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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Rapids success: Nantahala Outdoor Center’s 50 years of paddling prowess

Early bypassers saw the Tote ‘n Tarry as a simple roadside motel and gas station saddling a stretch of the Nantahala River in Swain County — surely one of the prettiest spots in North Carolina. The late Horace Holden Sr. saw the location as an opportunity to create what has become an iconic tourism venue set amid a national forest and a short drive from the eastern entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

Holden grew up in Atlanta and became a canoeing enthusiast who started a popular summer camp along the Chattahoochee River near the Georgia capital in 1961. With a vision to entertain visitors with safe, exhilarating outdoor adventure, he purchased the North Carolina property in 1971. He asked his longtime Atlanta friends John Payson and Aurelia Turpin Kennedy to help start an outdoor retreat that would enable visitors to paddle through the river’s rapids on 12- or 13-foot-long rafts. In 1972, they opened Nantahala Outdoor Center, which attracted 800 rafting guests on the Nantahala and 400 about 45 miles away at the Chattooga River in north Georgia. 

In the ensuing 50 years, the NOC has entertained visitors with about 7 million trips as they churn through large boulders in rafts typically carrying six or eight people and a guide. Last year, NOC guided approximately 120,000 rafting trips, the most in the past decade.

Today’s NOC extends beyond the 500-acre Bryson City campus to include seven outposts on six rivers in four states. The business employs 150 full-time staff members, with staffing reaching 700 during the peak summer season. 

It’s a marked change from the early days when employees would prepare meals for guests, run a guide trip and clean a hotel room, all in the same day. Visitors then could paddle the Nantahala and Chattooga rivers, shop at a convenience store and grab a sandwich at River’s End Restaurant. Employees wore all the hats and included the Kennedys’ daughter
Catherine, who started working at NOC at 16.

NOC debuted the same year as the release of Deliverance, a thriller about four Atlanta businessmen canoeing down a remote Georgia river. The movie, which was filmed on the Chattooga, won three Academy Awards and popularized whitewater rafting. Payson Kennedy was actor Ned Beatty’s stunt double in the movie.

“Without Horace’s visionary attitudes, the NOC would never have come into existence and my life, along with so many others, would certainly look completely different,” says Catherine Kennedy, who lives on site and remains a part owner and board member. Her children, now 38 and 40, were raised at the center, marking a third generation of Kennedys for whom paddling whitewater rapids is a family tradition. 

Kennedy’s first canoe trip was at age 8 with her dad’s Boy Scout troop. She fell in love with paddling while growing up primarily in Atlanta. “I loved it. Whitewater was what I was most excited about in the world.” She manages the center’s fleet of more than 60 buses, oversees the government permits required to operate the rafting business and drives a bus to transport guests as needed. 

While Kennedy says she isn’t quite sure of her current job title as of today, she carries 50 years of background information on the operation. She even guided NOC’s first trip of its golden season last year, which was also her 65th birthday. “It was a special trip.”

The center’s main campus offers a variety of activities such as rafting, zip lining, mountain biking, restaurants, shopping and lodging including cabins, the Dogwood Motel, group camping and bunkhouses. Crowds tend to be the largest in June, July and August, though the “shoulder seasons” are increasingly popular. 

NOC has also served as a key training site for paddlers including more than 20 Olympians. The most famous are 1992 gold medalists Joe Jacobi and Scott Strausbaugh, along with Evy Leibfarth, who at 17 became the youngest female to compete in the Olympics’ canoe single slalom competition at last year’s Tokyo Olympics. She grew up in Bryson City and entered her first competition at NOC when she was 6. 

For most of its history, NOC was an employee-owned company led by the Kennedy family. In 2012, Atlantic Investment Co. bought a majority stake in the business. Atlantic is controlled by Atlanta’s Courts family, whose holdings included real estate and an investment banking company that was acquired in 1969 by Reynolds Securities, a predecessor of Morgan Stanley.

“[Atlantic] has helped us move the needle forward,” says Leigh Boike, the center’s executive vice president. 

About 30 people now have equity stakes in the business, many of them current and former employees, says Boike. Colin McBeath, a veteran hotel and resort manager in Colorado, Alaska, Arizona and Canada, was named president last May.

Nantahala translation 

Rapid growth in the Southeast

Courtesy of Nantahala Outdoor Center

To make its adventures more accessible, NOC expanded beyond the Nantahala and Chattooga, adding rafting rental and gear shops and guided tours along the Chattahoochee, Ocoee, French Broad and Pigeon rivers. “We do rivers really well,” Boike says. The seven river outpost locations across North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee include outfitter stores in Gatlinburg, Tenn., at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn and at the main campus.  

“NOC originated as a whitewater rafting company, and it is the activity we are most known for,” says Boike, who first visited when she was 8 and has worked there since 1998. “NOC is one of the largest outfitters probably in the United States, definitely in the Southeast,” she says. Along with offering guided trips and rentals, NOC sells kayaks, paddling gear, apparel and other products.

About 450 employees work at NOC’s main campus during the prime season. Revenue increased by 21% over the past two years, including a 17% gain at the North Carolina locations, Boike says.

“I know from my own observations — and observations from folks around me — that things have been really busy” at U.S. paddle-sport destinations, says Mark Singleton, executive director at American Whitewater, a Cullowhee-based nonprofit that promotes the preservation of whitewater rivers.

“It’s a tough business because in the tourism industry, you constantly have to reinvent yourself or reinvent your product,” he says. “With the pandemic, we are seeing a reconnection with nature and a reconnection with family, and that is driving an increase in participation.”

Courtesy of Nantahala Outdoor Center

Singleton worked for NOC for about 13 years, including serving as vice president of marketing, before joining American Whitewater in 2004. He recalls that busy years at the center’s main campus in Bryson City correlated with strong tourism at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is about 28 miles northeast. Last year, a record 14.1 million people visited the national park.

“NOC is a destination for tourism, and the [national park] is a destination for tourism.” 

NOC has a significant impact on the region’s economy, adds Chris Cavanaugh, founder of Magellan Strategy Group, an Asheville consultant. He’s prepared end-of-season guest surveys for the center for about five years. “Just under half of all their guests say that NOC is their primary reason for their trip to the region,” he says.

Nantahala map

While NOC attracts many first-time visitors, its repeat business is notable. “One of the things we have measured is that they have incredible brand loyalty among their guests. As much as anything, there is a level of trust among first-time and repeat guests,” Cavanaugh says. 

The end-of-season surveys reveal consistent, high-level guest satisfaction as measured by a net promoter score, a standard way of measuring satisfaction.

“That is extraordinary when you think about the fact that the river experience is subject to the whims of the weather. It is subject to varying river levels and a variety of many other factors out of NOC’s control,” he says. 

Much has changed since the Kennedys and Horace Holden Sr. started NOC. But Catherine’s affinity for sharing a love for whitewater has remained constant. She still paddles — for work and for play — several times a week, depending on the time of year.

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