When Heidi Stone first arrived at Mountain Lake Lodge nearly a decade ago, she was standing in a resort town in survival mode.
The historic stone-lined pavilion, perhaps best known as the backdrop for the hit movie Dirty Dancing, has found itself at a crossroads.
The 1930s resort town was showing its age, in more ways than one, and needed a reinvention. The hotel was also battling the knock-on effects that was the Great Recession and the mysterious drying up of its 50-acre namesake lake – an ecological phenomenon that has caught the attention of teams of researchers.
There was talk of closing the mountain station completely at the time. But the owner – a foundation formed to preserve the site’s heritage as a hotel and nature reserve where people could connect with the outdoors – didn’t want to go that route.
So he started putting together a team that was ready to dig in and help save the property. It would be the biggest business Stone, who has spent his entire career in hospitality, would ever face.
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And that’s exactly what drew her to the Giles County resort town in the first place.
“The more impossible the task, the more appeal it had,” said Stone, who came to Mountain Lake Lodge after helping create a new four-star resort in Lake Placid, New York.
“There were people who said it was not possible. They drew that line in the sand,” she recalls.
“Well, here we are 10 years later, and we’re booming and about to start huge growth,” she said, later adding, “When you can feel you’re really making a difference , it is very rewarding work.”
Over the past decade, Mountain Lake Lodge has invested in updating its rooms and cabins, as well as a host of new recreational facilities, from a ropes course to a bubble balloon.
Stone, who first joined the resort as director of sales and marketing, became general manager of the property, which also offers more than 22 miles of hiking trails, and in March was named the new president. and CEO.
She is currently working on the development of the lodge’s next ten-year plan. But this time the hotel, which just recorded its most successful year, is working from a place of strength, not survival.
“We are beginning a new era at Mountain Lake Lodge,” Stone said.
Stone spoke to the Roanoke Times about the lodge’s revitalization, how it weathered the pandemic and what visitors can expect to see this year. The edited questions and answers that follow below are from that interview.
Q: When your team set out to revitalize Mountain Lake Lodge, what steps did it take and what strategies did it employ?
It took many different efforts. It’s been 10 years so it hasn’t been fast. But not everything worth something is fast. The initial rebranding plan was to engage with the community. We started farm-to-table dining at our restaurant, which was just launched 10 years ago. All of our chicken, beef, fish, everything, still comes from our local community farmers, which was a big step and the right thing to do.
A second step was to create more outdoor recreation and encourage people to come and enjoy themselves at Mountain Lake Lodge. Today we have all kinds of options in our Adventure Center that weren’t there before.
In 2012 or 2013, this place was really Kellerman’s place. It was that traditional family fun. All those things you would have seen in the movie. But that’s not enough for today’s families. Families can go on cruises or places where their kids can stay busy all the time, right? We didn’t have those kind of things to keep the kids busy all the time back then. We do it now. People can come here and really relax, and their children will have wonderful outdoor leisure activities to do.
The other thing we did was completely rebrand with Dirty Dancing and Kellerman’s. We now have a great partnership with Lionsgate, which owns the license for Dirty Dancing, which didn’t exist before. We create registered and licensed products with them, and now we have movie opportunities coming our way because of them. It was another big leg up on the stool for us.
Q: In 2020, the pandemic suddenly turned life upside down. People around the world have been forced to stay at home and nationwide hotel bookings have fallen to historic lows. How has this affected Mountain Lake Lodge and what is its outlook today?
We never slowed down. We never stopped. Because of Covid we have become the place within 300 miles for people to come. They were able to stay in cabins and recreate outside. We were the perfect place for people to come. They were able to get out of their homes, take a break from whatever was going on, and still feel safe.
So we didn’t have the problems that others had. We were trying to figure out how to handle the onslaught of demand. Our team’s commitment was unlike anything I had ever seen. During the worst personnel crisis in the world, we were all going there and it was this whole team, everyone, pulling together.
In 2021, we had the biggest year in the hotel’s history. Our year-end net income increased by more than 500%. This has set us on a tremendous growth path. We have so many new things that we were able to start building from that.
Q: What new features can people expect when the summer season is coming?
We are currently in the process of creating two outdoor dining spaces. It’s kind of ridiculous that so far Mountain Lake Lodge hasn’t had outdoor dining. It’s such an outdoor place.
Our regular dining room is going to have an outdoor terrace. Then we are also creating a new outdoor pub which will offer beers and pizzas. So when you’ve gone hiking you can come back in your muddy shoes and have a beer and some good food and be outside. It will have fire pits and just be a really cool outdoor space. It will be ready at the beginning of the summer.
The other thing we’re building is two new retail stores. One of the ones we’re working on directly with Lionsgate, and we’re creating Kellerman’s first-ever gift shop. This will be the very first Dirty Dancing store if you will. So from the moment you walk in, you will be enveloped in this new retail experience. We already sell registered merchandise, but this really enhances the whole experience for our Dirty Dancing fans.
Next, we are also creating a new Mountain Lake shop that will offer Mountain Lake home, kitchen and craft items from here locally. I will also tell you that we have partnered with Giles County and through many different grants Giles County is building the Giles County Trail Center at the front of our property at the foot of Bald Knob .
The new Giles County Trail Center will essentially be seen as the gateway to all the recreational trails Giles County has to offer. So it’s a big problem.
Q: You’ve worked in hospitality your entire career since your first job in high school when you landed a part-time position as a receptionist at a Howard Johnson’s. From there, you earned a degree in Hospitality and Restaurant Management at SUNY and went on to work for major brands such as Disney World, Hilton, and Omni Resorts. What first interested you in the industry?
I’m from Sarasota Springs, New York. It’s a sleepy college town in the winter but a bustling city in the summer. And I saw what tourism does for a city. I loved the energy around the hotels. You were going there, and everyone was busy taking care of people.
I knew I didn’t want to be a nurse. I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher. And, if you think back to the 80s, that was what women did, wasn’t it? You didn’t have great female leaders leading the way in so many different areas like you do today.
So I decided in high school that I wanted to get into the hotel business. I loved the energy. I’m outgoing. It seemed so rewarding, and more of an instant reward when you’re in this business. You can make a difference in someone’s day. It’s an instant reward. I wanted to be part of this environment.
Q: Dirty Dancing, now celebrating its 35th anniversary, is an integral part of Mountain Lake Lodge’s identity. Fans turn around when they learn the hotel was the setting for Kellerman’s resort. Were you a fan of the movie before coming to Mountain Lake?
I was a fan. The soundtrack is amazing. Who doesn’t stop and hum when you hear it? It just brings you back.
I didn’t know all the stories. Our fans know every word. It has a cult following that I was completely unaware of before. But that’s part of the reason we were able to breathe new life into it – because we listened to those fans.
When we first changed brands, the consultants’ first advice was to drop Dirty Dancing altogether. They wanted us to get rid of it. When I came here, being a woman and listening to what our clients were saying, I said we weren’t listening to the client. It’s not the right decision.
Can you imagine if we had abandoned it 10 years ago? There would never have been a miniseries [“The Real Dirty Dancing,” which was filmed at Mountain Lake Lodge and debuted on FOX in February]. There wouldn’t have been the Dirty Dancing weekends that sell out a year in advance. We are already almost sold out for 2023.
Thank goodness they put a woman in charge. I say it like that.