Eight retail shops at Anakeesta Mountaintop Adventure make for a thrilling hunt for the ultimate keepsake.

Oct. 23, 2023

The only way in is by way of a Chandola — a chairlift mixed with open-air, four-person seats and enclosed gondola-style cabins — or the Ridge Rambler — a 45-passenger military vehicle that stands nearly 14 feet tall. Either way, the climb to the top is 600 feet to the summit of Anakeesta Mountaintop Adventure Park. And that’s just the ride in.

Once inside Firefly Village, guests are invited to choose their own adventure of walking on bridges suspended 50 to 60 feet in the air on the Canopy Treetop Skywalk; sailing through the Smoky Mountains on the Dueling Zipline Adventure; conquering the TreeVenture Challenge Course; soaring down the Rail Runner Mountain Coaster; and of course — taking in the view on the Anavista observation tower — the highest point in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Opened in 2017, Anakeesta is an outdoor adventure-themed family park that promises to deliver visitors to the heart of what the Smoky Mountains are known for — connecting to nature. With a botanical garden, views of Mount LeConte, and breathtaking scenery in every direction, guests are treated to playing, dining, and shopping in a village that resembles a mythical world only accessible by Hollywood — until now thanks to co-founders, Bob and Karen Bentz.

The Great Outdoor Trading Co., above, is a mix of Anakeesta gear and popular outdoor brands.
Photos: Don Fields Photography

“Bob and Karen Bentz had this dream of bringing a really amazing, authentic experience that really represents the Smoky Mountains,” says Megan Black, retail director for Anakeesta. “They wanted to bring in that village-top vibe on the mountain, kind of take you back to what the heart of Gatlinburg used to be.”

The landscape architects named their creation Anakeesta — a Cherokee word that means “place of high ground,” or “place of the balsams,” depending on who you ask.

And in six short years, the mountaintop has become a playground for more than a million visitors a year, according to Black. While 10 dining venues are waiting to tempt visitors with craft beers, juicy southern barbecue, homemade fried pies and other culinary delights, eight gift shops are ready to welcome guests in search of the perfect souvenirs.

Extending The Experience

“I think when it comes to souvenirs, we try to take what is special to the guest from Anakeesta and put that into their souvenir goods,” Black explains. “So whether it’s a tower T-shirt because you’ve made it to the top of the Anavista Tower … or a keychain — anything that can extend that Anakeesta experience.”

Black notes because each store has its own identity, the retail team does its best to use the windows and the feature table in each gift shop to set the vibe and tell a story of what’s in the rest of the store.

“We try really hard just to set the tone for the guests so that they know what they’re walking into and bring them in,” she explains. “We want the guests to come in and be able to kind of wander around the store and take it all in because we want there to be something for everyone.”

For instance, Black notes, Adventure Outpost “is the go-to shop for anything branded.” Bear Essentials is dedicated to outdoor enthusiasts who love nature. Catching Fireflies is a boutique that caters to women’s fashion trends and children’s imaginations. Mercantile features home goods and consumables like jams, jellies and soaps. Trail Head is a mini pop-up shop for seasonal needs. The Great Outdoors Trading Company tries to capture all explorers of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park at the base of the mountain. The Gem Mine caters to kids who can’t get enough of hunting for rocks and precious gems. And coming soon — the Fur Trader in Stone Village will be dedicated to the animals who make the Smoky Mountains their home.

Black notes a trademark of Anakeesta’s souvenirs is in the custom artwork it uses to stand out from neighboring shops, such as on its number-one selling product — T-shirts. Another signature characteristic, she notes, is the quality of the products in each of the stores.

Known as the shop for all-things branded, The Adventure Outpost is also the exit shop for the skywalk and zipline.

“Whether it’s a higher-end [T-shirt] that washes better, we’re standing behind our goods and figuring out ways that we can be one step above the competition,” she explains. “Year after year, it gets harder to not have the same goods as the person down the street so it really pushes us to be more creative and find ways to source those goods.”

She explains, it’s carrying items like unique artwork but also trying to find areas where Anakeesta can stand out “because everyone’s gonna have a T-shirt, but everyone’s not gonna have a really cool Anakeesta T-shirt.”

Setting Up Shop

And creativity doesn’t just stop there. Displaying the merchandise is the eye candy that brings the sale home.
“The Great Outdoors Trading has a raft full of plush bears. And so you may not love it if you’re the parent, but the kids love it,” Black notes with a laugh. “They walk right into the store and they’re drawn to this bright blue bouncy creation that we have stuffed full of black bears. I think that’s definitely one of our more unique displays.”

In the Mercantile, which Black refers to as the park’s “modern take on a general store,” floor-to-ceiling cubes immerse customers in all available options, including farmhouse decor and unique kitchen goods.

She adds that fixtures have been a focus more recently as the outfit tries to standardize it with “units that are able to flex with a product assortment, but also still give us the ability to make them still look unique.

“So at [The Great Outdoor Trading Company], you’ll find lanterns on the wall and you’ll find really cool chandeliers and different fishing and hiking gear that kind of intrigue you to check out the displays as well,” she notes.

Black says she realized early on how important fixture placement was when she found customers stuck in a continuous one-way loop in Catching Fireflies — a conundrum that made shopping difficult.

“You could only go in a circle … and if you didn’t pick up what you wanted on your first walk through, you couldn’t turn around,” she recalls. “So … either you were going to leave or you’re going to have to make your second lap.”

She says the staff quickly redid the fixture placement to include pull-off areas that allowed customers to step over to the side “and shop whatever you want and pick out your favorite set of earrings or what have you.”

A team of contributors

When it comes to stocking the shelves and tables, Black says there are endless vendors who contribute to Anakeesta’s success, particularly because the stores’ themes vary so greatly.

For impulse buys, hot pickups, winter gear, jewelry and other essentials, Black says they call on SE Marketplace in Atlanta. For winter gear, Baypoint apparel is a go-to wholesaler. When comes to hats, L2 is among the A-listers. Brands like Cotopaxi, Simply Southern, Outdoor Research and Cool Jewels all have a place in their starting lineup as well.

Guests can find TGT Stickers merchandise when perusing stickers, keychains, magnets and patches in multiple stores as well as Blue Planet Eco Eyewear sunglasses. Myra handbags in Mercantile also rank among the favorites, Black notes.

Mercantile allows guests to sift through locally made jams, jellies, soaps and handbags.
Locally, vendors like the Potter and the Park are called upon for mugs while Soapy Mountain Suds stocks the soap in Mercantile.

And for plush, there are several heavy hitters because as Black notes, “You can never have enough plush.”
Schylling, Wild Republic, The Stuffed Animal House, Fiesta Toys and Aurora are among those called on to fill the shelves and expectant hands of enamored children.

Black says that other than T-shirts, two of the most popular items are toys, which is why black plush bears and Neato! fidget balls are stocked in more than one location.

“We have a wide variety of kids’ toys and plush to choose from because it’s really important that we are able to target that kid group as well,” she points out. “We have a little something for them in each of our locations.”

But there was a time not so long ago when black bears weren’t easy to come by. In 2020 and 2021 when supply chain issues were running as rampant as COVID, Black recalls one of the greatest challenges she’s encountered in working at Anakeesta.

“I could not get black plush bears from anyone,” she recalls. “And I feel like I was searching the entire world to find some plush black bears because that’s just one of our top-selling categories. I had to have it.”

She adds although it’s a funny example, it taught her the importance of working through uncontrollable variables — not just doing the best with what you have but achieving perfection in not-so-perfect circumstances.
“So really kind of taking what we did have and piecing it together and still making very strong product displays, even though the guests probably never knew it, but we didn’t have all the goods that we wanted to offer,” she explains. “But we really just try to figure out what is it that we feel are non-negotiable for the guests. What do we want to have for them and what can we do as a replacement or another solution to get them what we wanted to be able to offer them?”

While all of these snap decisions come naturally now, there was a time in the not-so-distant past where not only was she the one making the decisions, but she was doing so without a safety net.

“It all started with just me,” she says more in passing than matter-of-factly. “It’s crazy to think about.”

Growing An Army

Black cut her teeth in retail working in store leadership at a shopping mall through college while earning a degree in business administration. With eight years under her belt, she was looking for the next career opportunity when she was invited in 2018 to run Anakeesta’s fledgling retail operations, which consisted of just three shops at the time — all under 600 square feet.

She admits her previous experience focused on the basics of management and required little creativity.
“I came from having all the visuals handed to me, having the product just arrive at the back door whenever it was supposed to,” 35-year-old Black recalls. “Really, I was focused in my past life on people management, store excellence, operations and that kind of thing.”

With her desk as her mothership, Black dove into learning about all of the other facets of retail she needed to run the Anakeesta gift shops successfully — a challenge she embraced wholeheartedly.

“I got my feet wet real fast on buying and managing and all of the other components that I never really had to learn before,” she explains. “I can remember sitting at my desk when I first started, and that’s the place where I did all the ordering, all the scheduling, all of the interviews, all the receiving. Literally, UPS would drop the boxes off in front of my desk and that’s all we needed five years ago.”

“We have a wide variety of kids’ toys and plush to choose from because it’s really important that we are able to target that kid group as well. We have a little something for them in each of our locations.” — Megan Black

Today, she stands at the helm of an operation that oversees a team of two retail operation managers, a warehouse manager, a product planning leader and support staff totaling 55 employees between the gift shops and the warehouse.

“The park’s grown, the department’s grown, so definitely my teams had to grow with it,” Black points out. “I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to grow with a company like I have had with Anakeesta. And a lot of that goes back to the owners, too. They’re very supportive. They had the dream to build Anakeesta years ago, and they brought it to life.”

A Commitment To Excellence

And every day, while the guests are busy taking chances, seeking out the beauty of nature and challenging themselves as they wind their way through their adventure on the mountaintop, Black is looking for ways to up the ante to create the ultimate retail experience.

“I feel like I’m always trying to challenge myself to make the department better than it was before,” she says. “Whether that’s teaching an employee a more efficient way to fold a T-shirt or getting to redesign an entire store’s new concept, there’s just always an opportunity to grow the department and I just love being a part of building what the department is and is going to be.”

But she is quick to add that she’s not alone in her goal to achieve excellence. It takes a whole team of visionaries to reach the kind of success they’ve had in such a short time.

“The growth has just been phenomenal,” she remarks. “The team is always trying to figure out ways to continue to grow so that we keep everyone coming back year after year for what it is that we have new to offer. I don’t think we’re going to slow down anytime soon.”