ZACK WAJSGRAS/THE DAILY PROGRESS Albemarle Economic Development Director Roger Johnson speaks during a CACVB event at the Paramount to unveil a new rebranding effort for the area on May 8, 2019.

Almost two years after the fatal Unite the Right rally, a public relations firm is moving forward with a campaign that aims to increase tourism in the Charlottesville area.

Eckel & Vaughan, a firm in Raleigh, North Carolina, presented its plan to the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau board this past week.

“We’ve really got to do a good job of improving the region’s positioning to attract new tourism dollars,” company partner and founder Harris Vaughan said.

The CACVB’s interim executive director, Adam Healey, recommended at his first meeting in September that the bureau hire a dedicated public relations agency, when RevPar, or revenue per available hotel room, was down 3.1% locally in the first seven months of 2018, as compared with the same period the prior year.

Numbers from April show that RevPar was down 3.8% locally in the first four months of 2019, as compared with the same period the prior year.

An RFP went out in November, and Eckel & Vaughan was selected in March.

The plan contains objectives for free media, social media and the CACVB’s website and will target primary markets of Washington, D.C., major cities in Virginia and the areas around Raleigh and Greensboro in North Carolina.

It also discusses media relations, media and messaging training and influencer and stakeholder engagement.

This isn’t the first time that a public relations firm has been sought for the area in relation to the white supremacist events of 2017.

Then-Mayor Mike Signer had raised concerns about the city’s communications strategy leading up to the rally, and suggested the city hire a firm to assist it with crisis communications management. The city eventually retained the firm of Powell Tate, a division of Weber Shandwick.

According to a third-party report by former U.S. attorney Tim Heaphy, the firm “was not present in the command center on Aug. 12 and instead remained with Mayor Signer throughout the day.”

Another firm, Edelman, was said to be working with the Charlottesville Recovery Team, an ad hoc group that included Signer, officials from the city and county, a representative from Edelman, Virginia Tourism Corporation officials and other community members, and was led by Susan Payne, a local public relations manager.

The group met publicly only once.

During the presentation, Roger Johnson, Albemarle County’s economic development director and chairman of the CACVB board, asked if the content produced would address some recent issues, such as presidential candidates’ use of the word “Charlottesville.”

Vaughan said the plan includes discussing ways to address “adversarial content.”

“We want to keep a steady flow of things that are happening here and things that are going to draw people here, and we want to protect that steady flow, and we want to position you so that if the CACVB needs to be in a position to react to, comment on or do something content wise to respond, we can, in a way that will protect the brand of the region and the tourism message,” Vaughan said.

He said that kind of content will be separate, “as much as possible,” but that there’s an opportunity to “own some of those instances.”

“This is a part of a progressive community dealing with the issues of our time, and come and experience this community, come see what it’s like,” Vaughan said. “That’s an aspect of it, that’s part of what’s going on.”

During a mention of working with community stakeholders who support tourism, City Councilor and CACVB board member Kathy Galvin said it is important to cultivate relationships with other community members, as well.

“Part of the fallout with what happened here in August 2017 and ever since has been an animosity toward tourism and is an animosity toward every hotel being built,” she said. “It gets racialized; it gets put into class terms.”

She said the CACVB needs to embrace that challenge.

“Our messaging ... can be very harsh to people that don’t appreciate this industry in general because they feel that it’s changed the landscape, that it’s created tensions and inflated land values,” Galvin said.

She said it was a “delicate piece” and local elected officials can figure out whom the firm can start meeting with to build relationships.

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Allison Wrabel is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7261, or @craftypanda on Twitter.

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