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WNC Business

Keeping outdoor recreation a focus for visitors to WNC

Jun 14, 2023 11:49AM ● By Randee Brown

Jeff Greiner, President of Adventure America Zipline Canopy Tours, grew up in the outdoor recreation industry.

He said that his father worked in parks and recreation, and that his parents started a rafting company in 1971 on the Chattooga River. After college and when his father began working toward retirement, Greiner said that he fully took over the family’s rafting business.

“Wildwater was all rafting,” Greiner said. “In 2007, we took a family trip to Costa Rica and the aerial adventure stuff was so popular there that it ignited our interest in adding that aspect to our business.

Greiner said that by looking at what his business currently offered and what people wanted to do that wasn’t available, he considered adding additional aspects such as yurt camping and zip lines to Wildwater as well as adding additional attractions in other locations.

“We opened our first zipline in 2009, and at that time there were only about a dozen or so opportunities for this activity across the whole continental U.S.,” Greiner said. “Then the adventure scene really blew up. Now there are about 10 places for zip lining within just 45 minutes of Asheville, and five of those are mine.”

Wildwater also has several locations, and Western North Carolina is the central location and a ‘home base’ for many that come to raft rivers bordering the state, according to Greiner. “Franklin, Highlands, Asheville - people will stay in these towns and adventure out from there,” he said. “It’s often a ‘hub and spoke’ model that people use as they adventure around the region.”

Visitors come from all around the region, and Greiner said that they make up about 65% of the customers across his business locations. “We do a lot of school groups and events attended by locals,” he said. “We also offer summer day camps that are attended by locals and visitors alike. Sometimes entire families will come from out of town; the parents can visit the Biltmore while the kids are mountain biking or enjoying the Kid Zip.”

In total, Greiner said that thousands of people come every year to experience the outdoor recreation opportunities his business helps to provide. He said that the Asheville Adventure Center has approximately 30,000 customers annually, and Wildwater in the Nantahala Gorge has between 55,000 and 60,000. “The first year in business, Wildwater had 172 guests,” he said. “We’ve seen a bit of growth since then.”

Greiner said that he has seen a continuous increase in visitors coming to WNC and enjoying the recreation opportunities available here. He said that of course when Covid forced his businesses to shut down there was a loss, and as his businesses began reopening in stages, the demand was very high and the tours, beginning with the reopening of mountain biking, were packed.

“The numbers for 2022 were more normalized,” Greiner said. “There is a more steady, standard rate of growth if we skip 2020 and 2021. Yes, we were down in 2022 compared to 2021’s anomaly, though if we remove the outlying data we can figure out where we really are as a business, and we are still seeing growth.”

Greiner also said that he has realized how important slowly ramping up is to the success of the business. “This allowed the staff to get back in the game and work out any kinks,” he said. “It also creates a demand by word of mouth when we start an early season.”

The demographic of the area, Greiner said, is one of the things that makes operating challenge courses here different than it would be in other locations. He said that there are so many people in WNC that want to get outside, and that there are plenty of opportunities to cooperate with competitors that have similar objectives which spreads the word about the industry in general. 

“We can really work together to build the outdoor recreation industry here,” Greiner said.

The true competition, according to Greiner, is not the competition with other adventure operators, but competition for the attention that other aspects of the region bring. “All of the industries layer together to build national knowledge of the area and I am grateful for all of them,” he said, “There are great unique restaurants, craft breweries, the art scene… But what is the scene that is bringing people to Asheville? The goal is to get people to realize that the experience is not only about what you eat, drink, and buy, but also about what they do while they’re here. We are working alongside our businesses’ competitors to make sure that we are all keeping ourselves front and center.”

There are some big plans that Greiner said he hopes will offer more of a variety of outdoor recreation options to visitors. He said that he has purchased 200 acres north of Asheville, and is working to turn it into a place for people to enjoy outdoor adventures and stay in unique lodging on a piece of undeveloped property.

“The property has 2,000 feet of elevation gain,” Greiner said. “With that kind of topography, there are opportunities to play with ideas for unique above-ground lodging opportunities and rock climbing experiences in addition to ATV tours, mountain biking tours, and guided hiking.” 

Greiner said that the property may be able to provide unique opportunities for locals as well, further building the outdoor recreation community. He said that he would love to include housing for the guide community that gives an experience they want at a price they can afford. He said that there is also potential to share the property with the area’s private hiking guides to use with their guests, and possibly a commercial kitchen that foraging guides may use to prepare food for their guests.

Beginning with the plan to start off-roading tours this summer, Greiner said that there are lots of ideas for incorporating a variety of adventures on several levels with this new property. “Adventures provide the opportunity for personal growth, bonding, and learning,” he said. “All adventures involve the ability to accomplish more than you thought you could. That’s what the passion is about.”