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Rethinking Retail: NOC’s Great Outpost inspires Gatlinburg tourists to explore the outdoors

More than 11 million people visit Gatlinburg, Tenn., each year, but less than half set foot in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The new Nantahala Outdoor Center store opening this spring in Gatlinburg hopes to change that.

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When Sutton Bacon, CEO of Nantahala Outdoor Center, first entered the basement of what is now NOC’s new Great Outpost store in Gatlinburg, Tenn., it looked like the creepy set of a horror film.

“There were still meat hooks hanging from the ceiling,” Sutton said, explaining that the building was once the Open Hearth restaurant, and before the structure was transformed into a retail store, the basement housed the butcher’s meat locker.

Now a gleaming space with white walls bathed in bright light, the cavernous basement holds not only offices, but also showers for employees biking to work and through-hikers trekking through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The upper levels of the massive 19,000-square-foot building now resemble a great park lodge — what Bacon calls “parkitecture” — with timber framing, walls of stone trimmed with bark, and even a great hearth and fireplace in the front lobby.

Scheduled for grand opening April 3, NOC’s Great Outpost ( promises to be a unique store for Gatlinburg, a tourist town overrun with T-shirt shops, pancake houses and other tacky fare. Housing a gear store, lounge areas, a climbing wall and a reservation station for outdoor trips, the Great Outpost is intended to renew visitors’ appreciation for the national park, and remind them that Gatlinburg’s greatest attraction is the great outdoors. (Pictured l-to-r: Lori Ennis, Woody Woodruff, Sutton Bacon)

Appealing to the masses

Each year, more than 11 million people visit Gatlinburg, however, only about 3.5 million people actually enter the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Great Outpost is positioned well to attract these park goers — it sits just a few yards from traffic light No. 10, a major gateway to the park. But the trick is to make the store appealing to the vast majority of tourists who are not inclined to hit the trails.

“It won’t be a traditional outdoor store,” Bacon told SNEWS® when we visited the Great Outpost as it was still under construction in January. “We’ll have some hardgoods, but we’ll have a lot of softgoods; we’ll have a lot of things that accentuate the area, like local crafts that will appeal to a broader demographic than just your hard-core outdoor enthusiasts. We don’t want it to be intimidating for the millions of people who come to Gatlinburg and don’t enter the park.”

A key aspect is that the store will have the feel of a destination, where people can spend part of their day. Visitors will be able to sit outside on a large, covered porch at the front of the building, or lounge before the front lobby’s massive fireplace and enjoy drinks and snacks. They will be able to scale routes ranging from 5.6 to 5.11 on the 25-foot climbing wall that extends from the first floor through an opening in the second floor, or walk across a rope bridge that spans the opening. There is even a small kids’ cave where youngsters can play.

“We’re trying to position this as something that’s as much an attraction as a retail destination,” said Bacon (pictured left). “There are a lot of attractions in Gatlinburg, and we want to be positioned as a place families can spend an afternoon.”

Like the large Bass Pro Shops stores, the Great Outpost will have turnstiles at the entryway. “We want to set the emotional state that you’re walking into something of value; it will be an experience,” said Bacon. “As you walk through the store, there will be kayaks, buses, bears, and all sorts of interesting things around every corner, so it’s an adventure walking around the store.”

A bridge to the outdoors

Because there will be separate entry and exit areas, there will be some control over the direction of traffic, and all store visitors will eventually walk through an area dubbed the Basecamp. In this modern-looking space with high-definition TVs, people can learn about activities in the park, or book an excursion through the many NOC concessions in the Smokies.

“We want to inspire people to go on outdoor trips,” Bacon told SNEWS. “We’ll offer a variety of trips in the Smoky Mountains, whether it’s whitewater rafting or fly-fishing, and be able to book right here in the store. This is an important part of our business model and a main reason we’re here.

“One issue with outdoor outfitting, certainly in a destination city like Gatlinburg, is that it’s a very fragmented marketplace,” he added. “There are lots of providers; lots of clutter in the marketplace. It’s hard to determine what’s appropriate, what’s safe.”

“This will provide a one-stop-shopping experience,” said Lori Ennis, general manager of NOC’s Great Outpost. In addition to booking activities, visitors can consult with store employees, many of whom will be locals who have expert knowledge about details of the park. Ennis said it helps that the store can draw from the large population of retired people who are active and even volunteer in park offices.

Bacon said that the knowledgeable staff and Basecamp services should work in tandem to raise awareness of all that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers, and help to break down barriers that prevent many of Gatlinburg’s visitors from exploring the outdoors.

“The outdoor industry could do a lot better job of breaking down the stereotypes about the outdoors being inaccessible or too difficult, dangerous or scary,” said Bacon. “We want to make this the easiest introduction to the outdoors as possible, and not overwhelm people or have an elitist attitude toward specialty retail.”

That’s not to say that the store will ignore hard-core outdoor enthusiasts, such as through-hikers. “They’re very important to us,” said Bacon, noting that the store will stock lightweight gear preferred by through-hikers, provide shuttles for hikers, handle mail drops, offer wireless Internet access and, as mentioned, provide showers. Shoppers will also find apparel and gear from top brands like Patagonia, The North Face, Mountain Hardwear and Columbia, which will have a concept shop within the store.

David Ogle, a real estate develop who owns the Great Outpost building, said that NOC’s emphasis on connecting people to the outdoors convinced him that this was the right business to replace the old restaurant.

“One thing that attracted us to NOC was we really felt like there was a great opportunity for a store that would really cater to the folks that travel to the park,” said Ogle. “We think this area is starving for this kind of retail, this quality level. Not your run-of-the-mill T-shirt store.”

Going green in Gatlinburg

Ogle said he was also intrigued by the idea that Bacon wanted to preserve the original building and create a facility that is LEED certified.

“We want to be a platform for education on how people can have a greener presence in the Smokies,” said Bacon. “Utilizing an existing building reduces the need for raw natural resources, as well as the related man hours, trucking and fabrication efforts.”

Because the building was 30 years old, NOC installed a highly efficient heating and cooling system, as well as low-flow faucets and toilets that will reduce water consumption by more than 30 percent.

“Also, much of the interior concrete block and finished wood was salvaged to be reused in the new facility,” said Bacon. “We will also be enhancing the natural daylight in the building to reduce electric lighting through the construction of new windows and skylights, and using recycled and locally sourced materials on a substantial amount of the building materials, such as the carpets, flooring, paints, coatings and finishes.”

Bacon said that the store’s fixtures were purchased second-hand from a large store in the region that was going out of business, and the cash/wrap counters are made with barn wood and roof tin reclaimed from an old barn in Sevier County, Tenn.

During tourist seasons, Gatlinburg streets are choked with traffic, and NOC wants to do its part to bring some relief. “We have formally tied the store into the local Gatlinburg public transportation system as an official stop on its trolley,” said Bacon. The Great Outpost will also provide bicycle storage, changing rooms and showers for employees who want to bike to work. “And we are setting aside premium parking spaces reserved for our guests with hybrid vehicles,” he said. The store will also divert more than 50 percent of construction waste from landfills through reuse or recycling.

In total, the cost of construction for the Great Outpost will be about $4 million, but considering its location, the store could prove to be a great investment. “If you look at sales trends in Gatlinburg and what other retailers are doing on a sales-per-square-foot basis, it’s astounding,” said Bacon. “We think it’s a substantial opportunity for us,” he said, noting that NOC’s other retail operations generate about $5 million, and the new store could easily exceed that figure.

Challenges still lie ahead

With all of the positives that the Great Outpost will bring, you’d think that any manufacturer would jump at the change to get its products on the store’s shelves. But Bacon admitted that some vendors have been skeptical about coming onboard. “They question whether Gatlinburg is the most lucrative market for specialty outdoor,” he said. “They wonder, is the Gatlinburg demographic the same demographic that frequents outdoor stores?”

As with the tourists, it’s a matter of convincing people to entertain new possibilities. Sort of like standing in a butcher’s locker and imagining something other than meat hooks. “If we are successful here,” said Bacon, “it will be a great platform for breaking down barriers.”

Click here to see a Youtube video of the store under construction.

–Marcus Woolf