Aristotle Helps Smokies Rise From the Ashes

by Kyle Massey  on Monday, Jan. 9, 2017 12:00 am  

Marla Johnson, CEO of Aristotle Inc.

Something dreadful happened, but there was still time to save Christmas.

After fatal wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains devastated Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in November, Aristotle Inc. of Little Rock found a way to help out.

While nothing could truly soothe the pain of 14 deaths, 14,000 evacuations and arson charges against two teenagers, Gatlinburg needed a glint of hope for the holidays, not to mention tourist dollars.

“It was so shocking, and so many Gatlinburg people lost their homes or knew somebody who died, it was personally devastating,” said Marla Johnson, CEO of Aristotle, the web and digital marketing agency that represents the tourism site “But the community came together and came up with a game plan, and we were ready to help.”

Aristotle, which has hosted the site since 2005, dove into crisis messaging and revising content, all pro bono.

It helped shift the narrative past the horrible reality of disrupted lives and $500 million in damage toward positive stories about attractions left unscathed and open. Aristotle reminded travelers that they could help simply by visiting, seeing the unscarred sights and spending money at hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

And her team knew what to do. It has represented coastal areas after hurricanes and helped Gulf Shores, Alabama, hone its message after the BP oil spill. It even created an application for after Hurricane Katrina to inform Louisiana storm refugees about vacant hotel rooms and shelters, Johnson said.

“In tourism, weather and bad news and crime can do you in,” Johnson said. “It’s natural. People want to stay away from bad stuff. So we immediately got with folks in Gatlinburg.”

Dolly Parton, whose Dollywood theme park was barely spared by the flames, quickly promised affected families a thousand dollars a month for six months and then raised $9 million with a benefit concert. As morale improved, word came that the likely cause was arson. “That was terrible, but it did help the tragedy make more sense,” Johnson said.

Beyond comforting the grieving and displaced, rallying holiday tourism became a crucial priority.

“The goal was to quickly change the message from loss and crisis to all of the places still open for business. We tried to put a face on those businesses, letting people see the guy who owns the pancake house or the woman who rents cabins or owns an attraction,” Johnson said.

“Christmas is a huge travel season, and that’s true in Gatlinburg. Yes, there are places that are scarred, but so many are still pristine, places like downtown Gatlinburg. You’ll have a great vacation.



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