Buncombe County’s tourism director is set to receive compensation totaling up to $456,000 this fiscal year and up to $578,000 or more in 2026 under a three-year contract renewal recently approved by the tax-supported agency.
Victoria “Vic” Isley’s compensation package is roughly double that of the city and county managers, school superintendents, the county sheriff, and the Asheville police chief.
Isley, president and CEO of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, receives:
- A base annual salary of $300,000.
- A yearly “incentive bonus” of up to 30 percent of her salary, or $90,000 this year.
- A $60,000 contribution to her retirement fund that increases by $20,000 each of the next two years.
- Six weeks paid vacation.
- A $500 monthly car allowance.
The contract, approved in July 2023 and obtained by Asheville Watchdog, calls for annual raises each July to be determined by the TDA board, but guarantees Isley a minimum base salary of $325,000 by 2025.
She is eligible to participate in the TDA’s 401K retirement plan but also receives a “Supplemental Executive Retirement Plan” with contributions by the tourism agency that increase to $80,000 the second year and $100,000 the third year.
And if Isley stays through the end of her contract in November 2026, she will receive a retention bonus of $50,000, according to the contract.
Isley did not respond to The Watchdog’s request for comment.
“When hiring Vic, the board engaged with SearchWide (Global), the leading executive search firm for the tourism industry and used industry benchmarks, including national and comparable market data, when creating her employment agreements,” said board chair Brenda Durden in an emailed response to questions. “Based upon similar organizations and budget sizes, we strongly believe our investment in leadership and staff are producing a very strong financial return for our community.”
Isley’s compensation package puts her in the “lower 25 percentile for sure” of her peers across the country, Searchwide Global CEO Mike Gamble said.
“I know you’re probably looking at it and saying ‘Gosh, that seems like a lot,”’ Gamble said. “But these jobs really have grown in sophistication and complexity. And so with someone like her with her background, I think she’s compensated very fairly, but again, she’s not in the top quadrant.”
Kathleen Mosher, the previous TDA board chair who approved Isley’s contract with a committee of the board, said the contract was not discussed at public TDA board meetings because Isley’s position is not “publicly held.”
“To be competitive in our recruitment efforts and attract experienced candidates for a tourism market of our size, we used industry benchmarks, including national and comparable market data, to make decisions,” she said.
Mosher would not answer a question about how many other tourism agency employees earn more than $100,000 or $200,000, saying they aren’t public employees but members of a 501(c)6, a type of non-profit for business leagues, chambers of commerce and other trade organizations.
The TDA is a public body that determines how to spend the 6 percent occupancy tax that visitors pay on stays in hotels, vacation rentals, and bed and breakfasts in Buncombe. By law, two-thirds of the tax revenue is spent on promoting tourism and the rest on tourism-related capital projects.
The agency oversees the work of the Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, which “develops and carries out advertising, marketing, public relations, and group sales plans to inspire leisure and business travelers to visit here,” according to Explore Asheville’s website.
Jen Hampton, chair of the Asheville Food and Beverage United collective that advocates for service workers, many in tourism, called Isley’s compensation package “insane.”
“My first thought is it’s just disgusting,” Hampton said. “I mean, it doesn’t seem fair. it doesn’t seem right at all.”
“There needs to be a lot less of that huge discrepancy between what the workers who generate this revenue are making and the people who are in charge of making use of that revenue,” Hampton said.
Hampton said she recently spoke to Isley and felt like she was “out of touch” with service workers’ experiences and salaries. Hampton’s group and others recently asked the TDA to commit funding to affordable housing because workers are struggling to make rent on low wages.
Isley’s original three-year contract, effective beginning when she started in December 2020, included a base salary of $245,000, a retention bonus of $45,000 if she stayed through November 2023 and an incentive bonus of up to 30 percent of her salary. Her base salary was $264,000 in 2022.
Her new contract, effective July 1, added the executive retirement plan and increased her vacation time from four to six weeks.
Isley’s incentive bonuses are based on criteria set each year by her and the board chair. A four-member “performance evaluation committee” of the board reviews Isley’s performance and determines whether she “has met the bonus criteria and how much of the incentive bonus has been earned,” according to the contract.
Isley received bonuses of $42,872 in 2021, $73,500 in 2022, and $80,850 in 2023, TDA spokeswoman Ashley Greenstein said in an email.
Isley’s compensation far exceeds that of other top Buncombe officials in charge of tax-supported agencies or governments. Here are their packages.
- Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder: $245,468 annual salary, four weeks vacation and a $575 monthly car allowance
- Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell: $254,829 annual salary, more than 187 vacation hours and a $500 monthly car allowance
- Asheville City Schools Superintendent Maggie Fehrman: $215,000 annual salary, 10 days vacation, and a $500 monthly travel allowance
- Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Rob Jackson: $198,237 annual salary, 26 days of vacation, and a vehicle
- Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller: $182,338 annual salary, 14 vacation days, and a vehicle
- Asheville Police Chief David Zack: $180,609 annual salary. An APD spokesperson told The Watchdog additional information about his other benefits would require a public records request.
Asheville Regional Airport Authority CEO Lew Bleiweis makes a higher annual salary than Isley, $335,940, but does not receive bonuses or executive retirement contributions, according to spokeswoman Tina Kinsey. He receives a $1,000 monthly auto allowance.
The Watchdog requested salaries and compensation of tourism executives in the top 10 markets in North Carolina. Three responded.
Henri Fourrier, president at Greensboro Area Convention & Visitors Bureau for 26 years, told The Watchdog that he makes $191,000 annually and is eligible for a 3 percent performance bonus available to all CVB employees. He receives a company car and four weeks vacation.
Outer Banks Visitors Bureau Executive Director Lee Nettles makes $175,000 annually with no bonuses, said Diane Bognich, director of administration. Nettles receives Internet and car allowances of $450 a month, and a little over three weeks vacation, according to the organization’s paid leave chart.
Stephanie Brown, the former president of Explore Asheville and the current president of the Forsyth County Tourism Development Authority, which encompasses the Winston-Salem area, makes $215,000 annually with board-established yearly raises and up to $32,000 in bonuses, according to spokeswoman Marcheta Keefer. She receives $6,000 in an auto allowance annually and 20 days of vacation.
Isley came to the TDA in December 2020 in the early months of a global pandemic that saw travel plummet. Tourism began to rebound in 2021 and set records in Buncombe in 2022. But lodging sales are down this year, and local businesses have reported a drop in business.
Isley, a graduate of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s business school, previously worked at the tourism agencies in Durham; Tampa Bay; Washington, D.C.; and Bermuda.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the president of the Forsyth County Tourism Development Authority. She is Stephanie Brown.
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