Great Smoky Mountain Hot Air Balloon Festival

The Great Smoky Mountains Hot Air Balloon Festival, held each August at the Townsend Visitors Center, was canceled this year because of COVID-19.

As far as COVID-19 challenges go, the Blount Partnership has been presented with an arduous one: how to promote Blount County as a tourist destination with no tentpole events?

The spring and fall festivals in Townsend … the Great Smoky Mountains Hot Air Balloon Festival … Summer on Broadway … one by one, they fell like dominoes as the pandemic stretched from March into summer and is now encroaching on the fall. For the economic and tourism stewards of the local chamber of commerce, it’s been nerve-wracking, to say the least.

“As we were going through this whole year, we tried to hold off as long as we could before making a final decision in canceling these things,” Jeff Muir, communications director with Blount Partnership, told The Daily Times this week. “We tried to make sure people were notified well in advance — six to eight weeks — and even then, we studied the state guidelines handed down through Tennessee Pledge and tried to figure out a way to do masked gatherings. But pretty early on, we realized it just wasn’t going to be feasible to put on those events.”

While those annual events — some of which were produced by Blount Partnership, some with the organization as a presenting sponsor — may have fallen victim to COVID-19, that doesn’t mean, however, that Muir and his peers have had nothing to do. If anything, he added, Blount County has seen something of a COVID-19 boost in terms of tourism, especially as summer dawned and airline travel nosedived.

“We’ve done a great job of really promoting this area as a place to come visit, especially with not a lot of people traveling via airline,” he said. “Everybody took a hit in March and April, and even the first few weeks of May, but the hotel and motel tax numbers for June — which is what we base all of our findings on to determine how tourism is going — was only off by about $1,000 from June 2019. That tells us that people were coming to visit Cades Cove, the national park and staying in Townsend.

“Normally during the summer, a lot of the campgrounds and RV parks are packed on the weekends, but this summer, they’ve been packed during the week. There have been solid reservations, and businesses are doing fairly well from a tourism standpoint, even if we aren’t having these events. People are wanting to get out, and we’re expecting that to continue through the rest of the year, especially when the fall colors hit in the next five or six weeks.”

October is traditionally the peak month for tourists to the “peaceful side of the Smokies,” as Townsend brands itself, which is when the leaves change in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the adjacent foothills. Autumn will also feature the only partnership-sponsored event taking place for the rest of 2020: the annual Grains and Grits Festival, put on in conjunction with the Tennessee Distillers Guild, scheduled for Nov. 7 at the Townsend Visitors Center.

“It’s still a go, but we’re selling a limited number of tickets, because we can do a lot of social distancing out in the yard and in the field,” Muir said. “That’s kind of been our one event that we feel like we can pull off with proper social distancing and follow all the guidelines to get it done.”

As of now, Muir said, partnership officials are moving forward with plans for all events to continue as planned for 2021. Fluctuating COVID-19 numbers may change those things, but “we can’t stand still, stand on the sidelines and wait to see what happens,” he added.

As it stands, the cancellation of this year’s events — combined with festival and event cancellations across the country — presents a whole other challenge for 2021: Will vendors who show up annually weather the economic storm of a year without festival income?

“For all of our events, we bring in outside mom-and-pop vendors, and a lot of those people, that’s how they make their living during the summer, by going to these festivals,” Muir said. “A lot of those people will be taking a hit because there hasn’t been a place for them to display their wares and make their sales. Hopefully next year, when we can build these events back up, we’ll still have a pool of those people to draw from, but if they can’t make their money to operate this year, how will they operate next year?

“Next year is going to offer a lot of problems, too, in how we draw those vendors and from where. We’ll have to be more resourceful in finding them, and it just goes to show that when you start digging a little deeper below the surface of this pandemic, how many hurdles we’re going to have to overcome in putting on those events next year.”

Right now, it’s one hurdle at a time. The Grains and Grits Festival will be a good test run, and the partnership will keep a close eye on mass gatherings as the fall and winter progress, particularly events like college and professional football games. Their success may well determine the best path forward for festivals and events to return to Blount County in 2021, Muir said.

“We just want to make sure we have the right protocols in place to make people feel safe,” he said. “We always want to make people feel safe, but this is the world we live in now, and this is an extra step we’ll have to take to make sure we do our due diligence and that people are aware of it. We’re all learning as we’re going along, and from our standpoint as the partnership and the chamber, we’re going to abide by the Tennessee Pledge guidelines, and when that gets updated and changed, we’ll update and change with it.”

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