Local businesses adjust to Smokies national park closure

Oct. 03, 2013 @ 11:29 PM

The closing of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has an impact that’s felt far beyond the boundaries of the park or the 279 employees who were furloughed when the federal government shut down.

Many local businesses are intertwined with the park, from hotels, cabins and other lodging establishments to weddings and guided tours that take place in the park.

October is one of the busiest times of year for the park and for many of its satellite businesses, as some tourists come to enjoy the fall colors as the leaves start to turn and families try to work in a mountain vacation during fall break at many schools.

Local officials have been telling prospective visitors there’s still plenty to do and still lots of places to view fall displays even while the park is closed.

“Our staff here is getting lots of phone calls,” said Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. “Our job is to encourage them to come anyway, because East Tennessee is abundantly beautiful. Wherever they are they can still see fall colors, and there’s still family fun in Pigeon Forge.”

He said he’d talked to a number of people in the hospitality business and that, so far, most visitors weren’t trying to reschedule or cancel their trips because of the closing. “They’re not seeing cancellations, not with the people I’ve talked to,” he said.

In Gatlinburg, the Convention and Visitors Bureau was also receiving a lot of calls, spokesperson Marci Claude said: “We have been getting calls from people who are concerned about the park closure. Primarily, they have expressed disappointment and dismay with the government.”

The closing hadn’t caused them to change their plans so far, she said. “For the most part, they are planning to visit and are excited about coming to Gatlinburg and Sevier County.”

Some local businesses reported they were also getting calls about the closure.

“People have called all day about it,” said Andre Alfaro, spokesperson for Gatlinburg Falls resort. Like the local officials, he said he’d tried to tell callers that there are still plenty of activities available in the area and other opportunities to view fall leaf displays.

In any event, for the resort, anyone calling to cancel for the next few days is already locked in, he said, and wouldn’t be able to cancel their trip without a fee.

Stephanie Hurst, manager of Gatlinburg Cabins Online, said her business hasn’t gotten calls asking to cancel, but some customers have asked what other options they had for activities.

“We’ve really not had anyone canceling. We’ve had a couple of our in-cabin guests asking what they can still do,” she said.

But some businesses depend directly on the park. Vesna Plakanis and her husband, Eric, run a guided tour service in the park called A Walk in the Woods. This is their busiest month, she said, and they’re looking at losing most of the money they’d expected to make if the park stays clsoed.

“This is our month. October is it, if we don’t make our money in October we can't feed our families and pay our mortgages the rest of the year,” she said. “It’s that simple.”

They have a staff of 10, including eight guides. “We’re losing, this weekend alone, over $10,000,” she said. “We’ve got four backpacking trips scheduled, we‘ve got shuttles and hikes, we’ve got night trips.”

Their customers are upset at the situation, she said. Many of them planned the trips months in advance, and while they won’t have to pay her fees if they can’t go on the guided trips, they have airfares and lodging already booked.

Other businesses were looking to relocate their events. Megan Ownby runs Above the Mist Wedding Services. She has helped plan dozens of weddings, many of them in the park.

“They’re coming to the Smoky Mountains to get married at a certain location,” she said.

However, she said, she’d learned never to plan an outdoor wedding without at least one backup, and she’s been working with her customers to make sure they still have a location as similar as possible to what they’d chosen — at a different river shore, she said, or with another view of the mountains.

She’s also giving them a free photo package, with the opportunity to come back and do a photo shoot at the original location once the park reopens.

The closing has added to hear already hectic work load, and it’s costing her some money, but she hasn’t lost any customers, she said.

“Customers are so important to us, I’d do anything to keep these brides happy,” she sad.

“It’s aggravating and it’s a little more work, but I have definitely not lost any customers.”

jfarrell@themountainpress.com