Nestled at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Gatlinburg, Tenn.—population 4,200—generates approximately $3.4 billion a year in sales and welcomes more visitors than some of the most popular beach destinations in the country.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the U.S., and Gatlinburg tourism estimates that up to 13 million eager vacationers stop in Gatlinburg and Sevier County each year. These visitors represent a broad, less adventure-oriented demographic, typical of the summer market—and the area successfully pleases all. Ski area operators can learn a lot from the innovative ways Gatlinburg’s businesses approach the guest experience. Let’s take a closer look.
Magic in the Mundane
Despite being in the mountains, Gatlinburg is not a prototypical mountain town, and the visitor demographics reflect that. Even at Ober Gatlinburg, Tennessee’s only ski resort, just 1 in 4 winter guests actually come to ski, says marketing director Kate Barido. So, attractions work hard to make the mountain environment feel welcoming to the uninitiated.
Ober advertises a ride on its iconic tramway as an escape from the hustle and bustle into the sweeping Smoky Mountains. There are three aerial lifts downtown, and for many visitors to Gatlinburg, Ober’s tram, SkyLift’s Doppelmayr Alpen Star triple, or Anakeesta’s Leitner-Poma Chondola may be the only lift they’ll ever ride. Here, aerial transportation is an attraction, not just a means to an end.
Take the Boyne SkyLift, which has been operating since 1954. Julie Ard, marketing director for Boyne Resorts, says guests enjoy the peace of the ride. The panoramic views of the highest peaks in the Smokies from the top of the lift is certainly the piece de resistance, but the ride itself a key part of the experience.
Anakeesta, Tennessee’s 2018 attraction of the year, is doubling down on that idea of transport as attraction. The adventure park has experienced such a high volume of business since opening in 2017 that its operators needed to develop additional ways for visitors to reach its mountaintop activities, typically accessed via scenic Chondola ride. So, Anakeesta has added to its operation two retrofitted five-ton military vehicles and will soon be offering a guided safari to the top of the mountain.
The lesson seems two fold. Logistical challenges, like getting guests to the top of a mountain, can and should be integrated with attractions. And never assume that something is mundane—to many people, typical mountain experiences like riding a lift or travelling through a forest can hold a marketable, and profitable, magic.
Activities for All
To do business in Gatlinburg, attractions must have broad appeal. At Anakeesta, “a ton of thought went into creating a venue that is multi-generational,” says marketing director Michele Canney. “There is something for the four-year-old to do and something for the 104-year-old to do.”
On 70 privately owned acres at the top of a mountain, Anakeesta features three spans of duel zip lines, a canopy walk, a unique Brandauer mountain coaster, a Treehouse Village playground, plenty of dining and shopping, a scenic Chondola ride, and an expansive garden for resting and wandering.
The broad array of activities caters to different interests, ages and physical abilities, and the park is designed to allow for shared experiences. Even the most extreme activity—the zip lines built by CLIMBWorks—is laid out with “dueling,” or parallel, lines, so guests zip side-by-side. And the Treehouse Village, a themed playground designed by Beanstalk Builders, was built to scale for adults and children to play together. With obstacles, mazes, and climb-through nets, Canney says the playground has been one of the most popular activities in the park.
Multi-generational accessibility was also a key factor in the design of the SkyPark, the nascent activity hub at the top of Boyne’s Gatlinburg SkyLift. The park’s star attraction, the new 680-foot-long SkyBridge, built by Experiential Resources, Inc., was designed to be inviting to grandparents, grandkids and everyone in between.
With glass panels at its center giving a clear view to the deep ravine below, the bridge offers low-impact thrills. And it’s wide enough for two-way traffic, so there’s no commitment to going all the way across. “There will be satisfaction for a lot of people in making it halfway across the bridge, which is something that we embrace,” says Ard.
Master Planning with Purpose
Anakeesta was designed to allow visitors to move naturally through the park’s shopping, dining, and activities. The various attractions at Anakeesta are cleverly cross-marketed and interact with each other. For example, the Chondola’s mid-station is located a few steps from where the zip lines terminate, so once guests finish the tour, they hop on the lift back to the top. This serves the logistical purpose of using existing uphill transportation. And it also serves a business purpose by bringing guests back to where they can spend more money, rather than ending the zip lines at the bottom, collecting harnesses, and sending guests on their way.
And the zip-line experience is one of the only attractions not included in the price of admission, mostly due to limited throughput. So, cleverly, one zip line span crosses over the Chondola, and another flies over the tree canopy walk, enticing visitors to buy in.
Building with an eye toward how activities relate to one another allows operations in Gatlinburg to have a more cohesive feel. For SkyPark, its development sequencing was born organically from the attraction’s major driver—the view. “That’s what led us to develop the SkyBridge first,” says Ard. “The SkyBridge is an ideal continuation, experience-wise, for the guest that is already visiting the SkyLift.”
Focusing on creating opportunities for guests to enjoy panoramic views from the top is also why an observation deck and the meandering SkyWalk trail are next on the agenda as SkyPark expands.
Think About Theming
To create a cohesive sense of design, Gatlinburg attractions often utilize theming. Nick Thompson at CLIMBWorks says, “For theming, I believe brand and vision is where you start in creating an experience that tells the same story.” One of the projects he worked on was creating a ropes course to pair with the themed show at Paula Deen’s Lumberjack Feud in neighboring Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
“For Lumberjack Feud,” says Thompson, “the brand was a great outdoor, competitive show for entertainment.” So Thompson based the ropes course obstacles on the activities guests just watched professional lumberjacks compete in, creating “a very lumberjack themed, full adventure experience.”
For Lumberjack Feud, the theme is obvious. At a place like Anakeesta, the theming, while very present, is a bit subtler.
Anakeesta’s slogan is “there’s magic in the mountains,” and the whole park works to both highlight the natural surroundings and imbue them with a bit of extra pixie dust. “We worked really hard to create that feeling of whimsy,” says Canney.
In Firefly Village, where Anakeesta has several shopping and dining options, the structures are connected with boardwalks, and little touches such as a gnome home, a human-sized replica of an American gold finch’s nest in the playground, and a firefly-themed shop that sells whimsical goods keep the theme running throughout. “The owners, Bob and Karen Bentz, worked side by side with the architects to create storybook architecture that feels very intimate.”
What seems most notable about theming at Anakeesta and the Lumberjack Feud, is that they not only utilize it, but they create opportunities for guests to engage with that theming, making it integral to the guest experience.
Look at Landscaping
Nature doesn’t have to play second fiddle to the artificial, though. “We are not just focusing on our little 72 acres,” says Canney. “We really speak to the whole national park.” Interpretive signage, eco-friendly products, a retail outlet that sells hiking gear, and a garden full of indigenous plants all help guests feel connected to the Smokies.
As with Aspen Snowmass’s Lost Forest, the goal of many of Gatlinburg’s successful attractions is to be unobtrusive. Thompson notes that, in general, when building activities in the mountains, “You search for the natural highlights the land offers and design accordingly. You want to completely immerse the guest in the best your natural environment has to offer.”
Attractions in Gatlinburg utilize smart landscape design to blend with the mountain terrain. “The landscaping is the experience,” Canney says, discussing Anakeesta’s garden, which was built by the owners, both of whom are landscape architects. Cultivated garden beds draw native wildlife and man-made water features create extra sensory input, adding to the feeling of being outside rather than taking away from it. Anakeesta is even integrating a story into its garden about a “twiglet” sculpture who cares for the land, turning both the Smokies and the park into a living storybook for guests. “It’s all about being in this mountain area,” says Canney.
Factor in Food
Guests can spend several hours in some of these locations, so instead of being a second thought, food and beverage operations are incorporated in the theming and master planning of many attractions.
The SkyLift runs late—11 p.m.—because lots of visitors are keen to see the lights of Gatlinburg from the top of the mountain. That’s why the new SkyCenter, set to open this spring, was designed to cater to guests’ interests with a late night restaurant and bar that offers sweeping views of the town from its patio.
Anakeesta also developed its bars and restaurants with a specific goal in mind: to have the outdoors be part of the eating and drinking experience. The Cliff Top Grill & Bar was designed to be open air when the weather is warm, and rolling glass doors maintain the view but retain heat when temps drop. There is also plenty of outdoor seating around for visitors who opt to eat from the food truck, and the entire property is licensed so guests can walk around with their local craft beer.
There is also power in tying food and beverage to theming. Paula Deen’s Lumberjack Feud is a classic and even kitschy dinner-with-a-show model that attracts plenty of visitors. And Ober Gatlinburg leverages the iconic look and theme of its tramway: it repurposed an old tramcar into a “food truck,” of sorts, that serves food to hungry visitors.
Ober is also smartly building its summer offerings around utilities and dining spaces that already exist, adding summer tubing with a Neveplast surface to the winter tubing hill that is already serviced by its own retail and dining facility.
In a competitive market, attractions are always looking for ways to add value. At SkyLift Park, staying open late allows more people to enjoy the night-lights. Anakeesta and Ober are both fleshing out their events schedules to enhance the experience. Live music draws folks to the mountains, but so do the s’mores nights, crafting events and kids programming at Anakeesta.
Attractions also carefully consider their ticket products. SkyLift Park sells an unlimited ticket for the SkyLift to further entice guests to pay a nighttime visit. Ober is moving toward a wristband for unlimited access to the majority of its attractions. And, at Anakeesta, your pass is good all day. So, visitors can spend a few hours in the park, go down to the aquarium and come back up for dinner if they want, because at Anakeesta, “It’s not family friendly unless it’s family value,” says Canney.
Gatlinburg’s visitation numbers prove that summer travellers are interested in going to the mountains. But, if you want to tempt tourists away from the ease of a beach vacation or other competitive offerings like the ones in Gatlinburg, it pays to stand out from the crowd with thoughtful family-friendly attractions, appealing natural landscaping, smart food and beverage, and a cohesive vision.