What Can Gatlinburg Area Businesses Learn From Mexico?

After enjoying a truly wonderful (and VERY much needed) vacation with my beautiful bride this week on the Mexican Riviera in the Playa del Carmen area south of Cancun, we are headed back home to Sevierville, TN today. Although we haven’t yet left the ground from the Cancun airport, I am now coming back into work mode and started thinking about the fact that I haven’t posted to this Gatlinburg real estate blog since very early in the month. Not only did we have a peaceful and very relaxing stay at the fabulous Iberostar Grand Paraiso resort, I did learn a little something that really does apply to Gatlinburg area vacation rentals and Smoky Mountain businesses in general.

There are several ingredients that go into creating a perfect lodging experience:
  • Location
  • Facility
  • Amenities
  • Condition
  • Staff
While all of these are important, I started to think about what really are the most important factors. Certainly a hotel or rental cabin has to be in a desirable location, convenient to attractions and easily accessible. While there are very noteworthy exceptions (the LeConte Lodge, accessible only by hiking at least 3 miles up the mountain immediately comes to mind!), a hotel/resort must be in a good location that makes access not too difficult. The Grand Paraiso resort certainly is in a very attractive location, just 20 minutes from the Cancun International Airport and the Cancun hotel zone OR the center of the shopping district in Playa del Carmen - Very convenient indeed! In our Smoky Mountain resort area, properties need to be no more than 20 minutes away from something (the National Park, Dollywood, downtown Gatlinburg, Sevierville outlet shopping) to be successful.

The facility itself can’t be too old or lacking in quality. With vacation rental properties, an older chalet or log cabin is at a distinct disadvantage because new or nearly new always trumps older. Although an older property can be kept attractive (see maintenance below), the public’s perception often is that an older property just won’t be as nice and this IS often the case. While the Grand Paraiso resort is not new, it is still new enough to be very appealing visually and is truly stunningly beautiful.

The amenities that a resort, hotel, or cabin/chalet offer are always key. In our market, a mountain view is the most important factor but there are others. Also key are hot tubs, pool tables, luxury baths including jetted indoor tubs, privacy, etc.

Condition is a huge factor and that is dependent upon age (see above) and even more so on the quality of maintenance. Visitor reviews are driven by all of the above factors but condition is certainly one of the major drivers of guest satisfaction which is KEY. In an internet age where guests can see the average of literally thousands of reviews for major properties, the overall satisfaction rating is not a fluke and cannot be influenced by one inaccurate or unreasonable review. The new traveler is much more often than not well informed about what guests’ experience has been and a poorly maintained property will be harshly punished in online reviews. Sadly, this is one of the areas that Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge lodging properties (both hotels and individual cabins/chalets) often fail. While a tired hotel/cabin/chalet with worn furniture may have still had success prior to the rise of the internet informed customer, this simply is no longer true.

Of all of the factors above, the single most important factor may actually be the staff. During our vacation, the staff at the Iberostar consistently were SO courteous and eager to please and this is where our Smoky Mountain businesses (not just the lodging attractions) can possibly stand to learn the most. The Iberostar staff’s willingness to please, despite a language barrier never ceased to amaze me. No request was ever an imposition and we were always treated so very kindly. From the cleaning crew’s hearty good morning, to the smiles from the hard working landscaping crew members, to the restaurant host/hostess and wait staff, to the front desk staff, they ALL were able to share a smile and seemed to be generally happy in their jobs.

When I contrast this with the bumper sticker I’ve seen around Gatlinburg that says “We’re Not All Here on Vacation!” I cringe. These obnoxious bumper stickers aren’t the only symptoms of an uncaring attitude toward Smoky Mountain vacationers by some employees and even some area businesses. Our guests are spending their very hard-earned vacation budget to relax, enjoy, and yes, to be catered to. I firmly believe that we can take a page from the Chick-fil-A employee manual and answer with “My pleasure” when asked to provide a service or when given a thank you by a guest (or client!). If an employer in a generally poor third world country like Mexico can train wonderful employee skills like those we consistently experienced this week, I have to believe that more Smoky Mountain businesses can do the same. As soon as I get back to work on Monday, I am going to re-double our own existing efforts to make sure that our Gatlinburg area real estate clients are ALWAYS catered to in just this fashion!


Collin Hays said…
"Penny wise, pound foolish."

As a vacation property manager, we see first hand the financial impact of deferred maintenance. One of our properties, we have already credit back over $1,500 this year to guests for major items that were in disrepair, but could likely be fixed for half of that amount.

But the REAL cost to the homeowners isn't the guest refunds; it's the future marketability of their property. In the age of the internet, unhappy guests can easily leave negative feedback regarding their experience. As these negative reviews accumulate, the financial damage in terms of future rentals is incalculable. It is very serious business.

Case in point: We had a homeowner purchase a VERY old home on Roaring Fork Road near downtown Gatlinburg in 2010. The place was completely run-down: Old, musty carpet, sagging mattresses, cheap furniture, and rusty appliances. Remarkably, the property was still earning almost $12,000 per year in rents for the previous 3 years.

The new homeowners opted to play up the fact that it was an old property (it is one of the oldest homes in Gatlinburg), which included the following:

- Rip up the carpet and refinish the hardwood floors
- Throw away ALL of the old furniture, and replace with high quality leather upholstery and functional antique pieces
- New hot tub
- New counters
- New appliances
- A flat screen TV discreetly hidden in an antique pie safe
- Various accessories that complemented the fact that this was a "historic" cabin (framed old maps, lantern lamps, and so on

The sum of the cost of the mini-renovation was about $20,000. But after re-naming the property and emphasizing the cabin's uniqueness, it was quickly achieving $25,000 per year in rents, and has been since 2011!

The moral of the story is that, regardless of age, CONDITION trumps all!

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