City, businesses search for new strategies during road closure

Jan. 28, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Following the Jan. 16 landslide in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that took out 200 feet of Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) — the main artery through the park between Gatlinburg and Cherokee, N.C. — city officials and businesses are trying to deal with the road closure that may cost them tourism traffic that normally comes from the park.

George Hawkins, community and media relations director for the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau (GCVB), said the city may change its marketing strategy for the time being.

“We may create some new publicity to encourage people to plan their vacations a different way instead of coming over through Cherokee until they clear up the road,” Hawkins said. “It’s just something we have to deal with.”

Hawkins said businesses at the south end of town, near the entrance to the park, will be hurt the most.

“That end is going to be hurt the worst because it depends on all that traffic going in and out of the park,” he said. “They’re not getting that heavy traffic coming in from the mountain.”

Businesses at that end of the strip aren’t going to lie down, though. Managers at Bennett’s Pit Bar-B-Que and the Clarion Inn & Suites said they, too, are altering their strategies to reach more potential patrons.

“Our company always does the ‘buy one, get one free’ special in the winter anyway, but we’re extending that ’til March 4 this year, so that will help,” said Melinda Williamson, general manager at Bennett’s. “We take carry-out menus to the hotels so people know about the special.”

Still, Williamson worries that the indefinite road closure is going to hurt the restaurant, which reopened Thursday after renovating since Jan. 6 to add a Big Daddy’s Pizzeria to the site.

“We’re right at the mouth of the entrance to the park, not even a half a block,” Williamson said. “A lot of people travel that way, so it does affect us a lot. I personally freaked out because it’s going to hurt business. They’re going to be coming around I-40 and may not even hit our area anymore.”

Christine Walden, general manager at the Clarion Inn & Suites, is not quite as worried. She said her hotel hasn’t seen any negative impact from the road closure yet, but she’s eager to see progress on opening the road before the spring.

Walden said the hotel is trying to use social media to reach guests with GCVB-provided information on alternate ways of getting to their desired destinations.

“I think given the use of social media, as long as you are proactive to give guests alternate routes, I think that will minimize the negative impact,” Walden said. “People still want to come see the mountains and visit Gatlinburg, so if you give them another way to get here, they’ll get here.”

Walden said the hotel does not plan to change its annual forecast based on this event, especially given that January and February are slow months for tourism anyway.

“At this particular time of year, we’ve always noticed that because of the weather, it will slow down,” she said. “In the summer season we see a greater flow of traffic through here.”

Hawkins agreed with this silver lining. If a landslide were going to cause an extended road closure, “now is probably the best time,” Hawkins said, since the Christmas and New Year’s holiday season is over and the spring season hasn’t begun.

Hawkins did note that it may not be the best time for the ski resort, but John Cossaboom, winter sports director at Ober Gatlinburg, said it is actually doing fine.

“It’s not having a major effect on us,” Cossaboom said. “It’s an inconvenience to a lot of people, but will the slide keep people from coming to Ober? I’m not sure it’s going to have much of an impact.”

Cossaboom said the resort is not making any changes to its strategies, and he still expects a good turnout for the remainder of the skiing season.

“The best marketing is all the snow we got recently,” Cossaboom said. “Five inches of snow is never a bad thing.”

Cossaboom was confident that the closure wouldn’t put a damper on what was supposed to be a special season for the resort, which celebrated its 50th anniversary of skiing in Tennessee this 2012-13 season.

The resort opened earlier than ever this season with the help of two new, state-of-the-art snow machines, and it plans to keep the tubing lanes open through March.

rhargett@themountainpress.com