If you had to guess which was America’s most-visited national park, which would you choose? The Great Smoky Mountains National Park trumps bucket-list spots like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Yosemite, drawing in more visitors each year than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined and twice the hiking boots on the ground as the Grand Canyon.
The Smoky Mountains’ position as a top leisure destination, drawing more than 11 million visitors each year, makes it an ideal destination both for groups with mandatory meetings and conferences that need an attractive destination to boost attendance.
“Most meetings have better attendance [here than other locations], because people bring their families,” said Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism spokesperson Tom Adkinson. “There’s so much to see and do. A lot of groups come in for the events and stay a couple days to do sightseeing, and a lot of hotels extend the convention rate.”
Meeting attendees can either drive to the Smokies or fly into airports in Knoxville, Tennessee, or Asheville, North Carolina. Three well-equipped convention centers and all-ages attractions, from Dollywood to the Ripley’s Aquarium to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, make the trip more than worth it.
Largest Meeting Venues
When it opened in late 2013, the LeConte Center at Pigeon Forge, named for Mount LeConte in the Smoky Mountain range, dramatically changed the tourism landscape of the town and the greater Smoky Mountain area by nearly tripling the amount of meeting space available in Pigeon Forge. In its first year of operation, the 232,000-square-foot facility brought 25 new major events to town, along with an additional 250,000 visitors, many for events the city would not have been equipped to accommodate previously.
Located along the Little Pigeon River and the Riverwalk, within walking distance of Pigeon Forge’s Old Mill Historic District, the $50 million center can accommodate up to 12,000 but is only available for one group at a time, so smaller groups won’t feel squished in among other events. The main exhibit area features 100,500 square feet of open space with 17 adjacent breakout rooms.
The Sevierville Convention Center offers 200,000 square feet of meeting space surrounded by mountains, that can be seen from many meeting rooms and pre-function spaces thanks to the center’s copious windows. The exhibit hall, which can be broken into two spaces, features 108,245 square feet of space, while the 19,290-square-foot ballroom and 1,022-square-foot meeting room can also both be divided in half. The venue is also convenient to the Sevierville Golf Club, which includes two championship golf courses, the par-70 The Highlands and the par-72 The River, which winds along and across the Little Pigeon River.
In Gatlinburg, frequently called the Gateway to the Smokies as it’s the closest town to the national park, the Gatlinburg Convention Center’s 148,000 square feet of meeting space offers a major meeting venue in the heart of historic downtown, home to attractions that include a Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Ripley’s Aquarium, Space Needle and Guinness World Records Museum. Its primary exhibit space, the Great Hall, features 67,000 square feet with a ceiling height of 30 feet. It can be divided into three rooms for smaller events or accommodate up to 6,000 people when used as one contiguous space.
The convention center’s meeting space, known as the Convention Center Gallery, has 38,200 square feet of meeting space in 18 meeting rooms, two boardrooms and a VIP suite. Attached to the convention center, the W.L. Mills Conference Center, added in 2006, features 50,000 square feet of meeting space and includes a 17,000-square-foot ballroom.
Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort, honoring locally born music legend Dolly Parton. The resort features 6,000 square feet of indoor meeting space, more than 7,000 square feet of outdoor meeting space and more than 300 guest rooms and suites at the Dollywood Theme Park.
“Dollywood appeals to so many age groups,” said Adkinson. “It provides a theater venue for presentations, but then you can turn people loose into the park, learn crafts from a working craftsman, jump on a roller coaster or go to shows.”
This spring, the resort premiered the Lightning Rod, a $22 million roller coaster designed to be the fastest wooden coaster in the world. Pigeon Forge also features the Music Road Resort, with a 163-room hotel and 140-room inn along with a 14,000-square-foot convention center on the Little Pigeon River.
The Wilderness at the Smokies in Sevierville, with nearly 700 rooms, is a water park and resort with 4,100 square feet of meeting space and three types of lodging — hotel rooms in the lodge, an all-suites building and seven villas — adjacent to the Sevierville Convention Center. The resort also features Wild Waterdome, Tennessee’s largest indoor waterpark, the Lake Wilderness Outdoor Waterpark and the Salamander Springs Outdoor Waterpark.
In Gatlinburg, the Park Vista Doubletree offers more than 300 rooms and 25,000 square feet of meeting space, including a ballroom that can accommodate up to 950. The 205-room River Terrace Resort and Convention Center features 21,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 9,785-square-foot ballroom and 8,013-square-foot conference center. Gatlinburg’s Glenstone Lodge, slightly out of town in the woods, offers 214 rooms and seven suites along with 10,000 square feet of meeting space.
As the Smoky Mountains is a prime leisure destination, particularly for families, lodging units are not restricted to hotels, but include campgrounds, cabins, chalets and condos, making the region ideal for groups of any budget, especially smaller groups looking to collocate attendees into a few larger cabins or chalets.
“For small groups like a corporate retreat, we have cabins that can sleep 50 people with individual bedrooms and bathrooms,” said Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. Roughly half of the lodging units in the area are hotel rooms, while other styles make up the remainder of the area’s lodging units.