The 200-acre site is off Interstate 40, at the gateway to the Smoky Mountains, in Tennessee.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has purchased the land for the project through its Kituwah LLC economic development agency. The site which will be developed as a major experiential tourist destination themed around the classic American road trip.
Matthew Cross of Knoxville-based OE Experiences, the company retained to identify the best use of the land and seek development partners, discussed the project with blooloop, in company with Cliff Warner, chairman of entertainment development company Mycotoo.
Outlining the background, Cross says:
“Kituwah LLC was created recently as a business development entity. It serves as a diversification vehicle for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians away from gaming revenue.
“They purchased the 200 acres that we’re now working on, together with Mycotoo. We are embracing new opportunities and leveraging the combined team’s expertise on an exciting development.”
Kituwah and OE Experiences
In April this year, Kituwah sent out an RFP looking for project managers to help them with developing the site and managing the concept process. OE Experiences bid on that project.
“I have a long-standing relationship to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,” Cross says. “I worked at their casino, and there are many great leaders in their community who I have been able to meet over the years. They are ambitious and are seeking ways to expand their economy. I’m honoured to be helping them.”
“We won the contract, and we proposed an experiential attraction. It was very important that we go find the best and brightest to help deliver on that experiential ask. That was where Mycotoo came into the picture.”
A unique background
A key component of OE Experiences’ winning bid is their unique background in both finance, and entertainment.
Founding Partner and CFO Lewis Frazer, formerly CFO of Regal Cinemas, has been party to multi-billion dollar transactions from each side of the table. “We love this industry’s energy and creativity. It’s an optimistic group. We bring a different lens to creative projects being focused on the business case and thinking like our clients. We can represent Kituwah and augment their expertise.”
Cross met Cliff Warner at the IAAPA Leadership Summit in March of 2020. He says:
“It was the week that COVID hit, and Disneyland closed. We were actually at Disneyland together the day before they announced their closure. The circumstances of our meeting were surreal. We connected immediately and were quickly comparing our worldviews and histories.
“Mycotoo was a qualified bidder when we sent out an RFP looking for the right firm to partner with as creative lead. They had the experience, the world view and the skills that we felt the project needed.”
Mycotoo joins the project
Mycotoo came on board in June, leading a creative charrette process with Kituwah and a broad team assembled by OE Experiences. This team includes a local architect, local civil engineer, and a government relations team.
An exciting new adventure begins! https://t.co/YyD24Q2L5x
— mycotoo (@mycotoo) November 12, 2020
“It was a diverse team to represent all the interests and perspectives that the project would have,” says Cross. “Mycotoo led that creative process, and delivered the vision that was revealed at our recent ground-breaking ceremony.”
The importance of a quality guest experience
Cliff Warner adds his perspective:
“For Mycotoo, it is always important, when we are approaching an entertainment destination, that we make sure there’s a great guest experience from the moment you pull off the highway.
“We love immersive entertainment. So, for us, it is about identifying then creating an environment that feels true to the area. One that the guests can relate to and that remains true to the client’s vision.
“It was nice to have this first work session with the team that OE built because it included local stakeholders who knew the area. This location is wonderful. It’s the first stop off from the I-40 to head into the Smokies. That includes passing through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. These are towns that get huge numbers of tourists every year.
“Dollywood is part of that. Literally across the highway is Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, which is another phenomenon. That is a retail development that attracts millions of visitors every year. Being in the right neighbourhood makes it easier for us to be successful.”
Finding the right story
Finding the right story to tell was a balancing act, Warner explains:
“It had to be the right story for this region, and for the customers that we’re trying to attract. We wanted to come up with something that also might attract some of the customers who would usually drive past without stopping. People that aren’t pulling off to go to Dollywood.”
“It was exciting to explore how we can create a story that people can connect to emotionally, but also which isn’t already being done down the road. There is so much entertainment in that sector.
“We had to figure out how to take it a step up, but not go so far up that we don’t belong; that we’re not part of the neighbourhood.”
There have been precedents for success in the region:
“Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort showed that a destination resort can be very successful. Though some doubted it would be. That means a step-up of entertainment can happen, and I think we’re looking at taking it a step further.”
The enduring appeal of roadside attractions
“When we went down this path, we learned a lot from the local users of the region who were in the brainstorming session. It gave us a real insight into who the customer is,” says Warner.
“We started looking at some stories. What rose to the top of our day of brainstorming was the celebration of the roadside attraction. Everybody had some emotional connection to their hometown or a family trip connection to a roadside attraction.
What rose to the top of our day of brainstorming was the celebration of the roadside attraction
“I grew up in Los Angeles, and for my family, every stop started in Las Vegas, so I thought Las Vegas was a roadside attraction. Everybody had something that they pointed to. Whether it was the giant taco at a Fiesta stop, or a giant dinosaur at the side of the road. Because it seems like every other state has one.
“If you think about going down to Orlando, you know Orange Blossom Rd was the big roadside attractions Boulevard, with a giant orange to stop and buy Florida oranges. There’s the alligator farm, where you can go see alligators. Everybody had memories of those sorts of things.
“So we thought, why don’t we just celebrate those icons as a visual storytelling piece?”
“And then, of course, there is the super candy experience: what is the next level of a good sugar experience? I think we’re going to be exploring that over the next couple months, too. Making sure that one of our anchors is how we sugar up the kids before they go in the next part of the trip.”
“Sorry, parents,” Cross adds. “But the good news is the long road trip is already behind them by the time they get here.”
The first phase’s programming
“In looking at the birdseye rendering you can see the major elements of what this property will offer,” Cross says of the recently released imagery provided by Mycotoo for the ground-breaking ceremony.
The property will include a travel and convenience centre with over 100 gas pumps, a dedicated event facility for seasonal entertainment programming, an “Over-the-top” sugar experience, walkable retail and attraction areas, a travel hotel and an authentic southern restaurant.
Improving the travel hotel
One conversation in progress is about improving the travel experience hotel, incorporating an experiential element. It will fit into the road-trip theme, says Warner.
We can find a way to blend all these different areas of roadside attractions and themes as part of our story
“Our plan is to have this Main Street that makes you think about the old roadside attractions that can go from the era of the 50s through today. We don’t have to stick to one era, which is nice. We can find a way to blend all these different areas of roadside attractions and themes as part of our story and part of our environment.”
A new approach to the development of mixed-use property
In terms of differentiation, Cross adds:
“Part of OE Experiences’ perspective [is formed by the fact that] my business partner and I are both former finance professionals. When we started OE Experiences, our goal was to embrace the concepts of what the experience economy offers.
“The differentiation of these high-fidelity, transformative moments that can happen within a property and that, if they’re properly executed, deliver an excess return.
“Firms like Mycotoo deliver the ‘How’. We are setting that goal of needing high-quality outputs for the guest experience to be differentiated. When I look at development across the entire United States, developers now are challenged by giving people a reason to be physical. Why is this business located here? Why do I go visit it?
“It’s an ongoing battle between your in-home and your out-of-home entertainment. COVID has accelerated a lot of those competitive pressures. I think markets like this one, these regional driveable markets – which is, again, a tie-in to that road trip philosophy and design package – these regional markets serve as the best competitive location right now.”
A key destination
12 million visitors drive to the Smoky Mountain National Park each year. It is a key outdoor destination for families, even in a COVID-19 environment.
“These are the spots where future opportunities lie,” says Cross. “And these are the value offerings that we think our combined firms can offer to developers as they seek to compete. Not just in today’s economy, but tomorrow’s.”
Warner agrees. Identifying the benefits of their collaboration, he says:
“Both our companies agree that the ‘why’ of a project is how our customer is going to connect emotionally. Then we help execute finding that ‘why’, and then doing the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ to make it come into fruition.
“Where Mycotoo brings creative vision, OE brings the business acumen. A concept is only as good as it is a good business. What you create has to be profitable.”
Room to grow
The first phase of the project will incorporate 70 acres.
“We still have another 130 acres to grow it,” says Warner. “So there is the opportunity to make it a full big destination. You can have a destination resort, with a themed hotel resort on the property besides the travel hotel.
“There is some really smart strategy in having a travel centre and going big with it. Here in California, as you drive to Vegas, there are travel centres with 25 gas pumps, and you think that is big.
“Here, we’re going to have about 100 gas pumps for people to stop and refuel. That intersection can attract that many people. So, you are now talking 15,000 daily visitors just coming to stop to get gas and pick up some candies and snacks.
“And when they make that stop, they will see that there’s something else to visit. If we siphon off even a couple percent of that 12 million, we will have a successful development. That’s exciting. This balance of smart business with great creative is really attractive.”
It is, Warner says, a new paradigm for the industry.
“You can only build so many billion-dollar theme parks,” he says. “And there are only so many regions that they can sit in and have a population to support them. So these regional-size entertainment destinations are the next market.”
We’re excited about those possibilities, and about this partnership that blends creative with business acumen. It’s the perfect mix
“As we start on cracking that formula, it’s going to help us grow into expanding this idea to multiple regions. And that could be over a shopping mall. We’re very fortunate to be on a greenfield site here. But this same approach to what we’re doing could be a revitalization of an outdoor mall.
“We’re excited about those possibilities, and about this partnership that blends creative with business acumen. It’s the perfect mix, in my mind.”
An aggressive timescale
On the subject of the development’s timescale, Cross says:
“We’re fortunate to have an aggressive timescale. We are targeting a minimum viable experience of mid-2022, so we have about a 20-month time frame to finish not just most of the concept, design, pricing, document work, but also to get many of these facilities up and running.”
We are targeting a minimum viable experience of mid-2022
“While it sounds insane, and it does sometimes keep me up at night, we benefit from extraordinarily experienced partners. Not just on the design side with Mycotoo, but with some of the local companies that we’re working with.
“We are fortunate, being in an established FEC tourism corridor. There are contractors and teams that have worked on themed concepts before. They’ve worked on Dollywood, they’ve worked on DreamMore resort, so that helps us immensely. There is an established workforce that will see these drawings, these concepts, and they’ll be excited. They won’t be intimidated.”
Forging a strong relationship
“In reality, this Kituwah project is longer, because OE Experiences has been working on it for the past six months,” says Warner.
“One of the things that they have done very well is to forge an incredible relationship with the City and the County. This 20-month schedule is realistic based on the relationship we have with the City and the County.
“And, as Matthew says, the fact that there are local vendors who have helped Dollywood become what it is. They have helped all these family entertainment centres that, like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, have been executing themed experiences already.
“So we’re very excited and really do believe that we can execute this first phase by mid-2022.”
Learning from others
“A great quote that we gave our client early on was, ‘A smart person learns from their mistakes, and a wise person learns from others.’ One of our first actions when we were hired, therefore, was to benchmark a few of the other developments that were trying to do some of the things that we were doing,” says Cross.
“We took Kituwah to a few different locations. We spoke with the teams that developed or operated these places and tried to learn from them. One of our big takeaways from those trips was how important it is that the vision permeates every level of stakeholder.”
“When Cliff talks about our extraordinary relationship to this City and the County, it is a relationship we have carefully curated. Keeping them in the know, informing them of our plans, and learning where they identified holes in the competitive landscape.
“A function of this market, of course, is understanding that tourism is a key economy, so they have embraced us. We are a local company, which always helps. As does the fact that Mycotoo is well established, and has worked on prestigious projects.
“The mayor of the city of Sevierville helped us lay out the chairs for a VIP reception we did. That’s the level of humility, and of helping the project. They have been extraordinary to work with, and we treat them as key partners to this project.”
Mycotoo is known for the immersive quality of its spectacular themed creations and events.
“Immersion is important to us,” says Warner. “And I think we’ve helped convince our clients that having citizens of our development is important.”
We will also have immersive seasonal events
“Live performers that act as citizens of our Main Street and our candy store are key components. We will also have immersive seasonal events. Having an established Event Center to host these seasonal events is critical for a property like this.
“With any of the seasonal events, the actors and the performance that we bring to create those immersive events will also bleed out into the streets of the property. We’ve pitched that having an entertainment structure also includes the live performers as part of the streetmosphere.”
EBCI and Kituwah LLC Operational Flexibility
The advantage, he explains, of the roadside attraction concept is that it allows for interesting props:
“It allows you to have some cool things. Like some classic cars on the street that people can walk by and see; whether it’s a hot rod or an old Model T sitting on the road. We’re celebrating the roadside experience, rather than defining an era. We’re not dictating that this is just 1950s American graffiti, we’re saying that this place is a celebration of the roadside attractions.
“So, we’re excited about that.”
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) is fully behind the idea of the operations of the property. It is taking a strong interest in operating the hotel, and some of the other concepts within the property.
“The EBCI and Kituwah have an incredible knowledge base. They are capable of adapting to fit the needs of the project to ensure it is successful, and that the items necessary for the property to be successful can be supported in an economic way to ensure mutual success.” Cross says of Kituwah’s capabilities.
Kituwah development will have new attractions on offer
“We have been in discussions with different ride manufacturers to see what’s up and coming, and what might work for the scale and the investment levels of this property,” says Warner.
“We’ve had nice responses. They are all interested in seeing what happens with this type of market. I think we can open up a new paradigm for some of these companies to say, ‘we don’t just have to be in the big theme park. We may be able to scale some things to a level that makes sense for a regional experience.’”
The staycation is not going away. They bring good value for the money, and you have to spend less time on a plane to get there
It is, he says, the balance of the programme that will be the key to its success:
“The travel centre is just a beacon marketing piece. When people stop to refuel, they can see what else is on offer, whether they stop on that trip, or just make a note to come back. These are the things that bring you consistent customers.
“Having a good travel hotel that is a little different from the nearby options across the street makes you the first choice when people decide that this is where they want to spend a night.
“And then, in the future phases, growing into having a destination resort hotel is feasible. The staycation is not going away. They bring good value for the money, and you have to spend less time on a plane to get there.”
An ideal location for multiple target markets
“There’s an incredible market surrounding the state of Tennessee,” says Warner. “Tennessee is a drive-to destination for many states. It’s right in the middle. It’s a 3-hour drive from Atlanta.”
“Almost every population centre east of the Mississippi is within a one-day drive of our property,” says Cross. “It’s very drivable, and I think this property is unique, and at the gateway to a tourism area.”
“We have three different markets that we’re appealing to. Obviously, the tourism market is well established. But where we’re humble in the sense is we’re not expecting tourists to deviate from the middle of their vacation to come visit this property.
“We are strategically targeting them at the beginning and the end of their vacation. There’s this convenience aspect of our anchor travel centre. And then we’re trying to build on that experience with lures like the candy experience.
“Then, we also have a robust local population, and we have this incidental Interstate traveller that we’re luring with these visual icons that are so unique they demand a stop. So we can lean on all three of those as a sort of component mix of what’s going to fuel this property as it grows into the future phases.”
A property like this, Cross says, never stops developing.
“There will be big phases, but it will constantly iterate and improve and be a source of innovation. It will become a destination unto itself within the next decade.
“In terms of the visual icons, they will be a portfolio of different types of visual icons. Their purpose is to be a draw for people to come in. Others, that we will keep quiet for now, will have an interactive element.”
There will be a moment for people to engage with social media and have unique moments with their family, enhancing the guest experience
“There will be a moment for people to engage with social media and have unique moments with their family, enhancing the guest experience, and fostering an instinctive feeling that they are somewhere special.
“Modern consumers are very sharp. They have good instincts and they care about things like authenticity. They care about feeling like they’re in a well-executed spot that has a sense of purpose and design and direction.”
Of the retail aspect of the development, Cross says:
“In terms of retail, we will have a sort of curation approach with our leasing broker. Any tenant that wants to participate in this property needs to have an experiential aspect. Mere brick and mortar is deeply challenged.”
“Traditional retail has had its day. Now we need a mix of attractions and experiential retail that forces people to come and interact in a physical space.”
“We will be trying to get the retailers to buy into the whole idea of the environment and the place,” says Warner. “An antique store or a novelty store would fit and play well, for example.
“Our real estate team understands that. They are chasing people that have always wanted to be in this region or people that are in this region and want to be in our development. Those are all opportunities for us.”
Mycotoo, OE Experiences and Kituwah working together on an exciting project
“We are proud of the collaboration of our teams,” says Warner. “Bonnie Hallman and David Wally, the [Mycotoo] creative leads have been incredible. They have worked well with Matthew and his team on making sure that we’re hitting the notes they want to hit. They are also listening to the Kituwah team on what’s important to the tribe, and what is important for them as an investment.
“We love how the master plan is flowing out. It’s going to be a nice property. It’s a beacon on a hill above the I-40. You can’t miss it.”