LAKE JUNALUSKA — Dealing with the changing times is part of the DNA for Lake Junaluska Assembly leaders.
Challenges have confronted those operating the Methodist conference and retreat center for more than 100 years, but re-envisioning its business model in the wake of a global pandemic is perhaps one of the largest.
The assembly, like many other overnight accommodations, shut down operations in March out of safety concerns and to comply with guidelines aimed at curbing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Restrictions have eased to partially open the door on tourism and retail shopping, but it became clear early on that the pandemic would temporarily transform the way Lake Junaluska Assembly operates, said Executive Director Ken Howle.
In a normal year, the conference and retreat center attracts 250,000 visitors, 50,000 of whom spend the night at accommodations on the sprawling campus, which includes two large hotels, apartments, vacation rentals, a campground and a host of recreational experiences.
Because mass gatherings are not yet allowed — and because many simply won’t feel safe attending them even if the rules change — Howle estimates 2020 losses at between $3 million and $4 million.
That’s despite adjustments made in late February when Assembly leaders understood there would need to be drastic changes to the traditional business model to deal with the imminent pandemic.
Even with tourism picking up locally, it hardly offsets the blow dealt to the traditional conference-based model that has been the hallmark of Lake Junaluska since it first opened in 1913 to serve the United Methodist churches in the southeast.
State limits currently cap mass gatherings at no more than 25 people in an outdoor setting, and at 10 for indoor settings. While church gatherings may have technically been an exception to the mass gathering guidelines, Howle said the Assembly chose the more cautious approach across the board.
“While it is difficult to predict the rest of the year, we currently anticipate that we will lose two-thirds of our normal group attendees,” Howle said.
That also means fewer people will be working at the Assembly. By June, the traditional workforce of 275 employees had decreased to 143. Government grants and loans, along with a rise in donations are helping the assembly move forward.
“The good news is, we’re still finding a way to be in ministry, adapt and keep people safe,” said Howle.
Part of the adaptation included shifting the focus to more outdoor activities — boat rentals, pool operations, golfing and room rentals to travelers as opposed to conference attendees. A new dining operation that jettisoned the traditional buffet model that had served the conference community for decades is also proving popular among both locals and guests.
“This is a major pivot,” Howle said, “one of the largest in the history of the organization.”
The marketing focus was two-pronged — to reach out to the people who previously visited the lake to entice them back, and to reach new customers flocking to the region where crowded urban areas with the traditional vacation draws might have lost their allure.
While the Lambuth Inn is still closed, the 105-room Terrace Hotel has opened and now features order-from-the-menu dining at The Bistro. Guests can eat indoors at appropriately distanced tables, or on the balcony where they overlook the mountains and Lake Junaluska.
“It’s one of the best, if not the best view, in Western North Carolina,” Howle said. “Where else can you see boaters, the mountains and eagles catching fish right on the lake?”
To serve Haywood residents who might want another dining option, The Terrace also offers order ahead takeout meals that residents can pick up in a drive-through line.
When the state first shut down to control the ripple effects of COVID-19, Howle and others in the tourism industry kept their eye on the future.
They predicted the hustle and bustle of big cities would lose their allure as the nation worked through the challenge of a pandemic. Instead, they reasoned, people would still want to take a vacation, but would be looking for more rural, outdoor settings to ease back into travel.
The prediction turned out to be spot-on. Howle recounted a conversation with a national forest warden who said he had never seen so many people looking for outdoor destinations. It is a trend that has helped the Assembly transition to serving overnight guests — and that has helped ease the loss of the conference business.
Another boost has come from increased local business to take advantage of the outdoor recreation and dining opportunities at the lake. Local support has also been key in another way — charitable giving, something Howle believes shows how much Haywood residents value all that Lake Junaluska has to offer.
“We’ve had a lot of locals renting boats, using the pool and eating in the restaurant,” Howle said. “There has been an outpouring of charitable giving. People know the importance of Lake Junaluska, and they want to support us as we navigate these uncharted waters.”
The transition away from buffet service at The Terrace had been contemplated even before the nation heard of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Howle said the move to open The Bistro has been popular with guests so far.
Derrick Robinson, the food manager at the Assembly, said the transition had its challenges, including finding the right menu items that will please the new customer base.
Since the soft opening late in June, Robinson said he had been working on a signature dessert — one that would tie in with the lake’s rich culinary history and fit today’s palette.
Choices included but weren’t limited to a hummingbird cake, a custard where the crust rises to the top and even the current menu item called “Better Than Chocolate Cake.”
Prices at The Terrace range from $5 to $12 and are similar to prices offered previously during the conference days. A special of the day — one that is available on the take-out menu, features a main dish, vegetable and roll for $10.
“We say we have a million dollar view, but not a million dollar menu,” Howle said.
This is not the first time that Lake Junaluska has faced challenges.
“Over the past 107 years, we have continued to be a place of enduring light and hope during two world wars, the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the Great Depression, bankruptcy (in the 1930s), 9/11 and the 2008 economic downturn,” Howle said. “We will overcome whatever challenges are ahead of us, and we will be stronger in the future.”