Flocking to the Smokies
By Leigh Savage
In the lobby of the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort in Gatlinburg Tennessee, you’ll find plenty of rustic wood, an expansive hearth, a roaring fire and a cozy bar. And you’ll also find required masks and frequent cleaning, as staff members swing by at regular members to wipe down chairs, tables and counters.
“Since the very beginning of the pandemic, we implemented the WestgateCARES program - a roadmap to safely operate our resort, restaurants and amenities,” said Jared Saft, chief business officer of Westgate Resorts, which operates 27 resorts throughout the U.S. “We put all of our new procedures and processes front and center for guests to review and read for themselves, and we believe that this comprehensive resort is one of the reasons we are experiencing stronger occupancies than some other resorts or locations.”
According to the U.S. Travel Association, though final numbers haven’t been tabulated, domestic travel spending was expected to drop 40 percent in 2020, from $972 billion in 2019 to $583 billion in 2020. International spending fell even further, plummeting approximately 75 percent.
Marc Greeley, a project manager with HVS Nashville Consulting & Valuation, a hospitality consulting firm, says the pandemic caused a major dip in tourism in March and April of 2020, but that by May, the need to travel and escape led people to book trips in places like Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Travel there “surged in May, a trend that continued through the end of 2020.” He says outdoor recreation travel was a natural pick for many people, who were being advised to stay outside and practice social distancing.
“Once we got to the summer, it performed very similarly to how it does in a normal year,” Saft said of Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort. “The fact that we have a large mountain resort with spacious multi-bedroom villas, full kitchens and lots of open spaces made it a very popular destination for families who were looking for a safe way to vacation.”
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, encompassing more than 800 square miles, is often the country’s most visited, with 12.5 million people visiting in 2019.
Greeley said while many national parks saw a dip in 2020, the Smokies’ numbers were higher than in 2019, with more than a million recreational visitors in November 2020 compared to approximately 850,000 in 2019 - an increase of 28 percent.
“It’s always a great time to visit the Smokies and there’s no doubt that outdoor recreation is something travelers are seeking right now,” Saft said. He says the fresh mountain air, hiking trails and outdoor activities are big draws in every season, and that remained true during the pandemic.
In South Carolina, despite many outdoor amenities including our beloved coastline, the industry was down 43 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, according to data from Tourism Economics.
Hotel occupancy statewide dipped to 15 percent in mid-April 2020, according to the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, and though it rebounded, occupancy continued to be volatile as coronavirus cases surged and then dipped. Tourism Economics reported that revenues were down $5.7 billion statewide for the year.
Heidi Nielson, managing director at HVS in Charleston, said that even with all of the bad news, South Carolina was not as heavily impacted as the U.S. overall.
“We anticipate occupancy and average rate will begin to slowly recover in the third quarter of 2021,” she said, assuming vaccine rollout continues successfully. Leisure demand is expected to be the first segment to return, she said, followed by commercial/government and then meeting and group travel.
A clean break
Though all 24 Westgate properties scaled back operations in the wake of Covid-19, and closed many of its restaurants and amenities, Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort reopened on May 22 with a variety of protocols in place.
WestgateCARES is an enhanced health and safety plan that includes augmented cleaning processes for all surfaces, including flooring, kitchen surfaces, handles and knobs and bedding.
For public spaces, the cleaning and sanitizing schedule was increased, and ultra-low volume disinfectant fogging is used in public areas including pool bathrooms, spa areas, lobby restrooms and shuttle buses.
A big perk of traveling to an amenity-packed accommodation is the ability to enjoy a variety of activities without leaving the resort.
While Gatlinburg, with all of its amusement parks, mountain coasters, sky lifts and more, is just a few miles away, guests at the resort can stay on-site and enjoy the Wild Bear Falls Water Park, a 60,000-square-foot park with a retractable roof, which reopened on Feb. 5 after its annual maintenance procedures.
If staying outdoors feels safer, mini golf and the Flying Bear zip line, perched on top of the mountain with spectacular views of the Smokies, offer thrills. Guests get a stunning view of the surrounding mountains while careening through the air - though this manageable zipline is fun for people of a variety of ages and daredevil levels.
Adventure programs at the resort include bird watching, meditation, archery, guided hikes and more.
Those wanting to avoid the throngs at Gatlinburg’s tourist-mecca restaurants can enjoy the first-ever Southern Comfort restaurant, a partnership with the spirits brand, just off the lobby. Masks are required when not dining, cleaning is thorough and an outdoor area, with heaters, allows an alternate spot to eat.
Or pick up your meal - maybe fried chicken or shrimp and grits - and take it back to your room. The villas offer ample room to dine.
Saft said 2020 was a year for everyone to take stock of the things that matter most, and that millions of Americans have recognized the value of travel to celebrate and connect. “The number one feedback we get from our guests is how safe and comfortable they feel,” Saft said. “This is a place they know they can relax and return to and feel safe.”
IF YOU GO
Gatlinburg SkyLift Park
The SkyLift is a must, offering stunning Smoky Mountain views on a peaceful climb, followed by an optional trek across North America’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge (680 feet) that sways gently as people cross. Don’t forget to look down as you traverse the section with glass floor panels for a birds-eye view!
This amusement park has it all, including a mountain coaster for those seeking a thrill and stunning scenery for those wanting to chill. Ride the chairlift to the top - look for bears along the way - and then make your way to the Rail Runner, the only single-rail mountain coaster in the United States. One push of a lever sends you hurtling down 1,600 steep, heart-racing feet at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour, followed by a slow ascent back up. Try it at night for a beautifully lit experience.
- Treetop Skywalk
For a calmer way to take in the scenery, stroll along the Treetop
Skywalk, with 880 feet of hanging bridges inside a treetop canopy.
- Anavista Observation Tower
Gatlinburg’s highest point - only 84 steps offers you 360-degree
views that let you view mountain ranges and peaks all the way
Options are numerous, with nearby scenic hikes such as Porters Creek Trail, Ramsey Cascades Trail and Gatlinburg Trail. Ogle Place offers a short yet scenic route along the Noah “Bud” Ogle Farm Nature Trail, just minutes from downtown, yet worlds away from the hubbub. In addition to natural beauty, this mostly-flat hike allows visitors to enter Ogle’s log cabin, built in the 1880s, as well as his water-powered mill and barn.