• Anne Miller Woodford, Donna Ratzlaff, Karen Mickler, Els Vingerling, Meredith Jorgensen (from left) and other business owners and interested community members gathered on Aug. 8 to discuss the future of a Craft Trail passing through western North Carolina. Photo by BEN KATZ

SCOUTING AROUND: Artists learn plans for online tourism guide

   By this time next year, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Partnership plans to have the Blue Ridge Craft Trails – an online guide for visitors interested in craft heritage and meeting artists – up and running. As one of the first steps, the group is holding listening sessions this summer to learn from local artists and crafters what they want to see from the project.
   They already have met with artists and crafters at sessions in Blowing Rock, Cherokee, Tryon and Yadkinville. On Aug. 8, the group was at John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown to share and hear from a packed room.
   “This turned out to be our biggest so far,” said Dale Neal, digital communications manager for the partnership. “(The folk school) is one of the economic drivers of three area counties.”
   The project, as presented by Rob Bell, the senior program manager, is a virtual craft trail that is reinventing Handmade in America’s Craft Heritage Trails of WNC guide from the 1990s for the Internet. That guide gave artists an 28 percent increase in revenue on average, said Becky Anderson, former executive director of Handmade in America.
   Anna Fariello, lead consultant on the project, said the aim of the project is to use technology to help promote 25-county area’s artists and crafters.
   “Per capita, we have more artists in western North Carolina than any other area of the state,” she said.
   The Blue Ridge Craft Trails will be similar to the Blue Ridge Music Trails (found at blueridgemusic.com), which also started as a printed guidebook and was reinvented digitally by the partnership in 2013. In fact, the group is looking to cross-promote the craft trails with the established music trail.
   “We think it will complement nicely as we move forward,” Bell said.
   During the discussion portion, Karen Mickler of Robbinsville said 90 percent of the people who visited her business have found it online.
   “Thank you,” she said. “This is great.”
   Many concerns of artists and crafters present centered around the business side of their work – marketing, applying for grants, building websites and other resources – and some brainstormed on ways the trail project could help with those individual needs.
   After Hannah Levin of Brasstown, who shared that she has learned people are more likely watch videos online of her creating her pottery, asked if videos would be part of the online exposure promised by the partnership. She also wanted to know if there would be something for visitors to use their smartphones to find arts and crafts studios.
   “That is what we’re creating,” Fariello said. “And we do want to see a lot of video because of engagement.”
   There were some concerns that online connectivity issues in the area would make it hard for someone to use the web-based trail while visiting.
   “We’re envision the primary craft trail will be web-based, but we’re not ruling our printed material,” Bell said.
   Fariello pointed out the paper materials used to promote the music trail provided to each participant.
   “These can easily be adapted to what we’re doing,” she said.
   Once the listening sessions are complete, the group will start a documentation of counties, looking for major sites to include online. The initial trail published by next summer will feature these major sites, with connections being made with individual artists, crafters and galleries once that’s complete. It is envisioned as a five-year project.
   The remaining listening sessions are Thursday, Aug. 24, at Penland School of Crafts and Thursday, Aug. 31, at the Southern Highland Craft Guild in Asheville.

School events start this week
   Some local schools will have events where parents and students can meet teachers and learn information about the new school year before the Cherokee Scout’s annual School Roundup is published next week.
   On Thursday, The Learning Center in Murphy will host its Parent Fair, where parents and students attending the charter school can drop in any time between 1-6 p.m. The school’s first day of classes is Thursday, Aug. 23.
   Andrews Middle School will welcome students entering fifth and sixth grades for orientation from 4:30-6 p.m. Friday. That will be followed by a pool party for those grades from 6-8 p.m.
   Both Murphy Middle and Murphy High schools will have open house events at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 22. Middle school students will be selecting their exploratory class for the year.
   Samantha Sinclair is the Scouting Around columnist for the Cherokee Scout. You can reach her by email, scoutingaround@cherokeescout.com; fax, 837-5832; or by leaving a message in the office at 837-5122.