The essentials for summer business success showed clear and strong as moonshine during SAM's Summer Ops Camp in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Sept. 3-5.
From marketing and branding to the wide range of activities and attractions so prominently on display, Camp put the essentials in stark relief. The Camp program—which mixed hands-on site visits, classroom sessions, and networking events—suited the Gatlinburg experience perfectly. And the nearly 150 attendees, hailing from all over the world, embraced the packed schedule with fervor.
Gatlinburg is a full-on resort town, with clearly defined and boldly stated branding. It welcomes more than 11 million visitors on their way through Smoky Mountain National Park, garnering $3.4 billion in sales. The Smokies are the number one visited park, seeing double the visitors to the Grand Canyon, which is second in line. Less gaudy than nearby Pigeon Forge, where King Kong climbs a multi-story building, Gatlinburg nonetheless burns bright, especially at night. And that in-your-face nature laid bare many of the elements that make summer operations successful.
The revelations began at CLIMB Works, which hosted zip line and mountain biking tours. E-bike demos by QuietKat stole the show, as campers had an excellent opportunity to see how these machines handle extreme terrain. The demos generated high interest in light of the Interior Department's recent decision to open National Parks and BLM lands to e-bikes. The breathtaking zip lines also impressed campers, and many made note of the reclaimed materials used to build the CLIMB Works welcome center.
Connecting the Dots
Following the demos, SE Group's Claire Humber and Mark Kane, the latter a regular visitor to and observer of Gatlinburg, presented Camp's overall theme, "Connectivity." And there are several different types of connections to make: connecting guests to the summer experience, to nature and the natural world, to your brand, to local history. Humber declared that Gatlinburg is "connectivity on steroids," and Camp showed how true that is.
Winter resorts don't often recognize the need to connect guests to nature, Humber noted, or to experiences, since those connections happen automatically in winter. But the summer season offers more possibilities, and the summer guest may not be aware of these—and so requires more guidance.
While CLIMB Works exhibited the connection with nature, the evening's tour of The Rowdy Bear Adventure Park was about connecting with experience. Set into a steep hillside just off the main drag, Rowdy Bear features a steeply twisting Wiegand coaster and a one-of-a-kind Rollglider, a sort of curved and twisting zip rail coaster, from Walltopia. Both courses were lit for night riding, and Campers got to see and experience each to full effect.
Three Unique Experiences
A trio of very different sites highlighted day two.
First, Anakeesta, a brand-new themed resort that stretches from downtown Gatlinburg to a mountaintop above. Anakeesta is all about connecting with nature and the Smoky Mountains in particular. The two-year-old attraction whisks guests up the mountain and away from the hubbub of Gatlinburg on a Leitner-Poma telemix. Views of the Smokies greet guests as they unload. Pathways and gardens gird the summit, which was cleared by a massive forest fire in 2016. Throughout, placards show and tell the tale of the fire, and present snippets of Smokies fact and history. A long treetop trek ("the world's longest") puts visitors in the canopy for a distinctly novel experience. A Brandauer mountain coaster and a zip tour add to the connection to nature, as does the Smokies-inspired architecture of the restaurant-observation deck. Several small and understated (by Gatlinburg standards) retail shops complete the facility.
Even with all of these high-value activities, co-owner Bob Bentz said the Vista Garden—a magnificently laid-out area with flowers, shrubs, and a host of other aesthetically pleasing features—is one of the key elements to the entire place. This is a reminder of how creative landscaping can connect guests with nature.
Ober Gatlinburg, a ski area turned four-season destination, represented the other extreme: a 60-year-old resort that has grown and evolved over time. In many respects similar to other winter resorts that have added summer attractions, Ober Gatlinburg is unique for its access tram from downtown. The tram rises 1,500 vertical feet to the base of the area. Operator/guides provide a running commentary on the lift ride, pointing out historical information and local dirt on the landscape and homeowners below. The area's array of summer activities range from disc golf and kids amusement park rides to an ADG mountain coaster and Neveplast summer tubing, and radiate from the massive base lodge. Again, the resort makes strong connections with nature and experience and has established a clear identity amid the noise of Gatlinburg.
Third stop was Boyne Resorts’ new SkyLift and its newer SkyBridge along with the allied SkyDeck, a restaurant and scenic viewpoint across the valley from Anakeesta. The scenic SkyLift chairlift ride has been around for close to 75 years, but the current lift was installed after the previous lift was destroyed in the 2016 wildfire. The 700-foot-long SkyBridge—which lays claim to being the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge—connects two peaks separated by a deep valley. And it's quite an experience, too: it sways and bounces slightly with the traffic, adding to the novelty. The views of the Smokies and the entire valley, both from the SkyBridge and the SkyDeck, help explain the enduring popularity of the SkyLift, and the growing ranks of visitors to this vantage point.
Sawdust and Switchbacks
The final day, and final site, showed the connection to experience and history in a big way. Lumberjack Feud sounds like the sort of contrived nonsense that gives resort tourist traps a bad name. But the Feud is the real deal: the Smokies were home to extensive logging operations before the National Park was created, and the homegrown competitors in the Feud include world and national lumberjack champions at logrolling and pole climbing. Their competitive show manages to entertain as it delivers a strong dose of local logging history.
The Feud is also home to the newest attraction in the aerial adventure world: the first cable-to-rail zip line coaster (for lack of a better term) that combines a curved track and straight zip lines, forging a new and potentially game-changing format for zip tours. Created through a partnership between CLIMB Works and Holmes Solutions of New Zealand, the Switchback allows riders to transfer smoothly at speed from curved rails to zip lines. Imagine a nine-stage zip tour, in which there is no need to stop and transfer for each separate zip. For some Campers, this was the high point of an already elevated Summer Ops experience, and the ultimate expression of connectivity at a Camp full of connections.
In between the site visits were several information-packed sessions. Paul Mutch of Gravity Logic, who also runs his own retail bike shops, enthusiastically lauded the advantages and future of e-bikes. Brand strategist Paula Rea of Solidarity of Unbridled Labour took campers through a branding exercise to help identify all the ways campers' resorts connect to guests, and how those connections help create a brand. Tim Bruce and Justin Guth of Safehold Special Risk, joined by Cameron Annas of Granite Insurance, highlighted the most significant risk-related issues of summer operations.
At Lumberjack Feud, CLIMB Works owner Nick Thompson—a “wonderkid” only in his late 30s—spoke about shaping the experience to your target audience. He stressed the importance of having engaged staff, because one interaction with a staff member could turn a good experience into a great one, or the other way around. “The only way to get the most out of your staff is to take good care of your staff,” he said.
To incorporate learning into the hands-on site visits, Humber held a “pop-up talk” at each location. The talks pointed out how each place leveraged connectivity in its many forms, and reminded Campers to keep their eyes peeled for the minutia that make a big difference while they experienced the latest and greatest activities.
That summed up this year's Camp: connecting all the dots that comprise the summer season. Several campers noted that there is no other location that offers the chance to try coasters from three different companies—Brandauer, ADG, and Wiegand. Gatlinburg and its many facets made all the dots, and connections between them, plain as day.