In 1979, when I first started roaming the granite hallways of The Grove Park Inn (GPI), the Inn’s operating season reflected the tourism of the Asheville area. The Inn would open mid-April and close it’s doors during the first week of November. GPI employed 35 full time employees and had a seasonal staff of 250. These were the days when the room rate was $59 and that included breakfast and dinner. If you haven’t heard, the rates have since gone up.[dropcap]D[/dropcap]uring that first week of November, while the last fall leaves cling stubbornly to the trees, GPI was prepared for a long winter’s nap. Dust covers were draped over the furniture, water lines were shutdown and the Great Hall became a massive storage warehouse. The single company vehicle at that time, a blue Plymouth station wagon referred to as the “Blue Goose,” was parked in the center of the lobby with sheets of cardboard placed underneath the chassis to catch the never ending drip- drip of oil leaks.
The remaining full time staff would enter in a lobby side door during the winter months and slip to the offices located under the Great Hall. The only space that still had the luxury of heat during the winter. The lobby, now fulfilling its winter duty as a storage facility, took on an eerie cast. With the 1980 release of the movie “The Shining” it became downright spooky with everyone talking about how they expected a crazed caretaker to plow an axe through a door screaming, “Here’s Johnny.”
Like GPI, the rest of the area tourism businesses went into hibernation. The exception was Biltmore Estate, but this was before they began their now famous Christmas at Biltmore. Downtown Asheville did not go into hibernation during the winter; the empty streets and boarded up storefronts were a year round motif. Downtown was in a perceptual state of dormancy.
In 1984, two historic events occurred which began the slow long term December tourism thaw. The Biltmore Estate ramped its Christmas at Biltmore and, with the completion of the Sammons Wing, The Grove Park Inn began year round operations. In 1985, the two companies led a community wide Christmas Festival named “Light Up Your Holidays.” The Asheville holiday train slowly left the station and today it’s big business for the area tourism industry.
Hotel sales as reported by the Buncombe Country Tourism Development Authority for the period:
“You can see that November is virtually even with September and not far off from August! This also speaks to the smoothing of the seasonality in the Asheville area,” reports Marla Tambellini, Deputy Director Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau. An online search for downtown hotel room rates for weekends in December will quickly let you know that December is no longer an off-season.
As downtown Asheville puts on its holiday best, the thriving culinary scene throws open their doors welcoming all to come and make merry. Families getting together, friends sharing holiday cheer and that greatest holiday instructions of all- the Office Christmas Party. Phyllis Diller said it best, “What I don’t like about Office Christmas parties is having to look for a job the next day.” The holidays have become an important season for local restaurants.
“We used to have a slow period of five months during the winter,” states Jane Anderson, Executive Director of AIR (Asheville Independent Restaurants). “The holiday season has reduced that number down to three. The critical factor to sustaining our robust restaurant scene is the support of the locals through the winter months. The holidays, especially things like the Downtown Association’s Christmas parade, bring area residents into our restaurants and shops.”
Holiday visitors have the potential of becoming an annuity for tourism operators. Becoming a part of someone’s holiday tradition creates the potential of long-term repeat business. It is a great business model. During my years at GPI, I ran into countless guests who had made a weekend stay or special night out during the holiday season as one of their annual treasured traditions. The National Gingerbread House Competition became one of the true assets of GPI having become a holiday tradition for locals and out of town visitors alike. Looking back, I wonder if anyone remembers the original gingerbread house contest being drafted on the back of a cocktail napkin after the benefit of too many vodka-tonics.
During the holidays it’s difficult to think of downtown Asheville back in the ‘80s when the tumbleweed rolled on empty streets. In 2000, I was meeting with now NC State Senator Martin Nesbitt and then Representative Wilma Sherrill discussing how amazed we were with the boom in downtown. Senator Nesbitt said, “Who would have ever thought that people would be paying $300,000 to buy condos on Lexington Avenue, or that people would be going to the Fine Arts Theater and talking about it at church on Sunday.” If that last line did not make any sense to you, then you are definitely a part of the ‘new era’ Asheville.
Deck the halls and fill up the cash registers. The holidays have evolved into its own very strong self-standing tourism product, which has translated into more jobs and new tax revenue. The holidays have been responsible for helping take the seasonality out of the tourism season.