Lake Junaluska’s bold new plan to reclaim its future
Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center has unveiled a $40 million, 10-year campus master plan in hopes of bolstering convention business and attracting a new breed of resort tourist.
The plan will bring conference facilities out of the 1950s and 60s era and up to modern expectations.
“We have to attract groups to come to Lake Junaluska to stay in our hotels, to eat our food, to have meetings here and to experience the beauty and tranquility of this place,” said Lake Junaluska CEO Jack Ewing.
Key components in the plan include a complete renovation of the Lambuth Inn, a new convention hall adjoining the back of the inn and renovation of the Terrace Hotel. The final phase calls for new large-scale civic center on the lakeshore, seating 1,000 to 1,500.
Lake Junaluska’s business has been slumping in recent years and taking its toll on the conference center’s bottom line.
“What we are going to do is going to be economically transformational,” Ewing said.
But the Lake Junaluska Conference Center will have to borrow a sizeable amount to pull off the plan. Ewing hopes a capital campaign could raise as much as $20 million of the $40 million price tag for the master plan.
But there will still be debt to incur. And if the new facilities don’t create the hoped for bump in revenue, the whole plan will fail.
It is a gamble and it does have risk, but it’s a calculated risk, Ewing said.
“The risk of doing nothing is absolutely greater than the risk of moving forward,” he said. “We have got to do this right, and we have got to move with great caution. At the same time, we have to be bold in making some change for the future of Lake Junaluska.”
Ewing said the future of Lake Junaluska is at stake. On its current trajectory, it will become more and more irrelevant as it loses a little bit more of its conference and convention business each year.
“What people want today is so different than what we have been providing historically,” Ewing said. “Because we didn’t have the resources to invest in the meeting, eating and sleeping spaces, our traditional base has shrunk — partly because the demographic of United Methodist Conference goers has shrunk and partly because the competition around us has increased.”
Lake Junaluska employs around 100 people on a year-round basis, a number that doubles during the height of its summer conference season.
Other elements of the 10-year master plan include a new youth dining hall, expansion of the lakeshore trail to tie all the conference facilities together and improved recreational sites — including a swimming beach on the lake in Ewing’s ideal world.
Each element of the campus master plan will pay homage to Lake Junaluska’s most important asset: the lake itself.
“The lake is in the center — literally,” Ewing said. “It is in the center of everything. Not just physically, it is the emotional center. Everything we will do will ask the question of ‘How does that engage with the lake?’”
Buildings will be oriented toward the lake and positioned to afford long-range views of the water and mountains.
The first phase of the plan is renovating the Lambuth Inn to create a high-quality resort experience. That will in turn boost revenue to help pay for the next phases of the master plan.
“Lambuth will become a destination. People will want to come and stay in this historic hotel with fabulous food,” Ewing said. “The ability to complete this long range plan is highly dependent on us doing the right things along the way.”
As a Methodist retreat, Lake Junaluska Conference Center ascribes to a higher calling. It doesn’t exist for the same reasons as a private, for-profit resort destination.
But Lake Junaluska likewise can’t ignore business realities.
“The world has changed; what people want has changed; what people are willing to pay for has changed; and therefore, Lake Junaluska has to change as well,” Ewing said. “People are making choices about whether to come, how long to stay, what quality of service they want and ultimately how much they are willing to pay.”
In the making
Lake Junaluska is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year since its founding as a summer retreat for wealthy Methodists in the early 1900s.
Lake Junaluska plays host to tens of thousands of Methodist church members for retreats every year — its bread and butter no doubt — but it has expanded into secular conventions.
Group bookings account for 90 percent of Lake Junaluska’s business, and the majority are church-related. After all, that’s its entire purpose: to host Christian retreats that in turn foster spiritual growth.
The sweeping master plan is ultimately aimed at attracting more guests — not only the church-related conferences and retreats it’s known for but also catering to vacationers seeking a resort experience.
Marketing itself as a vacation destination could help shore up its bottom line. Ewing would like to grow that side of its market share from just 10 percent of its portfolio to as much as 20 percent.
Lake Junaluska has lost money eight of the past 10 years. But last year was one of its better ones.
“We ended the year with $200,000 in the black,” Ewing said.
It was accomplished largely by cutting costs, and thanks to a 50 percent increase in charitable donations from benefactors.
While bottom-line realities are forcing Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center to reinvent its campus, its mission won’t be forgotten or compromised, Ewing said.
“It doesn’t mean we abandon our foundational principles or values,” Ewing said.
Ewing finds a way to recite Lake Junaluska’s mission statement parcel and verse in nearly every conversation he has, often more than once, no matter how casual the encounter. It has been drummed in and committed to memory by nearly everyone who has an association with the lake of any sort.
The mission simply states: “A place of Christian hospitality where lives are transformed through renewal of soul, mind and body.”
New buildings, a prettier lakeshore and new interior decorating aren’t a goal in and of themselves, Ewing said.
“This is simply a means to an end,” Ewing said. “If people’s lives weren’t being transformed or renewed, we would have failed.”