GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — In a normal year, this wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Given the year we’ve experienced as a country, this is significant: Gatlinburg is booming.
The city was virtually shut down throughout April. A couple months after reopening, the area was identified as a coronavirus hotspot. Despite it all, the tourism hub is in a strong position to outperform previous fall travel records.
Before Grant Keen was the general manager of Anakeesta’s Cliff Top Bar and Grill and Smokehouse restaurants, he was in Vale, Colorado. He lost his job at the onset of the pandemic.
“It was kind of over a 24-hour window out there. On Friday…we got a call that life was good. Everything was good. On the 13th, it all changed,” he said.
Then the mountains started calling.
“My wife and I decided to pack up and move. We’re fortunate, number one, to have a job, and number two, to be in this area, such a beautiful place and have this opportunity,” he added.
His new career was made possible by a $6.5 million expansion to Anakeesta, planned prior to the pandemic; however, it was also made possible by an immediate return of visitors when Gatlinburg reopened.
Michele Canney, a co-owner and vice president of marketing and sales for the attraction, said their attendance is strong, and in some cases stronger than last year. She credited their geography, which provides families ample opportunity to remain spread out while on vacation, to their rebound.
“Gatlinburg is wide open,” she said. “There’re [families] looking for those safe, outdoor, spaces where they can travel and bring their families and get out and take a vacation.”
Canney also looked ahead to many upcoming events at their attraction. Autumn at Anakeesta, she described, will include price promotions, pumpkin carving events, live music, and other special events.
Gatlinburg, today, looks much different than it did a few months ago.
Marcus Watson, Marketing Director for SkyLift Park, noted the upward trend started Memorial Day weekend.
“I can confidently say that everything seems pretty normal, as far as the traffic, as far as the volume,” he said. “It’s definitely very encouraging to see fall traffic like it should be.”
Marci Claude, public relations manager for the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said even with the health guidelines in place, the city experienced an “unexpectedly” strong summer and month of September.
Claude described a lot of optimism, on behalf of the city, heading into the fall. Cabin companies have good projections, fall festival ahead, craft shows, Hands On Gatlinburg, including the many events organized by local attractions.
She attributed the come back to families wanting to get away, safely, unusual school schedules, and the hard work of the business community.
“This has been a welcome opportunity for them to come back and take a break,” she said. “our business community has done a great job, our city has done a great job, and that has all been because we want to get back to business as fast as normal and we want to ensure the health and safety of our workforce and our visitors.”
“I tell you what. if there was ever a doubt, this place is open. We have been busy. The town has been busy, even Pigeon Forge, the whole county, Sevier County, which has been great for business,” Keen said. They’re doing so well, he explained, they’re recruiting out-of-work hospitality workers from other parts of the country, from Orlando, Florida, to as far away as Hawaii to fill their many vacancies.
With peak fall colors expected to arrive next month, Grant is expecting a peak number of visitors to come to his restaurants in the coming weeks. He sees the hospitality industry, at least regionally, as coming back stronger and better.
“Sometimes something that could be a crisis is also a blessing in disguise. I think for a lot of people, including myself, it really brought us back to what’s important,” Keen said.
Watson also expects to see visitors pack their lifts and the SkyBridge when the colors begin changing.
The U.S. Travel Association reported in 2018, on an average day, Sevier County generated $6,734,119 in tourist spending. Of that money, $1,749,737 went to daily payroll; $193,994 went to local tax revenues; $378,617 was created, on average, $378,617 in state taxes.