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NC Feeding off 'Hunger Games' Phenomenon

The massive hit takes place in a dystopian North Carolina and the state’s tourism is turning that reality into a tourism blockbuster.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Caryn Eve Murray
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Never before has post-apocalyptic violence and bloodshed done so much to boost tourism.

The travel industry was likely the furthest thing from the mind of author Suzanne Collins as her popular “Hunger Games” trilogy climbed out of her imagination and scaled to the peak of best-seller lists, then spawned a feature film. It is a dark futuristic saga, a window into a dictatorial government that pits a nation’s children against one another in brutal, fatal combat, as a means of both recreation and reprimand for their rebel history.

Any chamber of commerce hoping to attract visitors to such a landscape, on this basis, would likely need an unlimited budget – and a lot of luck.

And yet “The Hunger Games” has landed North Carolina happily at the epicenter of the arena. The state, redubbed District 12 in the saga’s post-doomsday setting, has also served as the locale for many of the scenes in the subsequent film.

In terms of job creation and consumption of other goods and services, the economic benefits of having a movie shot locally were tremendous, said Wit Tuttell, director of tourism marketing at the North Carolina Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development.

But the book and the movie together have been magic for North Carolina tourism, he said. The last few years of struggle in the industry seem to be turning around thanks to the trilogy’s buzz. “The immediate value was the attention we got from it alone,” he said. “We got $2.5 million worth of advertising in the free publicity we have gotten. We’re getting on people’s minds, getting into their frame of reference. That is bound to be a tremendous benefit.”

In the first three weeks since his office launched www.visitnc.com/hungergames , which features a four-day itinerary traveling from Charlotte into the more mountainous areas of the state, more than 30,000 visitors logged on to explore the possibilities of visiting the region, Tuttell said.

“That is very good,” he said. “We have had great exposure and that is going to draw people.”

Vacationers, however, are not arriving here in hopes of returning to their home states as trained assassins. The narrative’s positive elements – the emphasis being physically fit and living with an appreciation of nature – have formed the core of popular travel packages.

Benny Upton’s wooded Earthshine Lodge found the opportunity a natural one. His lodge has been providing educational outdoor vacations and programs for 21 years. Upton, who bought the property three years ago, said that basic survival skills are nothing new at the rustic family-friendly grounds, which lacks TVs and phones in its 10 rooms and three suites – though it does give a nod to modern convenience with a single WiFi hotspot.

Upton agreed to add “Hunger Games” activities to his array of offerings – weddings, reunions, corporate retreats – after his friend Tammy Hopkins and her business partner Leigh Trapp detailed their game plan for tours based on the adventures of the novel’s protagonist Katniss Everdeen and her fellow young warriors, known as tributes. The women’s Hunger Games Fan Tours complement the books, said Trapp, a veteran of other such fan tours, including those based on the Harry Potter books. She stressed that the “Hunger Games” tours are not in competition with what Lionsgate studio produced for the big screen but incorporate some of the stronger, more positive elements from the trilogy.

“The books have such great stories of heroism and triumph and I think that’s what resonates,” said Trapp, who has been reading the trilogy and saw the recently released movie a dozen times. In addition to the weekend stays she and Hopkins have worked out with Earthshine, the tour company also devised day tours, which include some survival workshops and sightseeing.

“We put a lot of research into this, we have the whole back story,” she said. “When we take a fan to a site we can tell them everything that brings it to life.” The day tours began in late March and, with the weekend stays just getting under way in April, Trapp expects all the activities to run through October, until the weather gets too harsh.

At the time he talked with Hopkins and Trapp, said Upton, “I hadn’t even heard of ‘The Hunger Games’ but I said, ‘we do this stuff anyway.’ So it was very easy.” The woods and the on-site nature center make it all a natural, he said. It wasn’t long before he realized he could even replicate some of the sumptuous, government-sponsored meals in the book within the lodge’s kitchen, he said. When the tours begin this month, however, there will be some distinctions: There will be no camping out or sleeping in trees - guest rooms have comfortable beds.

“And,” Upton added, “we are not going to be killing anything.”

Of course, the District 12 “Hunger Games” experience doesn’t necessarily have to be anywhere near North Carolina for it to feel real. The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism showed its own appetite for “Hunger” when it featured a guest blogger on its site, www.massvacation.com, who devised a kind of self-tour for fans.

“Can’t Get Enough of the Hunger Games?” asked the blog’s April 3 entry, written by Kristina Grifantini, whose written compendium of activities across the state touched on orienteering classes, archery lessons, fitness activities and nature education.

“I thought ‘oh, my goodness, such a violent movie, really? How is that going to be a tie-in,” said tourism spokeswoman Lisa Simmons, who admitted her initial skepticism about a blog post based on the trilogy’s potential for the travel market.

“But this is a really clever way of looking at tourism, a really keen idea,” she said. “It is not like we are trying to capitalize on ‘The Hunger Games’ since it wasn’t shot here. But the blog was written with the idea that there are some really great places in Massachusetts where you can get fit: A bow-and-arrow club, or the New England Tree Climbing Association, the orienteering club. The blog names these places and boosts them – and puts them in a different light.”

Simmons said that because 30 percent of the people who vacation in Massachusetts also live in the state, the blog item – and the boost it gives, via Collins’ books – is a clever way to channel travel dollars locally. “That is what the blog is all about, finding new hidden gems and learning more in-depth things about something you might not otherwise have known about.”

Already a film is under discussion based on the second book in the series, “Catching Fire.” But for many in the industry, the Games are already heating things up for travelers.

“And we hope,” said Tuttell, “the embers will remain smoking for another 25 years. Like ‘Dirty Dancing’ [another film shot in North Carolina], it has some staying power to it.”
Credit
Caryn Eve Murray
Associate Editor
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: Caryn Eve Murray is a freelance writer and an assistant editor on the news desk at Newsday on Long Island. During her tenure as a business writer for New York Newsday, she covered the city's small business community for which she won the Distinguished Business Reporting Award of Excellence from the New York Newspaper Publishers Association. She has also been a feature columnist and writer and has ...
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