Reality show reels in tourists

Visitor numbers to 150,000 at Wheels Through Time Museum
By Vicki Hyatt | Jul 03, 2014

MAGGIE VALLEY — On a recent Thursday morning in June, it appeared business was slow on U.S. 19 through Maggie Valley.

Few vehicles could be seen at restaurants or stores and there was a single vehicle at the town’s visitor center. But just across the street at Wheels Through Time Museum, business was booming.

Museum curator Dale Walksler, who put together a collection of more than 300 of the rarest motorcycles in the nation, has restored all to working order, thus the tag line "the museum that runs."

In addition to vintage motorcycles, an array of vintage cars, detailed historical exhibits and other memorabilia keeps visitors occupied for hours. Visitor sign-in sheets indicate Wheels Through Time has steadily grown in popularity since relocating to Maggie Valley 12 years ago. Even when the recession hit all sectors of the economy, including the tourism business in 2008, the museum’s visitor stream barely faltered.

In 2013, nearly 75,000 visitors came to Maggie Valley and toured the museum. Walksler predicts that number will double this year. That increase is likely tied to the reality show “What’s In the Barn,” where Walksler, as host of the show, travels to various sites across the country seeking rare finds to add to his collection.

The show first aired on Discovery's Velocity TV throughout the summer of 2013. Season two is currently airing worldwide, season three is in the works and a spin-off show is being considered.

When Walksler enters the visitor area to greet visitors, his celebrity status is immediately apparent.

“We watch your show all the time and were hoping to see you,” one visitor said enthusiastically.

Another came upon a motorcycle that was acquired on one of the “What’s In The Barn” episodes and began asking Walksler questions.

A group of five visitors from Columbia said they had watched the show in their nation, which prompted their visit to the museum. Their knowledge of Wheels Through Time didn’t surprise Walksler since the show can be seen in 60 million homes on six continents.

“The success of the show proves what I have said all along,” Walksler said. “Wheels Through Time is an all-American national treasure that will appeal to every strata of North Carolina visitors, including small children and senior citizens.”

The “national treasure” phrase is one that appears time and again in the guest registries he’s kept since opening.

A meteoric rise

When Walksler brought his collection to Haywood County in 2002, he already had a following for his world-class collection. During his time in Maggie Valley, he has brought even more notoriety to the collection, largely through his industry connections, the savvy use of the Internet and social media. All paved the way to his latest television series.

There’s an in-depth explanation, complete with photos, of each major exhibit on the Wheels Through Time website, and an online library has more than 300 videos on the history of motorcycles that can be viewed for an annual subscription of $9.95.

The Wheels website is updated regularly and includes photos not only of visitors enjoying the numerous events held there, but of the adventures of Walksler and his crew as they restore the machines or travel elsewhere to exhibit them.

The museum has more than 42,000 Facebook followers, a number that is several-fold higher than other Maggie Valley or Haywood tourist sites. The number even surpasses the Facebook followers of the county’s official tourism website, Visit NC Smokies, which is just shy of having 16,000 followers.

There is little data on how the motorcycle traveler impacts tourism in Haywood, but Walksler estimates the a large chunk of the occupancy taxes collected by accommodation owners in Maggie Valley is the result of those who visit specifically to tour the museum or attend events there.

An informal survey of accommodation owners in Maggie Valley validates that observation, with most saying between 60 and 90 percent of their customers travel by motorcycle.

If those numbers were to calculate how much of the room tax is collected from motorcyclists, and then used to calculate sales tax funds from meals and other spending, the final tourism impact of the industry would become clear. Yet Walksler isn't holding his breath this will happen, either formally or informally.

"I was personally and constantly ridiculed for my suggestion to pursue marketing to motorsports for being self-serving," Walksler said. "Let's look at the potential increases — that is what good business does. Lastly, let's look at the lost revenue over 12 years from the intentional undermining of our efforts. It is in the hundreds of millions of dollars."

Pariah at home

While Walksler is a rock star with museum visitors and television viewers, such is not necessarily the case in his home community.

Study after study on how economic development is approached or how to better attract tourists is silent on the impact of the motorcycle industry in Haywood County, a slight that more than rankles Walksler.

For instance, after studying economic development for more than a year, the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce, which was preparing to take over the reins from the county, handed new board members a 26-page strategic plan for the years 2014-19, and not even once was the motorcycle industry or Wheels Through Time mentioned.

The document addressed natural resources, the shift away from manufacturing, the rise of tourism facilities such as Ghost Town, gem mining, outdoor recreation, heritage tourism, whitewater sports, hiking, mountain biking and professional craft businesses.

Even out-of-county attractions such as American Indian attractions on the Cherokee Reservation and Harrah’s Casino are discussed, but there's nary a mention of what's likely the largest bricks and mortar tourist attraction in Haywood or the industry it caters to.

Haywood County Chamber of Commerce President CeCe Hipps said the list was not “all inclusive,” and Mark Clasby, the county economic development director who is transitioning to the Chamber job, said tourism issues (one of six focus areas in the outline) are relegated to the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

The TDA’s strategic plan report, issued in May, likewise makes no mention of motorcycle sports or the museum. TDA Executive Director Lynn Collins said motor touring is an initiative promoted as part of outdoor recreation.

Through the years, Walksler has had run-ins with many of the county and municipal leaders, something that would suggest the scant attention to the industry is intentional.

Some of the problems had to do with regulatory issues, but more were about how funds collected from tourists and spent by the TDA were used to promote the industry. Walklser believes Haywood leaders have failed to acknowledge that the tourism economy has fundamentally changed since his arrival.

He is also an ardent opponent of increasing the county's occupancy tax rate by 2 percent to support capital investments to attract more tourists, something supported by virtually every elected and appointed leader in the county. Walksler considers many of the strategies now used to promote tourism as wasteful spending and is not interested in his industry followers chipping more into a pot that's already broken.

Industry changes

Decades ago, Maggie Valley was a popular family destination, with plenty of miniature golf courses, a bumper car arena, fishing ponds and, of course, the legendary Ghost Town in the Sky, a western themed amusement park with drew thousands.

As the days of "Lassie," "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke" declined, so did Ghost Town visitation — and many of the youth-oriented attractions.

While the mountains are an age-old draw to Haywood County, some surveys show that next to hiking, motorcyling is a major reason people visit Haywood County.

Acknowledging the tourism industry shift would mean those in charge would have to change their attitude toward motorsports in general, and that, Walksler claims, is something they are unwilling to do.

He contends Maggie Valley has a fundamentally different market with its motorsports component than the rest of the county, and funds spent to brand the county as one market are wasted.

Walksler takes what many would consider extreme measures to prove his point, especially when it comes to funds wasted by the county tourism authority. He often contrasts the number of video views on his website to the significantly lower following of the TDA's videos and contends the visitor centers numbers are exaggerated.

During a weekend when Wheels Through Time was slammed with guests, he was watching the Maggie Valley Visitor Center operated by the TDA just across the road.

"We ran the the time lapse camera on the visitors center this weekend ...14 motorcycles and five cars. Most left in two to three minutes. Room tax dollars at work!" he wrote in an email.

When he moved to Maggie Valley, Walksler brought with him not only a historic collection, but its international acclaim. He has hundreds of magazine and news articles highlighting various aspects of the rare motorcycles he’s collected and restored through the years.

He estimates nearly one million visitors have come to Maggie Valley to see the collection or attend one of the numerous events hosted by the museum — the Great American Car Race, numerous toy runs or special celebrations for holidays or to honor veterans.

Yet none of this has earned a nod from local tourism or county leaders, let alone credence to his voice that it is time to change the county's approach to tourism promotion.

Is there a way to heal the rift and move forward with all parties mutually acknowledging the contributions of each other? "Perhaps," Walksler states.

"If our county economic development core came to grips that not only has Wheels changed the economy of pathetic Maggie, but agrees it has given it a unique brand, and if furthermore they admit that they cannot change it with fresh (produce), horses, Ghost Towns or mushing, then we may find some common ground," he said.