‘The impacts of tourism are both positive and negative’ 

By on May 18, 2022

Lee Nettles on plans to manage OBX’s exploding visitor business

Lee Nettles, Executive Director, Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.

According to its Executive Director Lee Nettles, the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau is embarking on a number of initiatives at this moment. One of them, “Careers Beyond the Counter,” is designed to encourage local students to pursue rewarding vocations in the tourism industry. On June 6, the bureau will host a public meeting on the conceptual plan for a new event center on The Soundside Event Site that has been re-imagined as more of a community than convention facility.

The bureau is also implementing a marketing campaign to attract “better visitors” who will be more respectful of both the local culture and the Outer Banks’ natural treasures. And it has also just hired a firm, at the cost of about $180,000, to develop a long-term tourism management plan, a task expected to take the better part of a year.

In a recent interview with the Voice, Nettles tied these efforts together under one strategic umbrella.

“The level of visitation that we’ve had in the last year and a half is not necessarily sustainable,” he said, “particularly when you combine it with a limited workforce and some of the other challenges we’ve got…There’s a price for that growth. The impacts of tourism are both positive and negative.”

The current initiatives, he added, are designed to answer the question of, “How do we grow and manage what we’ve got, and not kill the golden goose or not change this community into something that we don’t want?”

The ‘Careers Beyond the Counter’ initiative

In the interview, Nettles discussed the “Careers Beyond the Counter” initiative which the bureau is discussing with local high school officials in order to prepare students for tourism careers that offer considerably more opportunity than basic service sector jobs.

“If we could encourage high school students to become more aware of the tourism industry and the opportunities that are involved, we could potentially grow the workforce without having people coming into the market looking for housing…” he said.

Nettles added that the perception of many families and students here is that “the tourism industry is limited to the counter jobs that those students have had. And meanwhile, it’s horticulture, it’s culinary…it’s marketing, it’s advertising, it’s web development…The industry gets knocked for having low-paying jobs, but nobody talks about growth [or becoming] a manager quickly.”

The status of the event center in Nags Head

Nettles described the planning process for a new event center as “an evolution of thought…The center kind of went from more of a meeting and traditionally visitor-oriented space to more of a community-oriented space, like a civic center.”

Having a hotel on the site has been discarded as an option and Nettles cites uses such as concerts and sports and smaller trade shows for the roughly 48,000 square-foot center, which he says is comparable in size to the Publix in Kill Devil Hills.

Soundside Event Site, Nags Head.

“We recognized always that it’s not a big enough piece of property for a convention center, and also that that’s not really our market,” he stated. “We’re an hour-and-a-half away from the nearest international airport” so the idea is to “provide a big enough indoor space for events that’s we’ve grown already…We will do meetings, we will do smaller trade shows…That was the biggest challenge, I think, trying to right-size the building.”

Speaking of the public meeting scheduled for June 6, Nettles notes that currently, the event center “is just a concept, it’s not really a final design…There are big issues still to be addressed…If everything went great, I would see the building coming up out of the ground in two years, three years.”

The quest for the ‘better visitor’

The executive director said the concept started “as a rhetorical question…Maybe we don’t need more visitors, we need ‘better visitors’ that are better stewards of the area, kind of take better care of the place or are more respectful of the culture of the place.”

The goal, he added, is to find more visitors who “want to know why you shouldn’t run around on the dunes or leave big holes on the beach [and] why it matters a lot to go to a locally owned business.”

In terms of marketing, Nettles said the bureau is targeting “enthusiast audiences, the people that have particular passions for this place, whether they’re kiteboarders, whether they’re aviation nuts…National Parks Service people. And the thing that ties all those things together…is that their passion says when and where they travel…If it’s their passion, then it’s not just the three months of summer.”

Asked if he believes, as some residents complain, that tourist behavior on the Outer Banks has worsened over the years, Nettles responded that, “I would say that respect and manners has deteriorated for our society as a country. I don’t think it’s germane to our visitors. I think that people just don’t care for their fellow man [as much] and we’re just more of a disposable society than we used to be.”

“Part of the whole sustainability of tourism is just making it less of a stigma, or a separation” between visitors and locals, he added. “I want to build a community.”

Launching the long-term tourism management plan

Nettles said the bureau has hired MMGY NextFactor, a company out of British Columbia, to carry out what he describes as a three-part assignment.

“The first is a community engagement activity, where we really want to bring folks together and let’s have a conversation, let’s figure out what are our shared values, what do we think it is that makes this place so special…So we have these discussions and we’re able to identify the golden eggs and then we can take care of the geese that lay them,” he said.

“Another big area is the predictive models, the models of what happens with the tourism and what’s the cost of that. What are different scenarios we can run to figure out how to grow so that we don’t overburden what we’ve got,” Nettles added. “The third major part of it is just developing the plan.”





  • Michael oei

    The assumption of growth works against the other stated goals, which are mostly good. It’s time that “growth “ stop trumping everything else.

    Thursday, May 19 @ 11:50 am
  • Steven

    Better visitors are what we had before the tourism board was created, the Board has done this to us.
    Now this place is very dangerous and unpleasant.

    Thursday, May 19 @ 12:16 pm
  • R. Bo

    Here, I shortened your story for you. ‘ Local man says, “My horse ran away 30 years ago, but I have paid a man in Canada to think about it, and he will advise me on whether I should shut the barn door, or maybe should have when the horse was in there, or whatever. Also on how to find slower horses who don’t eat and poop so much.” ‘
    You’re welcome 🙂

    Thursday, May 19 @ 12:53 pm
  • Chantal

    Need to also make new population of the obx aware to stop cutting so many trees, lots will flood much more and the while island holds together in part by them.

    Thursday, May 19 @ 3:24 pm
  • resident

    Don’t let Mr. Nettles fool you. His goal is to have year -round tourists as stated in the article regarding the convention center that he is pushing and the majority of locals do not want. We have enough tourists. Mr. Nettles is ruining the Outer Banks .

    Thursday, May 19 @ 3:47 pm
  • KDH back seat reviewer

    I would think you need housing to house the workers that have to be here for the business spike that we all know takes place.

    I hope this is not a “lets cap” the tourism. You have to be able to meet the demands. That is the issue here. Find a way to work with the increased amount of revenue that is generated that can benefit the county in a way to handle the continued tourism growth.

    Thursday, May 19 @ 4:34 pm
  • Tara

    I think the OBX should emphasize the family atmosphere of the island and highlight the fact that there is no boardwalk with all the late-night issues and noise they bring to a beach community. Part of the charm is the quiet and family beach cottages.

    Thursday, May 19 @ 7:29 pm
  • Grandyguy

    Steven is exactly right.
    well said sir

    Thursday, May 19 @ 8:12 pm
  • surf123

    Nettles has every intention of jamming as many tourists he can into Dare County. Remember that is what he is paid to do. He and the Visitor’s Board does not care about the citizens of Dare County, nor do they want regular folk visiting anymore. “Better visitor” is code for wealthy no matter how it is spun. Those who are of limited means and save for their one week vacation at the beach need not apply anymore. You are no longer wanted or welcome.

    The comment on “why it matters a lot to go to a locally owned business” is laughable considering how everyone is happy to see the chain stores and restaurants roll in. The Visitor’s Board knows these stores attract more people and ultimately squeeze out local businesses. Outback Steakhouse, Target, and Walmart to name a few would not be here without the tourists. You can add Cookout to the list as soon as it opens.

    “Better Visitors” were the primary tourists up until the mid-1990’s when houses were reasonable priced and sized. People came for the cool beach town vibe up the beach and/or the isolation of Hatteras Island. Those people have mostly moved on after being squeezed out by other tourists who wrecked their vacation spots and moved on to ours.

    Friday, May 20 @ 10:42 am
  • Sean Mulligan

    It is about the money and nothing else.Always has been always will be about the money.Paved paradise put up a parking lot.

    Tuesday, May 24 @ 8:09 am
  • Jesse H

    The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau should be the Outer Banks Preservation Bureau. When you go fishing you catch fish that want the bait you’re luring them with.
    We are luring the tourists we are hosting. If you want to have twenty crappy grocery stores and make it difficult for local businesses to exist or thrive here, what kind of tourists do you think wants to shop and eat at franchised businesses? I’m guessing the same ones who like to rent over-priced, neglected beach homes. Our problem is huge and it is driven by money, not preservation. We need to preserve our community and improve upon quality, not quantity. When I vote locally, I vote for new people. Enough is enough. Lee Nettles, buh bye. We need progressive actions to incentivize workforce housing. We need an off-season. Part of our problem is our beaches have become the cheapest real estate investment on the East Coast. We don’t want that. We want to add more value to our beaches. We don’t want to be the armpit of the East coast. Go take a look a Saga’s new development behind the Wright brothers monument off landing. They sold that whole thing to the town as if they were going to preserve all the live oak trees in the neighborhood. They have literally cut every single tree down. And if you watch their workers building these homes you’d feel sorry for the poor fools who are over-paying for them. Out of state, out of country, investors are a huge problem here. A few people make a lot of money and the rest of us are left with their table scraps when they leave. We need housing, we need to discourage corporate takeover and encourage and incentivize local small businesses. End of story.

    Tuesday, May 24 @ 9:35 am
  • Lemonshirt

    Too many tourists: If you’re gonna have a problem, that is a good problem to have.

    Tuesday, May 24 @ 2:21 pm
  • Sean Mulligan

    The USA should not allow non citizens to own real estate. It is a real problem in a lot of nice areas and it just drives up the real estate values to the exclusion of the local population. US citizens have done the same thing in Costa Rica and many other places in the world to the detriment of the locals.Yes a few do well but the majority get table scraps. Capitalism is the best system but it has it’s faults and needs some regulation.

    Wednesday, May 25 @ 8:19 am
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    That’s not very American, Sean

    Wednesday, May 25 @ 10:34 am
  • Steven

    Sean, that’s an excellent idea and makes sense in many ways, so it will likely not happen..
    We could solve many issues by not permitting northerners to purchase property. And even better is to not have them visit.

    Thursday, May 26 @ 5:27 am