COVID-19 had a direct impact on Loudon County tourism in 2020, but there is hope the new year could provide a rebound.

Rachel Harrell, Loudon County Visitors Bureau executive director, was shocked at the strength of hotel occupancy despite the pandemic.

“Overall, for 2020, as compared to 2019, we were, for the whole year, only down about 13%,” Harrell said. “That is unbelievable. It’s awesome. It’s not awesome how it was, how it happened and that all of our friends had less business. But compared to a lot of other areas, we’re so blessed to be near the interstate. People are more confident in their travel, and then just being so close to the Smoky Mountains and that’s where people were really looking to go.”

Harrell said traffic also came from people scouting the county as a retirement destination. That pleasant surprise helped compensate for reductions in business travel, including corporate meetings and conferences.

“That did affect our friends down at The Venue (at Lenoir City) greatly,” Harrell said. “Therefore, the hotels because they didn’t have the businesses, too. Unfortunately, until consumer confidence comes back and people feel safe traveling, business travel will probably look very different. It will be very virtual. It may still after the vaccine, after everyone gets vaccinated, but I think people are eager to travel.”

Seeing a united front locally gave Harrell hope during the year. Residents supported small businesses and helped keep them afloat.

Some of the lowest points of the year happened in April, May and June, when everything “was really starting to shut down,” she said.

The hospitality segment — restaurants, hotels, venues and attractions — was hit the hardest, she said.

Harrell hopes for tourism to make a comeback in 2021.

“We’re doing some different marketing projects with our tourism marketing grant that we get from the state of Tennessee,” Harrell said. “We’re going to be doing a Pinterest campaign, and that is not something where we’ve put any money into before. We’re going to focus on food. We’ll talk about the top 10 places to eat in Loudon County. I’m very excited about that, getting that put together.

“We’re also going to try some advertising on Waze,” she added. “I didn’t know that you could do that. When people are using Waze — it won’t be directed at the visitor that’s 300 miles away still. It’ll be someone more so is getting off and looking for things to do. When they get nearby, that ad will pop up and allow them to explore. It’ll be seasonal according to what season it is.”

Diversity in tourism helped the county during the pandemic.

“We were just so fortunate that we were not as down as we could’ve been and because we’re so well-rounded — we’re not totally focused or totally dependent upon a specific type of tourism — that helps us be able to sustain,” Harrell said. “Definitely looking forward to having a better 2021.”

Sarah Linginfelter, co-owner of Dead Man’s Farm, said the Halloween attraction fared well, all things considered, in 2020. The business saw about a 20% increase over 2019.

“We were not expecting that because of COVID,” Linginfelter said. “However, we opened a second attraction with a haunted corn maze, and we think that that helped contribute to some of the success we had because it was outdoors. People didn’t feel as hesitant to participate in an outside event.”

Linginfelter was glad to see the increase because she understands attractions like the farm are vital to the county.

“I think we provide a benefit to the community, not just because of the sales tax dollars we bring in, but because there aren’t a lot of events like that for teenagers who are looking for something to do,” she said. “We don’t allow any kind of drugs or alcohol. We have a safe environment that even middle-schoolers can be dropped off. We have off-duty police officers for safety. It’s a safe event for teenagers and young adults.”

Jenny Bradford, general manager of Tennessee Valley Winery, did not see the same success.

She said “2020 was super hard for the winery just with the laws with bars and things like that. We’re not really classified as a bar but there’s a gray area in Tennessee as far as wineries go because we don’t serve food, but we serve alcohol. We did technically have to close our doors in March and we didn’t get to reopen until early September, so that was a huge hit of course on our fiscal year.”

The winery tried to adapt by fulfilling shipping orders, but that is not the same as delivering the full experience to visitors, Bradford said.

“We get a lot of business from people that are traveling to other places,” she said. “We get a lot of people off the interstate. They find us, and they find Loudon County, and they’re able to appreciate other things about Loudon County. We send a lot of people to other small businesses.”

Preparing for 2021 is “not an easy task,” Harrell said.

“You still want people to keep Loudon County top of mind, but how do you do that and let them know that it’s still safe?” she said. “That’s what you just have to keep driving, that we are open, and that we’re a safe place to travel to. Our hotels have cleanliness precautions in place, restaurants are social distancing and taking temperatures, all of the things that visitors want to know that will make it a safe experience.”