first step is to have the necessary heating and cooling upgrades to allow all parts of the building to be used throughout the year, Schwab said.
Canton Labor Day celebration
This year’s Canton Labor Day celebration is being touted at the largest one in recent history.
About 21,000 people attended the 113th annual event Sept. 1-2, said town clerk Lisa Stinnett during a town board meeting Sept. 26.
“From what we can tell, we had about 1,000 more people this year than last year,” Stinnett said. “It seemed to run seamlessly.”
According to survey responses from the festival, attendees came from across North Carolina — as well as Georgia, Tennessee, New York, Indiana, South Carolina, Florida, Nebraska and elsewhere — to see the parade, live music, dog show, car show and other entertainment, Stinnett said.
“We had some people from England that just happened to be passing through town who stopped and came to the festival,” Stinnett said. “We had a lot of people from Hendersonville this year. With the statements on their surveys, they’re tired of the (N.C. Apple Festival), and this festival has more entertainment.”
With 40 craft vendors, 13 food trucks and two churches providing food, vendor spaces were at capacity, Stinnett said.
“We had people at Airbnbs, our hotels, bed and breakfasts, Waynesville, Maggie Valley,” Stinnett said. “We are starting to show the benefit of bringing people in — and they’re staying here, sleeping here, eating here — which is part of the goal.”
People have already contacted Stinnett about wanting to be a part of next year’s festival, she said.
“It takes a village,” Stinnett said. “You can see the progress.”
Staff reporter Luke Weir contributed to this story.