Effects of coronavirus on Smoky Mountains tourism

The coronavirus has definitely taken most of us by surprise.  This is an unusual challenge we are facing as a nation and as a world community.   However, mankind has an amazing resilient nature.  In times of deep suffering and challenge we see what we are made of, and we often find sacrifice, love and honor in new and unusual places. 

Three years ago we weathered a major fire that burst out of the National Park, just as we were recovering from an economic downturn that had hit the nation.  We found then that we were “Mountain Strong” and I believe we will find that we still are.  And I am sure that we will also find that “God’s Grace is still Amazing!” as well.

Sevier County has always been the destination to “GO TO” when there is uncertainty.  When the terrorist attacks of 9-11 of 2001 made flying overseas or across the nation seemed highly risky we became the go to- vacation destination.  Even a few weeks ago when cruises seemed like not such a good pick- vacationers reported then that they drove to “their Smoky Mountains” instead.  I expect that to continue through this time as we wind down the coronavirus threat throughout the summer. 

I think we can expect that large gatherings will continue to be avoided.  Hotels and close quarter venues will not be popular for some time, probably until the end of the year.  We will continue to have large crowed entertainment areas opening very slowly or sitting out the next tourist season.  Outdoor events, hikes, camping and nature herself will be the focus of family or group getaways. 

Cabins that have their own entertainment centers in them will rise in popularity as a destination in themselves.   A luxury cabin will allow for private dining and safe cooking, something we have come to take for granted, and that may become a special amenity in itself or at least a comfort.  I for one would rather cook with a view!

The Great Smoky Mountains are within one day’s driving distance for 75% of the population of the US, making transportation by car easy.   This will be in our favor.  We are the most visited National Park giving freely its beauty and rest to America without any charge.   The Great Smokies will continue to be and may even be stronger.   We ended 2019 with 12.5 million visitors to our National Park.  That was over a million more than any other year.  The good news for cabin owners is that we could reduce that number significantly and still have an amazing rental revenue for our overnight rental cabins.  

If the manner in which we were able to work through the last economic downturn is any indication at all we will weather this challenge as well.  The last downturn hit many tourist destinations hard but it did not affect the luxury cabin rental market. 

Hotels and low end cabins and chalets were negatively affected however.  The budget renter is often hit the hardest when there is a crisis.  They often do not have savings, they can struggle with discretionary income when jobs are squeezed and they will often not have the money to travel.   I think we can expect the same for this crisis.    

We have three months in our calendar where visitation to our area is at its lowest: January after the first week, the month of May and the last two weeks of August (with the exception of Labor Day weekend) and the mid two weeks of September.  

This April and May I expect to be very quiet.  If you are a cabin owner prepare to not count on much income in May;  plan to come and stay yourself should the coronavirus allow!  That or send your favorite cleaner to do a deep clean in exchange for a complementary stay.  Or if you have a friend that lays tile or is a splendid decorator send them to work on your cabin. 

Take heart – we noticed that in the last challenge, the high-end cabins that were special, taken care of and updated did not drop off in rental revenue.   However, they did take rental revenue away from the outdated cabins; cabins that have not been keeping up with amenities and décor will feel the pressure to compete with a smaller pool of renters as we pull out of this crisis.

With this in mind if you purchased a cabin ten years ago and have not spent money updating it, you should perhaps consider selling it now or updating it.  Do not sit back but proactively place yourself in a strong position for this next season.  Now is still a good time to sell as we may have hit the peak in appreciation for this year.  We still have the sold comparables from this last season to price your cabin at the top of its value.  

When times are tough people love to retreat together, refresh, renew and let nature encourage their souls.  We did not see Americans stop vacationing during the downturn.  They didn’t buy as many souvenirs but they did visit their Smokies.   I expect the same this time.