Expert insights from Michele Canney of Anakeesta, an outdoor, nature-centric theme park nestled in 70 acres of forestland in the heart of downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Anakeesta is a unique park in the Smoky Mountains that features treetop skywalks and world-class vistas, gardens, a mountain coaster, Chondola and Rambler rides, as well as a zip line, and dining and retail offerings. During our conversation, Michele Canney, VP of Marketing/Sales, shared how maintaining a growth mindset can help not only in reopening, but also in preparation for an impressive and successful future. Here’s what Michele had to say.

No. 1: Focus on what’s most important.

Canney: We reopened on May 21st with Phase One in Tennessee. It was important to share how much we care about the health and safety of our guests and staff and to communicate that to our audience. We added a pop-up overlay with a health and safety message to which shares our new procedures for cleaning and also surrounding health checks like daily temperature screening for team members. We also added questions to our park’s Terms of Agreement to help guests gauge their own health and encourage anyone feeling unwell to remain home.

While we were closed, we also needed to stay in touch with our staff.  Our HR department did a great job staying connected and was in pretty constant contact with the team, keeping them updated on how things were going. We set up a web page just for staff so they could get important information and updates. One of the things we’ve been working on this year is a $6.5 million dollar park expansion, and we were able to bring back team members early, utilizing PPP monies, offering them positions to help us during the construction process. It was a great way to keep them involved with the company. Working together, in positions that may have been out of an area of expertise, really showed us all that we are a family.

No. 2: Reimagine your business’ unique needs.

Canney: Like other businesses, we had to change the way we sell admission tickets and manage capacity. We also wanted to focus on reducing lines. To do that we implemented a new timed capacity ticket that we sell online for admission to the park, now called our Express Pass.

In the past, visitors purchased a ticket online or onsite and then moved into a line to ride a Chondola up to Firefly Village and the rest of the park. Now, guests visit our webstore for an Express Pass and choose the date and time they want to visit. When they arrive, they skip the ticket booth and go straight to a special Express Pass Lane at the Chondola entrance. Similar to a TSA precheck line, this allows our guests to load onto the lift and ride to the summit in a shorter, expedited line. This has been great because it’s helped us not only reduce wait times but also spread capacity more evenly throughout the park’s hours of operation. From the public’s perspective, they’re waiting in fewer lines and coming into contact with fewer crowds. We’re going to keep the Express Pass going forward.

Cliff Top Grill and Bar at AnakeestaOur restaurant, the Cliff Top Grill & Bar was previously a quick-serve restaurant where guests ordered at the counter, received a number and runners brought their meals out to their tables. Since reopening, we have eliminated this line entirely by converting to a full-service restaurant approach. Upon entering the open-air restaurant, hosts either show guests to available seating or take their phone number and text them when their table is available.

No. 3: Strengthen your brand identity.

Canney: Our mascot is Sasquatch, and he’s an important part of our park’s identity. With all of the new procedures and guidelines for social distancing, we knew that we needed to make Sasquatch a part of all that. When we first reopened, we had Sasquatch down at the park entrance demonstrating social distancing spacing, and we made custom signage to use throughout the park, such as Sasquatch footprints to measure out six feet, among other things, to communicate new guidelines. We’ve been having a lot of fun with it.

No. 4: Go above and beyond.

Canney: We knew that communication was a critical part of reopening successfully. In addition to our website language and in-park signage, we have also added QR codes to signage to give guests even more control over their experience. For example, in the restaurant, guests can choose to receive a physical menu or scan a QR code to see the menu on their personal phones.

We also encourage guests to scan a QR code to see and complete their online liability waiver on their phones in case they didn’t complete it on our website before arriving at the park. This reduces lines at waiver stations as well as high touches on equipment.

No. 5: Look to the future.

TreeVenture at AnakeestaCanney: We are focused on moving forward past the short term. I mentioned our expansion, and we’ve just completed the first phase, our TreeVenture Challenge course. This new attraction features three whimsically designed treehouses connected via netted tunnels where guests complete a physical challenge to get to the next area of the structure.

Coming July 8th, we’re opening the AnaVista Tower, which will provide 360-degree views from the highest point in downtown Gatlinburg. Phase three in the fall will offer guests another restaurant and double the dining capacity, additional restrooms, more retail offerings, and bring even more value to our Anakeesta experience.

Overall, our expansion is a direct result of listening to what our guests want and need. It’s an exciting time at Anakeesta. So my advice for others would be to follow the guidelines of your state and be ready to exceed the expectations of your guests and community.

Thanks, Michele Canney and the rest of the team at Anakeesta, for showing us how important a growth mindset is to preparing for a successful reopening and future, and for sharing your insights with us. Check out their progress at Anakeesta, or follow them Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or any of their other social media channels. 

*Photos provided by Anakeesta. 

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