Enjoying the incalculable benefits of Great Smoky Mountains National Park—the most visited stop in the U.S. park system, with more than twice as many visitors as the Grand Canyon, no less—Gatlinburg, Tenn., is a “natural” when it comes to meeting destination options.
Contrasting and complementing the 816-square-mile natural expanse just beyond city limits—Gatlinburg offers three entrances to the park—the town offers a quaint, compact and easy-to-navigate attendee experience.
“We are a small mountain town surrounded on three sides by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” says Vicki Simms, executive director of the Gatlinburg CVB. “We have 16,000 rooms and we’re a walking town, so when you get to Gatlinburg, the lodging choices are off the charts, from lodges to hotels. We have hotels that your attendees can park their cars at and never leave.”
This walkability extends to the Gatlinburg Convention Center, a 140,000-square-foot facility with a Grand Hall that holds up to 6,000. The convention center is within a short stroll of several hotels, and restaurants offering everything from seafood to comfort foods like corn dogs and funnel cakes.
And while strolling about, visitors can also experience the Appalachian small-town charm Gatlinburg prides itself on.
“Part of the charm of Gatlinburg, being a walking town, is that during Christmas and in summer, during Smoky Mountain Tunes and Tales, we have street entertainers such as storytellers, old-timey craftsmen and bands that all personify the Appalachian culture,” Simms says. “And in the evenings in the summertime they stroll. That really brings to life what makes Gatlinburg charming and brings to life the history of Gatlinburg.”
During Smoky Mountain Tunes and Tales, which has been going on for a decade, visitors can walk up on a lady quilting, or perhaps “Spinning Selma,” who spins lambs’ wool into thread, or see a local craftsperson make a rag doll. Other performers include the humorist Wiley Oakley, along with dulcimer players, bluegrass and folk musicians, and cloggers.
Shopping is also a popular diversion for attendees, who can saunter past some 400 specialty shops, boutiques and galleries.
For attendees that don’t want to hoof it, the town’s transit system offers an easy alternative to expending shoe leather to get to and from hotels and convening facilities.
“Gatlinburg has the fifth-largest mass transit system in the state of Tennessee,” Simms says. “The trolley system services a lot of the hotels and the convention center, so if you don’t want to walk you can just hop on the trolley.”
Although there’s plenty to keep attendees entertained in town, groups don’t want to pass up a chance to venture into Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“You can take a motor tour on the Roaring Fork Nature Trail, walk into the park to the Sugarland Visitors Center, or you can schedule a group outing with A Walk in the Woods nature guide service,” Simms offers, adding that planners should impress upon attendees the need to come equipped with the right footwear and clothing.
For groups that really want to dip into mountain culture—but may want to limit themselves to a small dip—various moonshine distilleries can provide a fiery sample of the region’s traditional elixir.
Now that will add some fire to any Smokies visit!
5 Fantastic Off-SITEs
Ober Gatlinburg Amusement Park and Ski Area
Take your group above it all for a jaw-dropping view of the Smokies departing straight from downtown Gatlinburg. The two-mile ride delivers attendees to the amusement park and ski area, where they can access thrills such as an alpine slide through the woods or a two-person chairlift ride to drink in the scenery. Other features include opportunities to see bears, river otters, bobcats and more at the Wildlife Encounter, year-round ice-skating, a carousel and other indoor and outdoor attractions.
Ole Smoky Distillery
With locations in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, this “moonshine” distillery celebrates the Appalachian culture’s craft and tradition of brewing “white lightning.” The first federally licensed distillery in East Tennessee’s varieties include Original Unaged Corn Whiskey, White Lightnin’, Moonshine Cherries, Blackberry, Apple Pie, Strawberry, Peach and Lemon Drop.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
What would be cuter than following up an aquarium visit with a 30-minute interaction with an African Penguin accompanied by a biologist who shares information about the endangered bird? Groups can also utilize the Jules Verne events room, which has its own dedicated aquarium, and arrange for banquet and catering services that range from hors d’oeuvres to sit-down meals for groups from 20 to 600. The facility also offers audiovisual services and has a staff of event planners.
Sugarland offers daily tours and free wine tastings, and the requisite amount of wine and wine-related gift-buying opportunities. The venue also boasts a variety of monthly events, such as Wine on the Lawn, pairings of painting with wine, and charity events. Located at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Sugarland could be an ideal stop before entering the most-visited national park in the U.S.
Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre
Entering its 39th season and hearkening back to the grand music halls of the 1890s, this old-timey attraction that seats 160 could add a whimsical touch to the entertainment portion of a program. The theater offers two types of shows: Once Upon a Trunk and a skit show named Kerfuffle Follies. It also stages a new Christmas show every year. A group rate of $19.95 is available and free tour bus parking is offered.