Sevier County cities optimistic about 2021 tourism after year-end recovery

COVID-19 kept many people at home amid the pandemic, but end of year numbers look promising for the cities in the tourist mecca of Sevier County.

Thanks to an ideal location, outdoor adventures and safety measures, tourism in the county's most popular cities survived while travel destinations across the country struggled.

Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg leaders learned how to adapt to the pandemic early on, and now they're ready for whatever 2021 throws at them.

Here's how the three cities came together in 2020 to take on the virus and entice tourists to visit.

Pre-pandemic looked promising

The cities of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg ended 2019 with record-breaking tourism revenue and visitation. If the numbers were any indicator, 2020 looked like it'd be another year of growth.

“We felt very positive rolling into 2020, but then when COVID hit, it was really a big unknown," said Mark Adams, president and CEO of Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We had no idea what we were facing for the future."

Cases across the region climbed during the last days of March, resulting in travel restrictions that directly affected the three cities.

"That’s when things really went south," said Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism.

Pigeon Forge's revenue was down 53% from last year during the first month of the pandemic. April shutdowns cut revenue again to 79% less than in 2019. The virus spread as Sevierville was ending its fiscal year, causing restaurant, amusement and lodging revenue to plummet.

East Tennessee city officials and business leaders had to regroup to find a way to recoup losses quickly and safely.

Shifting strategies

Health guidelines, state and local restrictions and knowledge about COVID-19 changed daily during the early months of the pandemic, leaving destination cities uncertain about how to move forward.

Pigeon Forge paused marketing to talk with health professionals in March and April, Downey told Knox News. With their guidance, the city resumed marketing responsible travel by June. Sevierville and Gatlinburg took similar steps and implemented creative ways to keep visitors, residents and business owners informed.

"First and foremost on our minds is doing everything we can to try to reduce the positive cases, number of deaths and hospitalizations," said Bob Stahlke, Sevierville spokesperson.

Each city started its own campaign to combat COVID-19, and Sevier County enacted a mask mandate to slow the spread of the virus. The cities are still using electronic signage and web pages to display current information about the virus and reminders to practice physical distancing and wear a mask.

All three cities shifted day-to-day operations to speak with owners of businesses large and small, providing updated information about reopening plans and COVID-19 in their communities. These departments continue to work closely with business owners almost 10 months later.

Tourism bureaus also took advantage of what East Tennessee already has to offer – a driving destination with the country's most visited national park, plenty of outdoor experiences and private, spacious accommodations.

Whether visitors are looking for an escape from their four walls at home or exploring the region's educational opportunities on a hike, the area has attracted travelers from everywhere amid the pandemic.

"Our research showed we are within a day's drive for over two-thirds of the U.S. population, people want things to do outdoors and people feel safer being in cabins and on campgrounds, rather than being in hotels," Downey said. "That really put us in a good spot to check off travelers' lists."

Revenue rebounds

East Tennessee cities seemed to be on the upswing in the summer. Families that traditionally travel to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park returned in June and an influx of new visitors followed, according to Adams.

"Because of the park and so many other outdoor activities in Gatlinburg, we were seeing eight out of ten people inside our visitor centers who were here for the first time," Adams said.

Pigeon Forge revenue rebounded slightly in August. Pigeon Forge's tourism revenue made up 3% of what the city was bringing in, and it's only increased since then. Downey said he believes the city is going to "finish strong," but revenue will still be lower than last year because of the pandemic's early impact.

In Sevierville, local sales and hospitality taxes, excluding restaurant revenue, are up from last fiscal year. "We didn't expect that," Stahlke said. "We’ve been surprised that our revenue figures have been as robust as they are."

Big bets on 2021

After an unpredictable year, Stahlke, Downey and Adams are cautiously optimistic about tourism revenue in 2021. Despite end-of-year gains, the cities aren't letting their guards down yet.

Sevierville slashed spending for the fiscal year as much as possible while still providing services to residents and visitors.

"Even though we've done better than expected as far as tourism numbers and revenue, we are not counting on that," Stahlke said. "We're going to stick to the budget that we set and keep our expenditures out as much as we can."

City leaders are continuing to push messages about COVID-19 prevention as the virus infects more people each day. They are hopeful that vaccines will eventually end the pandemic but know there are still months to go before life returns to "normal."

"I do think that travelers are still going to be very cautious in the future, at least for the next six to nine months," Adams said. "I think we're going to continue to see new visitors, as well as people returning to Gatlinburg, but we're going to keep talking with business owners and doing what we can to make it safe for everyone."

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Allie Clouse

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Published December 23, 2020