Every year since the American Mountain Theater has been in operation, I've been invited by Kenny Sexton, the theater's co-owner and producer, to sit down and review the previous year.
This has always been one of the highlights of my reporting on the local business scene.
According to Sexton, the recession finally took its toll on his business this past year as it did on everyone's.
"I don't want people to think that we had a bad year," Sexton said. "It just wasn't what I had hoped it would be. By all comparisons, however, we enjoyed a very successful year, especially in individual sales, which were up 15 percent. Our vacation packaging was up 6 percent. The category that was down was group sales. We, as you can see, had an increase overall, but it wasn't what we had hoped for."
Sexton blamed the economy. "As we all know, the economy has affected everyone. Most of our groups come via the tour bus companies. For example, if a bus tour company advertises a trip to Elkins and it sells a profitable number of seats, it comes, if it doesn't, the company simply cancels the trip," he said. "This year, a larger than usual number of bus tours scheduled to come to Elkins didn't sell enough people (seats) and consequently that segment of our business was down just a little. Conversely, we saw, as I mentioned, a substantial increase in individual and packaging sales. Right now our group reservations for this year are increasing over last year's bookings."
According to Sexton, AMT has new tours coming this year that it has never booked before.
"I'm not really sure how to feel about this year - they keep saying we're going to have an economic recovery but that remains to be seen - but judging from our bookings, maybe it is coming," he said.
"We started last year with appreciable increases in our bookings and sales. Then we'd have a flat month; then we'd have a rise in sales - it was that way all season," he said.
Sexton indicated that he thinks that the tourism industry is more susceptible to the effects of recession than most other industries because when people feel fairly secure in the economy and their income, they spend money on fun-to-do things.
"Their uncertainty in the economy is reflected in their discretionary spending by cutting back on some of those things that aren't necessary. In other words, people who have secure jobs and a secure income continue to spend on entertainment. I believe that we provide one of the better and less expensive options in the entertainment industry. The demographics of the motor coach traveler, which is older demographic, just tend to be 'I'm uncertain. I'm not going to go,' even though their income probably doesn't change," Sexton said.
"All told, we had a great year. Everything was up except for the groups, which were down ever so slightly," Sexton said. "I think we will recoup all of that group business this year."
Sexton said AMT's gospel series saw a significant increase last year.
"I've added an additional show this year. Instead of having six shows as we did last year, we will have seven this year - and it is one of the best lineups we've ever had," he said.
"I have a new performer, Greg Thompson, coming on with us this year that we're really excited to have. Using musician terms, he's a 'monster.' He's been working in Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) for the last 22 years doing the same job at the Carolina Opry. He's trained as a classical violinist but he can play fiddle, mandolin, guitar, drums, bass and piano," Sexton said. 'We're glad to have another 'fill-instrument or utility person' in our band. Greg hales from Virginia Beach, Virginia."
When asked what he thinks about the future of the AMT, Sexton expressed a great deal of optimism.
"I'm certain that we will continue to grow and I am excited about that. The American Mountain Theater hasn't even scratched the surface as far as what can and should be done in numbers. I feel certain that we will see our sales continue to grow," he said. "We, of course, will continue to pursue and attend all the bus shows as strongly ever. Last year, we took the band to the motor coach show in Columbus (Ohio) as a means of exposing our production to a broader base. In June of this year, the band will entertain at the Travel Alliance Partners Show in Louisville, Kentucky. This is one of the most prestigious organizations in the travel industry. It's comprised of 38 of the largest motor coach tour operators in America. Members of the alliance buy packages from one another. The only way one can attend this show is by invitation - it's not like the other shows. Our friend and supporter, Bob Cline, just became a new member a couple of years ago and invited us to attend. We will entertain about 300 people at a luncheon. In essence, we'll be exposing ourselves to some 38 TAP members of the organization and the other 270 attendees. That will most likely be our one and only road show for the year."
In order to grow in the Elkins market, Sexton said the area needs more hotel rooms, at least at certain times of the year.
"I know that's a problem because this time of year they aren't full. We have to do one of two things: We either must have the operators come in May, June, July and August and not all come in September and October or we must have some more hotels or a combination of both. I don't expect people to go out and 'build rooms' if they can't pay for them, but you asked me what I think we need and that's how I see it," Sexton said.
I asked Mr. Sexton if he was involved in any way with the new Gandy Dancer Theatre now under construction and slated to open on April 1.
He replied, "There seems to be some confusion in the local area lately about this issue and I'd like to clear it up. We have no financial or creative interest and no input with the hiring of their entertainers. In other words, we have no ties with the new theater except that we are in the same tourism business. It is an entirely separate entity from the American Mountain Theater.
"We wish them well in their endeavors, and just like everyone else in the area, we are waiting for their new building to be completed and more importantly to see what kind of show they produce. I do know, however, that they have some very talented individuals involved," he said.
Sexton gave me a copy of the theater's new 2011 12-page brochure that contains photographs and brief bios of each performer, a brief history of the theater and this year's schedule for all four shows - the Premier Show that runs in the evenings, the History Show matinees, the Gospel Series and the Christmas Spectacular.
The brochure is nothing short of a "work of art." Everyone should stop by the theater and pick up a copy.
For more information, visit the AMT website at www.americanmountaintheater.com or call 304-630-3040 or 1-800-943-3670. You may also stop by the ticket office at 49 Martin St. located in the center of the Elkins railyard.