Lake Junaluska pins hopes on total Terrace overhaul to win next generation of visitors
Jack Ewing stepped over a pail of drywall mud, dodged electrical wires dangling from the ceiling and picked his way across construction debris littering the bare concrete floor of the gutted Terrace Hotel room.
“Just look at that view,” he said, sidling up to the sixth-floor window overlooking Lake Junaluska.
A driving winter wind whipped up a froth of white caps on the water below. The panoramic ring of mountain peaks was locked in a bitter clash with the grey sky, and already starting to frost over — like a real-life IMAX of the impending storm Monday.
“There is probably not a Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn Express in America with the views the Terrace has,” said Ewing, the director of Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. “Soon we’ll have the inner spaces that match the views.”
In just two months, the shell of the Terrace Hotel will go from gutted to put-back-together following a $3.2 million total renovation.
It’s an aggressive timetable, but a necessary one, given the tens of thousands of conference center guests who make the pilgrimage to Lake Junaluska each year to partake in the robust schedule of retreats, gatherings and meetings held here.
The Terrace has long been the workhorse of the retreat center’s accommodations. But a major makeover has been long overdue.
So overdue, in fact, that the conference center was slowly losing business because its rooms weren’t up to modern expectations. The marketing and booking staff would often hear, “Well we would come, but your facilities are dated, they are tired,” Ewing said.
Getting rid of the old floral bedspreads, replacing the nicked furniture and adding more electrical charging banks for the arsenal of digital devices travelers have in tow these days — a makeover known as a “refresh” in the hotel world — wouldn’t be enough. The Terrace rooms were stuck in the past and needed a renovation that went the distance.
“We hope groups who had previously chosen not to come to Junaluska because of the dated facilities will now choose to come,” Ewing said. “And we hope the groups who have historically come to the lake will be pleased.”
The Terrace is the biggest swing yet at a campus master plan aimed at reversing a slow, gradual decline of the buildings and grounds. Lake Junaluska was founded more than 100 years ago as a summer retreat for Methodists. Those early roots are still evident, both in its storied lineage as a gathering place and, on the not-so-positive side, in its dated infrastructure.
The master plan is so sweeping it will touch nearly all the facilities on the vast campus over the coming decade and a half. Deciding what to tackle first and in what order can be daunting, however.
“We always begin with our mission. We are a place of Christian hospitality, where lives are transformed through renewal of soul, mind and body,” Ewing said. “As we make decisions, it is always based on ‘Is this going to be helping us to better fulfill our mission?’”
Group conferences and gatherings will always be Lake Junaluska’s forte. Until recently, the Terrace would simply close if there weren’t any group bookings on the schedule, sometimes for entire weeks during winter months, or mid-week blocks during the shoulder seasons.
While individual business-and-leisure travel is a very small segment of its market historically, it’s a segment the conference center has been actively trying to build as a key to increasing its occupancy rates — which in turn will help Lake Junaluska remain financially sound, and ultimately, keep fulfilling its mission.
“The big picture for us is always about how do we continue to make improvements that make Lake Junaluska attractive for people to come and most importantly, no matter if they come for an event or just come to walk around the lake, that they experience a sense of renewal,” Ewing said.
With the Terrace renovations making it more attractive to business and leisure travelers, that also positions Lake Junaluska as a more formidable competitor in the overnight accommodation industry.
Ewing believes everyone will benefit by Lake Junaluska becoming a bigger player, however.
“We are a huge economic engine for Haywood County. And we do it in a way that we think adds great value to the county and to all the business in the county,” Ewing said. “If we are successful, more people will come to Haywood County and everybody wins.”
There’s another 300 rooms on the conference center campus — 131 at the historic Lambuth, and the rest scatted across a collection of more humble motel-style rooms and extended stay apartments.
The Lambuth was initially going to be first in line for a major renovation, but it would cost more and take longer, so the Terrace was moved ahead in the plan.
The Terrace is the first major facility renovation, but not the first undertaking in the new campus master plan.
Small pieces chipped away at so far have focused almost entirely on the public sphere of the lakeshore — a new pier, new boat rental area and boat launch, a new playground, walking path improvements and a restoration of the shoreline itself.
In the true spirit of Lake Junaluska, the grounds projects were funded entirely by charitable giving and donations from the large stable of loyal supporters.
“People love Lake Junaluska, and they want to give,” Ewing said.
Even the Terrace renovation has benefited from philanthropy, but a project of that scale obviously required a loan. Ewing said the Assembly didn’t have any trouble getting a loan for the project.
In fact, “we had lenders coming to us,” Ewing said.
Going forward, money will be put in escrow each year to cover the cost of periodic renovations at the Terrace so it won’t go so long without being updated.
The Terrace underwent some preliminary remodeling of the main lobby in 2012, and complete mattress replacements over the past two years. Adding those in, the total Terrace renovation project clocks in close to $3.5 million.
Still on the wish list is a total renovation of the in-house Terrace dining room and an exterior facelift.
The price-point for the Terrace is in the $100-a-night range, with tiered pricing for premium rooms — those with top-floor views of the lake, for example.
A grand opening is planned for April 16, with details to be announced.