If out-of-state license plates told a story Saturday, it was that the Smoky Mountain Highland Games drew people from across the country interested in their heritage and willing to travel to enjoy it.
Mary Leidig, director of marketing for Maryville College, was the public relations contact for the Games and was pleased with the turnout.
“I’m truly thrilled. We had visitors from California, Texas, Ohio, West Virginia, Florida, the Dakotas and Colorado,” she said. “That makes our wonderful region a destination for people from all over the country.”
Leidig said that on Saturday by mid-afternoon, there were a few more than 5,000 in attendance. “It is my understanding we had close to 7,000 for both days,” she said. “That would be more than double the attendance for the two-day event in Gatlinburg last year for the Highland Games. It is excellent for a first-year event anywhere and especially when it is an event that has been held for so many years in one location.”
The Smoky Mountain Highland Games, an event celebrating Scottish heritage, had been held for 29 years in Gatlinburg and this year was moved to Maryville College as it celebrated its 30th anniversary.
Leidig said visitors get used to a location and venue in their minds. “We worked really hard to let people know weeks in advance that the games had been moved to Maryville College,” she said. “We announced it last summer as well.”
While the event gave Blount County the opportunity to connect with people from throughout the country, it also gave residents the chance to connect with the heritage of the area .
“I had a Maryville College graduate who happened to be volunteering at the event share with me that this brought to the surface our Scottish and Presbyterian heritage, and that is only a good thing for Maryville College,” she said.
Leidig said the entire community could have fun at the games. “It was a huge family opportunity,” she said. “There was something for everyone, whether you were 7 years old or 70 years old.”
Herb Handly, vice president of the Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said he was pleasantly surprised by the numbers of rooms that were rented during the weekend for people specifically going to the Smoky Mountain Highland Games. The hotel properties around the airport were sold out for the most part, he said.
“I could not have been more pleased with the turnout,” Handly said. “Having a lot of experience with festivals and events, this was one of the better ones I’ve experienced.”
Handly said that for the event’s first time in Maryville, he thought it was well organized and ran smoothly. “It was pretty amazing. I think going forward, this probably is going to be one of the No. 1 premium events in the Blount County area, not to take anything away from the Fall Festival, which is different,” he said.
Clifford Fitzsimmons, president of the Smoky Mountain Highland Games, said that by noon on Saturday, it appeared the attendance was already better than what it was at the former venue in Gatlinburg in 2010. “It has exceeded Gatlinburg by 50 percent more than we did at this point last year, and by the end of the day, it could be double,” he said.
Fitzsimmons, who has participated in Scottish games for 17 years and served on the Highland Games board for nine years, said the event attracts folks interested in their own heritage as well as those who just want to experience something new. “It’s people looking for genealogy and folks wondering what Scottish games are, and thinking, ‘I’ve got to see this,’” he said.
Dr. Tom Bogart, president of Maryville College, stood with his wife, Mary, and watched the crowd. The president said he was impressed with how the event drew people from throughout the country. “I’ve met people from Atlanta and a friend of mine came from Baltimore. To see so many families enjoying their time at Maryville College, this is what we’re all about,” he said.
Bogart praised the game volunteers, the City of Maryville and the college’s staff for working hard to make the event happen. “This was a community effort,” he said.
Jane Groth, special events coordinator for the City of Maryville, manned an information tent as people streamed out of a parking area to where the event was held on and around the college’s soccer field/softball complex. “It is really impressive,” she said. “They’ve exceeded their expectations.”
Maryville Mayor Tom Taylor said the folks he saw in the community began asking him about the games from the day it was announced in the summer of 2010. “It created more buzz than anything we’ve done in a long time,” he said.
Former State Sen. Raymond Finney sat with his wife, Linda, and listened to Scottish music. “We used to go to the one in Gatlinburg, and this is closer and a better fit,” he said. “I’m glad they moved it here.”