Tourism 2020: How COVID-19 impacted Pigeon Forge and year-end predictions

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. (WATE) — “2020 was looking great. And then, all of a sudden, here comes March. And (business) just halts,” Elise Massey, owner of Collier Restaurant Group in Sevier County, said.

The city of Pigeon Forge was on the track of having one of the best tourism rates in the year 2020, until COVID-19 hit.

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Leon Downey, director of tourism for Pigeon Forge, said the city usually made about $1.5 billion in revenue. He said revenue sales hit over the $1 billion mark for the last six years. When the pandemic hit, that all changed.

“From probably the 13th of March, things really just slowed down and then April, we had to orders to stay in place, and so the town was basically just closed down,” Downey said. With the town being closed down, many businesses were hurt.

Massey’s eight restaurants (Corkey’s BBQ, T.G.I. Friday’s, Golden Corral, Flapjacks Pancake Cabin, Quaker Steak & Lube, Smoky Mountain Pancake House and Smoky’s Pancake Cabin) and the stores inside The Island at Pigeon Forge included.

“We were closed for three weeks, but really, that amount of business was not there for about two months,” Massey said.

“Those Island businesses are a lot of mom-and-pops who work in their stores, every day. That’s their life and that’s their business. When those visitors stopped coming and the shutdowns happened, or when the restrictions kept people from coming from other states, it hurt,” David Wear, mayor of Pigeon Forge, said.

Wear is also the Vice President of Operations for The Island. As mayor, Wear said he Pigeon Forge is a city filled with businesses that make a living hosting visitors, making them feel safe and comfortable. They couldn’t do that because of COVID-19, so it was very quiet.

“I’m used to, in the spring, when spring break comes, children and kids everywhere, and it’s just me walking around the property looking at the weeds and pulling weeds and doing different things around the property. Just me by myself. A little bit daunting,” Wear said.

Downey said revenue in April was down by 79% compared to April the year before. The good news was that the percentage started decreasing every month, bringing in more revenue surely but slowly.

“The first few weeks was really slow, but I was glad because it let us get our feet on the ground and to show our employees we can do this safely,” Massey said.

Massey said they implemented all the safety guidelines handed down by the state and county. It was harder at some restaurants because of the space layout.

She said Golden Corral is still struggling.

“Golden Corral is still not back up to where it normally is, and we are doing everything we can to show people we can do it safely,” Massey said. She said customers take gloves before they use tongs to grab their food. They are supposed to change them every time they grab a new plate of food.

Massey said business started to pick up over summer.

“As soon as some people started coming, and maybe some social media posts got out there, I felt like people felt safe. They saw what we were doing, or they heard from their neighbor, ‘Oh yes, Gatlinburg is open. They closed down the street, you can walk on the street.’ Or, ‘yeah, everybody’s doing masks, it’s 50% capacity in the restaurants,’” Massey said.

Downey said in May, revenue was down by 35% compared to the year before. In June, revenue was down by only 12%, and then by 9% in July.

“I feel like that’s because Pigeon Forge is primarily a driving destination. We’re within a day’s drive two-thirds of the population east of the Mississippi River, excellent interstate access and we have lots of outdoor activities for people to do,” Downey said.

Almost everything is outdoors in Pigeon Forge, even in shopping centers like The Island.

“People feel comfortable here.  They feel like they can get outdoors and move around,” Wear said.

While sales were still climbing through the summer months, events were still being canceled due to the pandemic. Several events in the city, such as the Spring Rod Run, brings a lot of tourists. Even if the events are downsized, it’s still a lot less business.

Wear said The Island’s Halloween event usually brings in a good crowd, but they won’t advertise it much this year so it’s not too big.

“Unfortunately, a couple of other events, our large events like the tree lighting like we typically do with Paula Deen every year, that has been canceled. Halloween is going to be an abbreviated Halloween. We’re going to some trick or treating there on The Island from 3 to 5 on Halloween night,” Wear said.

Events at the LeConte Center can also bring a crowd, according to Downey and Massey.

“There were tons of canceled events. Like, the one we have right now, National Quartet Convention, going on. They had to drastically cut that number and that’s a great event for our city,” Massey said.

Downey said the NQC usually brings about 10,000 visitors. Wear said that at this time, New Year’s Eve celebrations at The Island are up in the air. It’s The Island’s biggest sales day, but that also means it’s a bit crowded for COVID-19 standards. But, there several other events visitors can look forward to this Fall and Winter.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that we’re going to have a good Fall, as long as things, you know, things stay the same. We’ll have a good fall and winter….Smoky Mountain Winter Fest is a huge draw. The three cities put up 15 million lights. Dollywood 6 million winter lights, and you can tour those lights, you know, in your car and not have to be out of your car if you don’t want to,” Downey said.

As the revenue continues to climb back to last year’s totals, Wear is also optimistic for the upcoming seasons.

“My hope is we get to some kind of level of normalcy. I think, personally, from my business standpoint and the city standpoint, that we are almost there. Almost back to what 2019 was showing us, as far as numbers, and revenues, and jobs and people being able to make a paycheck and get back to work,” Wear said.

Massey said she knows at least one of her restaurants will most likely stay in the black this year, but she believes that as long as visitors feel safe, they will continue to come.

“We are, I’ve said it a million times, fortunate. Sevier County, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Sevierville. People are coming to us and we are getting to be a part of people’s memories,” Massey said.

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