The Hocking Hills is open for business and ready to provide rest and respite for pandemic weary travelers in need of a getaway. In fact, the Hocking Hills region has experienced a surge of visitors even while other tourist destinations continue to struggle.
Hocking Hills Tourism Association Executive Director Karen Raymore has a lot to say about why the region has continued to attract visitors this year, what it means for local businesses and what it could mean for the future of tourism in the area. It wasn’t all smooth sailing though as the early days of the pandemic caused obstacles, the likes of which no one had experienced.
“The first days and weeks were nerve wracking. None of us had ever experienced anything like a pandemic so, just like everyone else, we didn’t know what to expect, how long it would last or how to plan,” Raymore explained.
During those early days, of state issued stay at home orders and business closures, there came other local restrictions including the closure of cabins. “Where better to social distance and ride out a pandemic than a cabin in the woods? So visitors continued to come,” she said.
The Hocking County Board of Health eventually closed the cabins for over a month to slow the spread from a heavy influx of visitors. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources also saw issues with overcrowding in the Hocking Hills State Parks and ordered these parks closed until early July.
“As you can imagine, some cabin owners were unhappy and vocal while others seemed grateful that everyone was closing. It gave them opportunity to regroup and put in place safety measures,” she recalled. “When the cabins were allowed to reopen 41 days later it didn’t seem to matter that the state park was closed. People could escape the monotony of home and stay in nature on anywhere from two to a hundred acres. Some cabins have Wi-Fi for those who need it. Some folks are pleased to disconnect from their troubles. That demand has only continued to grow.”
The growing demand and increased traffic at Hocking Hills State Park over the years has long caused alarm among park officials worried about the sustainability of high numbers of foot traffic on park trails. The three month closure at the park actually gave officials time and space to reconfigure some trails so that they are mostly one way.
“It’s something that Pat Quackenbush, the Naturalist, had been wanting to do for a long time. We want to enjoy our beautiful natural world without doing so much damage. After all, when you are walking both ways and meet a group, someone usually goes off trail to allow the other party to pass and that can do real harm if it happens enough,” Raymore explained.
When the park reopened in July, cabins were inundated with guests who have continued to come without fail. When asked why the Hocking Hills has thrived through the pandemic while other destinations have struggled, Raymore credited three specific factors – accessibility by car, an abundance of free access to nature and a high number of detached lodging options.
Most people are driving rather than flying to the Hocking Hills and a there’s an enormous population within a six hour drive. According to a recent survey, the number one place overnight guests in the Hocking Hills come from is the Cleveland area. The Columbus area ranked second with markets near and far falling in line behind them.
It is this availability of cabins or detached accommodations that make the area more appealing to many destinations that rely on hotel lodging.
“If you fly to Orlando and stay in a hotel, you’re interacting with more people, you’re sharing an elevator with people outside your party, hotel staff is coming in to service your room,” she added. “People who were loyal to their hotel chains are finding it’s nice to have a living space, a kitchen, maybe a fire pit or their own private hot tub. They don’t have to worry about making too much noise or being kept awake by the neighbors.”
While the cabin business has flourished, it has been a journey and challenging time for many businesses that rely on visitors.
David Kennedy, who owns The Millstone Southern Smoked BBQ and the Hungry Buffalo in Logan said his year was marked by adapting to change – changing regulations, changing weather, changing customer expectations and others he never dreamed of facing.
“The one constant in this life is change and you either learn to adapt and be flexible or you won’t be around very long,” he said as he described a tumultuous year. “First we started with carryout and did quite well at the Millstone. Barbeque carries out really well. But when they closed the cabins, our carryout business dropped to almost nothing,” he said, explaining their decision to completely close for a period in 2020.
When they came back, it was with safety and hospitality top of mind. First it was with outdoor seating and, when the weather turned cold, changes to the indoor seating. “We want people to feel comfortable when they’re with us. That’s just being hospitable. So we created plexiglass and wood walls throughout the dining room. Getting rid of the open concept dining room and creating these booths helped us through the winter,” Kennedy said.
They will continue using the temporary walls for as long as it makes sense. “Not every restaurant in town has been so fortunate but we have been proactive in working hard to do what we do best – serving people good food and drinks and offering them great hospitality.”
In the world of retail, the downtown Logan shop Homegrown on Main experienced their best year ever. The store sells locally made items art, crafts, food items and books that were in demand by visitors seeking special souvenirs.
Just down the road from the State Park Visitor Center, Old Man’s Cave General Store has been experiencing a boom as well. Owner Lynn Horn admitted the early days of the pandemic were scary. The store had just ordered a large amount of stock in preparation for spring break. “Luckily we were considered essential because we sell food and we were able to stay open. It was scary because traffic was way down and we couldn’t plan.”
She credits local people for helping them get through these hard days.
Their deli offers quick items like pizza and burgers. Plus, they offer beer, wine and over 100 flavors of soft serve ice cream. “Ice cream sales went way up last year. It’s comfort food and people needed that,” Horn recalled.
Despite those bad days, Horn said that 2020 was a record year for her store. The close proximity to the park is ideal for serving visitors who need a cold treat, souvenir or a meal. Record sales every month made up for those early losses.
Horn reported meeting a lot of first time visitors. “We met a lot of people who would normally go somewhere else like Tennessee. But they found out that it’s just as beautiful here and much closer to home. The people here are friendly, the park rangers are friendly, the businesses are glad to have them here. It’s a good vibe so I know a lot of them will be coming back,” she said. “I’m sure there are good times ahead.”
Her store didn’t even see the normal slowdown that typically happens in the winter. “January and February are always our slowest months. They were slower than the rest of the year but much, much busier compared to other years. It’s amazing how busy it has been!”
What does this all mean for the future of the Hocking Hills and local businesses that benefit from tourism? Raymore said to count on continued growth including more family reunions at area lodges, more quick getaways for remote workers and more vacationers who wish to find both rest and adventure close to home.
“I think the future is bright,” Raymore exclaimed. “We’ve missed traveling, we’ve missed our extended families, we’ve missed so much that I think people will continue to travel more and more. And those who found us because of the pandemic will certainly come back again once everything is up and going full speed. They’ll want to explore more and we’ll be ready to welcome them!”
Learn more about things to do in the Hocking Hills including events and activities for the family, the adventure traveler, the retiree and everyone in between by visiting the Hocking HIlls Tourism Association online. Visitors can even find their ideal accommodations at the HHTA website ExploreHockingHills.com.