4/7/2011 - Hot tourist spots find ways for guests to lengthen stays
by Clayton Hensley
Asheville is home to the largest private residence in the United States, The Biltmore Estate. Bringing visitors from all over the world, this enchanting home of George Washington Vanderbilt is one of the regions largest tourist attractions. There is a reason the Vanderbilt's chose Asheville as there oasis. If you are looking for the same, you may want to act accordingly. - Ben Falcon
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - Regal architecture, splendidly appointed interiors and gardens, and a panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains make it difficult to leave the Biltmore Estate. But a decade ago visitors couldn't find such accommodations on the estate because they had to leave before the gates closed.
Then the Inn on Biltmore Estate opened in March 2001. It's part of a trend among area attractions to increase visitor stays.
There are 211 rooms at the inn with 11 room types to accommodate a variety of lodgers. The inn's amenities include a full-service spa, formal dining and a library near the lobby where guests sit by the fireplace and read.
"Through the years, guests asked 'can we stay in Biltmore?'" said LeAnn Donnelly, Biltmore spokeswoman. "In 2001, we opened the inn so our guests are able to do that."
George Washington Vanderbilt II envisioned Biltmore as a self-sustaining estate when it was built between 1889 and 1895. It's the largest privately owned home in the United States, with 250 rooms over 135,000 square feet sitting on 8,000 acres.
"Every decision that's made on behalf of the business kind of comes through that funnel," Donnelly said. Biltmore remains a privately owned company, run by descendants of George Vanderbilt.
Just down the hill from the inn is the recently opened Antler Hill Village. Built on the site where Biltmore Estate workers lived, the addition offers visitors a variety of ways to spend their time and money. With several restaurants, an outdoor center, the Biltmore Winery and a museum, Antler Hill creates new opportunities for tourists and for estate revenue.
The goal appears to be working. There are now 70,000 12-month Biltmore passholders, and Donnelly said guests at the inn stay an average of two nights. Tickets to the mansion are included with the stay along with access to other estate areas.
"I think it makes good business sense," Donnelly said. "It was a natural extension of our business."
Biltmore attracts about 1 million visitors each year, creating an economic impact that includes nearly 2,000 jobs on the estate.
Dollywood resort plans
On the other side of the Smokies, Tennessee's top private attraction continues to grow.
When Bill Doyle, president of Dollywood's Resort Division, joined the theme park in September 2008, park leaders already had started planning for a resort hotel.
"We quickly had to shift plans and put things on hold when the economic downturn began," Doyle said.
Despite the setback, Dollywood continues the evolution toward becoming a full-fledged resort. For years, the park has offered package stays in conjunction with several area hotels.
A couple of years ago, the park launched another lodging option called Dollywood Vacations.
"We always thought at some point that 65 percent of visitors spent the night in the area," Doyle said. "We wanted to apply the brand to that somehow."
The park partnered with a cabin management company to provide Dollywood Vacations.
There currently are 80 cabins in the Dollywood Vacations inventory with plans to expand.
"It was really a unique opportunity," Doyle said, adding that the program also is about value. "You pay for one ticket (to Dollywood) that's good as many days as you stay. It's been very, very popular."
Other perks include preferred parking at the park and occasional offers like free tickets to Dollywood's Splash Country.
"Right now there aren't a lot of bricks and mortar," Doyle said. However, he noted that plans for building the resort hotel are still in the works.
"We want folks to know that's part of our plan. It's all about timing," he said.
According to Steve Morse, director and economist at the University of Tennessee's Tourism Institute, the state hasn't had many attractions transform into resorts. However, he points to a Sevierville development that began as an "under-one-roof" resort.
Morse said Wilderness at the Smokies off Highway 66 has been successful as a destination where visitors can eat, sleep and play under one "check-in."
Morse also pointed out that Wilderness at the Smokies is next to Sevierville's new exhibition center.
"Some of the recent trends is to mix in a leisure trip with your family with a business trip," he said. "Wilderness Resorts and Dollywood Resorts and Vacations offer these opportunities."
When attractions move into the resort business, there often are fears that competition will hurt existing businesses. Morse said that isn't necessarily true. The 128-room Inn on the River in Pigeon Forge partners with Dollywood, Ripley's Aquarium and other area attractions.
"The winner with this increased competition is the consumer that has more vacation packages budget-priced rather than buying them separately." Morse said. "Visitors choosing destinations on where to spend their vacation dollars are wanting value for their vacation dollar during the recession."
With smaller budgets and rising costs, Morse said most tourists apply a "four times rule" when picking where to vacation. In general, that means visitors will choose to spend money at resorts and destinations they feel have enough activities and events to keep them busy for "four times" longer than it took them to drive to the resort.
In Cherokee, N.C., Harrah's Casino and Hotel wants to cash in on the resort trend, too. For this attraction, the stakes couldn't get much higher. Over the next few months, Harrah's will put the final touches on a $650 million expansion.
"When we started in '97, it was very gaming centric," said Darold Londo, general manager of Harrah's Cherokee. "It's a solid, safe place to start when you don't know what your market potential is."
Londo said 3.5 million people visit Harrah's each year, and on the weekends as many as 28,000 visitors play the slots, eat in the restaurants and stay in the hotel. The Cherokee Indian Reservation attraction has added an events center, a new hotel tower with 532 rooms, new restaurants like Paula Deen's Kitchen, golfing at Sequoyah National and nearly 100,000 square feet of new gaming space. A full-service spa also is part of the plan.
"All these venues, these amenities are expected to be experiences unto themselves," Londo said. "I know a decision was made early to broaden the appeal, not just to our previous gaming customer, but to become attractive to somebody who wasn't necessarily a gaming customer."
In 2009, Harrah's Cherokee made another big change. Following a tribal referendum, the casino and hotel began selling alcoholic beverages, a staple of casinos around the world.
"We were very successful without it," Londo said. "I think it will prove to be the most significant move for the resort."
Without the change, Londo added that restaurants like Paula Deen's might not have chosen to locate at Harrah's. Plans call for opening a Brio Tuscan Grille and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in the coming year.
Harrah's expansion should be finished by 2012, and the tourist destination will then be more than a casino.
"We will end the transition into a resort by the end of 2011," Londo said. "We will refer to ourselves as a resort by 2012."
Clayton Hensley is a freelance contributor to the News Sentinel.