Some tourist towns have their busy seasons and then become ghost towns for long stretches of the year.
Herb Handly, vice president of the Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, said the tourism industry is sensitive about the seasonal nature of our business. “In summer months, we have a great deal of traffic. In past years after October, businesses began to close down, and traffic began to slow down. Not much was going on,” he said.
Handly said the tourism industry in Blount County has expanded how they provide traffic during off months by learning from what Pigeon Forge has done.
“The Winter Lights they do and the Wilderness Wildlife Week have set an excellent model of how we can get people during what we call ‘shoulder seasons.’ We’ve taken that model, particularly the Wilderness Wildlife Week, and tried to do something of a similar nature although with a different approach,” he said.
In February, Townsend’s slowest month, the Winter Heritage Festival brings traffic to the area.
“The difference in our festival and those you find in other areas is we focus not on wildlife like Pigeon Forge. We focus on the human history of the Appalachian area. We’ve done that the last two years and each year it gets a little bit bigger,” he said. “What we’d like to do is turn that into a week-long event. Currently it’s really only a three-day event but with great potential to turn it in week-long event.”
Janice Livingston, owner of Miss Lily’s Café, said the Townsend Business Association always supports the Winter Heritage Festival and tries hard to provide programs and volunteers for them in conjunction with the Visitors Center, the National Park, and Cades Cove Preservation Association. “All these groups come together to get something going for Townsend so we can stay open and have business,” she said.
The Townsend Business Association also gets in on the act by sponsoring Townsend Love Affair Weekend. This is the third year for the event, scheduled to fall during the 2009 Valentines Day weekend.
This year’s event will include a barn dance like last year and a progressive dinner. “It’s a weekend targeted for couples since it falls on Valentine’s Day,” Livingston said.
Livingston said bringing traffic is a matter of creating things for people to do. “Anytime you provide a reason for the people to come, then the people will come. They really enjoy it,” she said.
Livingston said merchants have noticed plenty of local people also come up to Townsend during those special events, just as do tourists from other states. The events are needed to bring more business in traditionally slow months. “Townsend is still pretty much a very quiet community in the winter. Unless we develop festivals I don’t think Townsend is going to see much overflow from the festivals in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. We need to have our own festivals and promote them for what people enjoy about Townsend. We’re trying to maintain our cultural heritage and do things out of the norm.”
Handly said the Winter Heritage Festival’s target visitor is 50 and above. “They have time to travel in that time of year. Many are retired. They tend to travel and stay longer and maybe spend more money,” he said. “We’re not saying we want to bring them from great distances. We’re looking at the regional area within 100 miles.”
Handly said planners are talking about a four-season event calendar so they can have something going on in every season. “Our hopes are to make Townsend a place where people can visit year round,” he said.
Handly said the fall tourism season is probably one of easiest times to bring traffic in. “We know that with each change of season, we have a change of visitor. In the fall months, we have lot of interest in the leaf change. The month of October is one of bigger months, we have so it’s easy to draw people in during fall,” he said.
At the end of September, the very popular Heritage Festival and Old Timers Day happens. “This September festival has now become a total Townsend event. We have events not only at the Visitor’s Center, but Nawger Knob, Little River Railroad Museum and at the Heritage Center,” he said. “We attract large crowds at that time. That’s always been a very popular time.”
Following the February festivals, Townsend moves into spring when the wildflowers are in bloom. “We have a Wildflower Festival in April. As we get into May, we start our Spring Heritage Festival,” he said.
Handly said this year planners are excited about the expanded Trout Fest, which will include the banquet that has become so popular. “We are going to do that at the Visitors Center this year. We’re working with Trout Unlimited to make that happen,” he said. “We think it’s going to be one of biggest Trout Fest events they’ve ever had. We’re even considering changing the name of Townsend to Trout Town during that weekend.”
The second annual Smoky Mountain Pottery Festival happens on the first weekend in June. “Last year, it was an extreme success, and it was all about pottery and handcrafted pottery. We had people who came from North Carolina, Texas and Ohio. We are very excited, and are going to repeat it this year,” he said. “It is going to grow and get bigger than it was last year.”
Handly said that after June, the town moves into its normal vacation season, and there’s not much they need to do but help people find accommodations and make sure they know what there is to do in Townsend.
“One of the differences from last year is the car clubs are interested in Townsend, and we’re looking forward to having the Austin Healy British sports car club,” he said. “We have been working with those folks to try to get something put together for them.”
Handly said Townsend also had summer traffic from the Harley Hog motorcycle event at Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson.
“We think the word is out about Townsend during the summer months. We’re looking for a very good summer. We also have the 75th anniversary for the National Park. Our hope is that is going to bring addition people in 2009 who maybe haven’t traveled to the National Park in many years,” he said.
While planners are hopeful for a good tourist season in 2009 with the 75th anniversary of the National Park, merchants saw some downturn this summer season.
Livingston said tourism has been down in Townsend. “It’s been a difficult season with the economy and visitation down to the National Park. It really has been a hard season,” she said. “We haven’t seen the tourists. It’s evident in people splitting meals and not staying in cabins as much.”
Livingston said gas prices and an uncertain economy make people question whether they should eat out or pay rent/mortgages. “When it comes down to whether you have a roof over your head or eat out, you vote for the roof,” she said. “That really has hurt Townsend, but we have new ideas coming out for new festivals. We’re going to try to be able to offer the public some exciting things to do in Townsend this winter.”
Handly said good location and interesting activities can serve to attract more visitors.
“We have the advantage of a great geographic location being right here as a gateway community to the National Park. Now we have full schedule of events that cover each of the seasons,” he said.
Handly said Townsend and the Visitors’ Bureau have adopted the idea of sustainable tourism. “This means we’re not necessarily looking for a multitude of people to come to Townsend. We’re looking for people who will come to Townsend and stay longer and spend more money,” he said. “We’re very sensitive about overburdening our infrastructure in the community. What we’ve learned from visitors is they like Townsend because it is the peaceful side of the Smokies. There aren’t many peaceful places to go to anymore.”
Blount County has also been designated a Preserve America community, something Handly and others worked very hard to make happen. “We think we’re on the right track. The Preserve America designation was one of the big steps that supports our mission,” he said.
Handly said the Bureau would like to see government officials in Townsend sit down and talk about what the future of Townsend. “What we would like to see is an effort to maintain the peaceful side of he Smokies and pursue businesses that are a good fit with Townsend,” he said.
A great example of a good business fit for Townsend is an operation like the Arrowmont School in Gatlinburg, Handly said. The future of the Arrowmont School is uncertain as the owners of the property in downtown Gatlinburg are reportedly planning to sell the property.
“If Arrowmont is forced to move from Gatlinburg, what a wonderful marriage that would be for Townsend and Arrowmont. Those are just the types of businesses we’re promoting here,” Handly said.
New Townsend Mayor Pat Jenkins agreed that if Arrowmont had to move out of Gatlinburg, Townsend would be a good new home for them. “I think Arrowmont would be a great fit with Townsend and great fit with the artist community,” he said.
Jenkins said Arrowmont is a school, not a tourist attraction. “What Arrowmont needs is a rural campus-like setting with dorms and places for people to work and think and nurture themselves,” he said. “Of course they have a sales outlet where the public sees their work and buys it. I think Townsend is uniquely qualified to offer that to Arrowmont.”
Handly said something else that could help tourism in Townsend is voters passing the wine-by-the-drink referendum on the ballot for Townsend in November.
“We certainly think it is the right way to go because visitors are used to going to destinations that have some level of bar service, and we think it’s important for Townsend as a destination to include that into what we have as a part of our offerings,” he said. “Our hope is restaurants will have the ability to offer wine to our visitors.”
Jenkins said the Heritage Bus Tours of Cades Cove begin in October. “I think that is going to help year-round visitation as well,” he said.
The mayor said people will be able to come to the Heritage Center, get on buses and take a leisurely ride around Cades Cove and get an interpretive program given to them as they go.
Jenkins said it is important for those who live and make a living in Townsend to get year-round traffic from tourists and visitors. “It’s real hard to be open four months a year and make a living. Festivals are one way to get people to come,” he said.
The festivals being planned help the economy, both men agree, even though different organizations or entities plan and administer the events. In some cases, the Townsend Business Association is plans a festival. Sometimes it’s the Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, and, in some cases, the Heritage Center.
“I think it’s a good thing that it’s not just coming from one area,” Jenkins said. “They’re coming up with ideas, and they’re trying not to step on each other while they do this. We don’t mine gold up here or drill oil wells. The last industry here was when they were cutting up trees and had a mill. Townsend is built on tourism.”