Record attendance at Smoky Mountain Highland Games
By Robert Norris (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The first Smoky Mountain Highland Games at Maryville College set a record attendance over the weekend with about 6,000 people on campus for the event.
The organizers are happy, proud and more than a little relieved that the two the days of fun (by design) and sun (by luck) were such a success — but they weren’t surprised.
The two-day attendance doubled the largest crowd ever at the games in Gatlinburg — 2,500 to 2,700 people — where the event had been held for the previous 29 years.
Convinced that the event would grow if held on a larger site easier to drive to, a partnership of believers moved the games to Maryville College for 2010. The rest is highland games history.
Cliff Fitzsimmons, Smoky Mountain Highland Games president, said the games’ new primary partners, Maryville College and the city of Maryville, fueled that confidence. The college knew its facilities were up to handling a big crowd. The city knew how to put on a successful festival (Re: Foothills Fall Festival that draws upward of 70,000).
The Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce got on board, and the team was complete and ready to go for a record.
“We set up for a much larger crowd,” Fitzsimmons said. “We practically tripled the size of the entertainment tent. We doubled the size of the beer tent and doubled the size of the patrons tent. We had more tents for more activities.”
They also spent a lot more money on water and ice — the summer-like temperatures made that a necessity — but it was worth it.
“Financially, it was a success,” Fitzsimmons said. “My feeling is the college is happy, the city is happy and the chamber is happy.”
He knows that the people who’ve reached out to him since the games ended are glad they were there.
“I’ve had over 200 emails — all positive. Some people had some suggestions, though.”
Those suggestions will be hashed out starting in June when the team that put on the games gets together again to start planning for 2012.
Fitzsimmons already has some tweaks in mind, such as changing the direction of music from the entertainment tent so it doesn’t compete with the field announcers. Maybe use wireless speakers in places.
Most popular activities of the dozens offered? Based on the questions people had at the entrance gate, the sheep-herding dogs and the caber toss were top attractions. There was plenty of variety. Some people came mainly to see one band or to compete in one event. Most came to take it all in — and to take home memories.
“It’s worked out really well. I cannot say enough about the visitors bureau, chamber, city and college staff — all pitched in to make a very successful event. And the board of directors and council worked their tails off,” Fitzsimmons said.
Maryville City Manager Greg McClain said the city was “thrilled” by how the well games worked out.
“The city was very confident from the beginning that the partners would come together and would make it a successful outing this year.”
McClain said the Smoky Mountain Highland Games are a good seasonal fit for the city, which he said is capable of having one big event each quarter. The Foothills Fall Festival and Christmas in the City are in place for autumn and winter. The games fill in the spring slot.
“This is a good year to transition to get the games here,” McClain said. “It’s such a natural fit with the college.”
Real Fighting Scots
Vandy Kemp, Maryville College vice president and dean of students, couldn’t agree more.
“From the college’s standpoint, this has enabled us to have over 6,000 people on campus, many of whom had never been to the college. A lot of people were asking me, ‘What’s your college about?’”
Kemp described the games as a wholesome family event that attracted everyone from babies to great-grandparents. But even with the record crowd, the games had plenty of room and were never crowded.
“I had so many people who had never been to the games before say this is nice and they will come back. People who had been to other games, overwhelmingly said, ‘This is the best location we have ever seen.’”
The games also helps cement MC’s heritage with the people who study and teach on campus.
“It’s been real exciting in recent years to grow our Scottish identity. We have athletics, the Fighting Scots, and we tell people we were founded by a Scottish Presbyterian minister. This is just one other way for faculty and students to learn how we are this little Scottish-American school.”
Kemp said the joke around the games among the hard-core Scots on campus for the games is that “it’s redundant to call Scots the Fighting Scots.”
A Scottish Handly?
Herb Handly, executive vice president of the Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the games were an overwhelming success. He heard that rooms were hard to find at Alcoa and Townsend motels. That’s music to a tourism promoter’s ears. He was even tempted to sign up as a Scot, even though his ancestry is Irish.
Handly characterized the games as a cultural event that melds perfectly with the heritage tourism the visitors bureau is encouraging — and participants were eager to share their heritage.
“There were plenty of those guys to talk to. In fact at the gala event, Paul of the Monroe clan just came up and started talking to me. I told him, ‘I don’t think I’m Scottish.’ He said, ‘Well, we’ll sign you up anyway.’ They were, very outgoing and friendly.”
The visitor’s bureau plan to keep up the website created for the games, http://www.smokymountaingames.org . They’ll be adding photographs and video of the 2011 games over the course of the year and are inviting the clans to do the same.
“We are very serious about making this a premier event.”
Handly is confident the games will continue to grow.
“This thing will probably double in size next year.”
He plans to be part of that 2012 crowd.
“I expect to be there myself next year with my kilt on. I tried to find my name on roll. I know I’m Irish but ...”