When Heidi Stone first arrived at Mountain Lake Lodge almost a decade ago, she was standing in a resort that was in survival mode.
The historic stone-lined lodge, perhaps best known as the backdrop of hit film “Dirty Dancing,” found itself at a crossroads.
The 1930s resort was showing its age, in more ways than one, and in need of a reinvention. The hotel was also battling the effects of the one-two punch that was the Great Recession and the mysterious draining of its 50-acre namesake lake — an ecological phenomenon that has attracted attention from teams of researchers.
There were talks of closing the mountaintop resort altogether back then. But the ownership — a foundation formed to preserve the site’s legacy as a hotel and nature preserve where people could connect with the outdoors — didn’t want to take that route.
So it began forming a team that was willing to dig in and help save the property. It would be the biggest undertaking that Stone, who’s spent her entire career in hospitality, would ever face.
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And it was exactly what drew her to the Giles County resort 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 couldn’t be done. They drew that line in the sand,” she recalled.
“Well, here we are 10 years later, and we’re thriving and about to begin a tremendous amount of growth,” she said, adding later, “When you can feel like you’re really making a difference, that’s very rewarding work.”
Over the past decade, Mountain Lake Lodge has invested in a refresh of its rooms and cabins as well as rolled out a slew of new recreation amenities from a ropes course to bubble ball.
Stone, who first joined the resort as its director of sales and marketing, rose to become general manager of the property, which also offers over 22 miles of hiking trails, and in March she was named as its new president and CEO.
She’s now working to map out the next 10-year plan for the lodge. But this time, the hotel, which just recorded its most successful year ever, is working from a place of strength, not survival.
“We’re starting a new era at Mountain Lake Lodge,” said Stone.
Stone talked with The Roanoke Times about the revitalization of the lodge, how it navigated the pandemic and what visitors can expect to see this year. The edited Q&A that follows below comes from that interview.
Q: When your team first 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 wasn’t fast. But anything that’s worth anything isn’t fast. The initial rebranding plan was about engaging with the community. We started farm-to-table dining in our restaurant, which 10 years ago was just coming onto the scene. 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 creating more outdoor recreation, and reasons for people to come and recreate at Mountain Lake Lodge. Today, we have all kinds of options at our adventure center that didn’t exist before.
Back in 2012 or 2013, this place really was Kellerman’s. It was that traditional family fun. All those things you would have seen in the movie. But that’s not enough for families today. Families can go on cruises or places where their kids can stay busy all the time, right? We didn’t have those keep kids busy all the time type elements back then. We do now. People can come here and really relax, and their kids will have wonderful outdoor recreation things to do.
The other thing we did was completely overhaul the branding with Dirty Dancing and Kellerman’s. We have a tremendous partnership now with Lionsgate, which holds the license on Dirty Dancing, that never existed before. We create registered, licensed merchandise with them, and we have film opportunities that come to us now because of them. That was another important leg on the stool for us.
Q: In 2020, the pandemic abruptly upturned life. Folks everywhere were forced to stay home more and, nationally, hotel bookings plunged to historic lows. How did it affect Mountain Lake Lodge, and what is its outlook now?
We never slowed down. We never stopped. Because of Covid, we became the spot within a 300-mile radius for people to come. They were able to lodge in cabins and recreate outside. We were the perfect place for people to come. They were able to get out of their homes, have a break from everything that 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. The commitment of our team was like nothing I had ever seen. During the worst staffing crisis in the world, we were all going and it was this whole team, everyone, pulling together.
In 2021, we had the biggest year ever in the history of the hotel. Our end-of-year bottom line was up over 500%. That put us on a tremendous growth track. We have so many new things that we’ve been able to start building because of that.
Q: What new features can people look forward to when the summer season arrives?
We’re in the process right now of creating two outdoor dining spaces. It’s kind of ridiculous that up until now Mountain Lake Lodge hasn’t had outdoor dining. This is such an outdoor place.
Our regular dining room is going to have an outdoor dining terrace. Then we’re also creating a new outdoor pub that will have brews and pizza. So, when you’ve gone hiking, you can come back with your muddy shoes and have a beer and some great food and be outdoors. It will have fire pits and just be a really cool outdoor space. That will be ready in early summer.
The other thing we’re building is two new retail shops. One of those we’re working directly with Lionsgate on, and we’re creating the first-ever Kellerman’s gift shop. It will be the first-ever Dirty Dancing store if you will. So, when you walk in, you will be enveloped in this new retail experience. We already sell registered merchandise but this is really elevating that whole experience for our Dirty Dancing fans.
Then we’re also creating a new Mountain Lake shop that will have Mountain Lake home, kitchen and artisan items from here locally. I’ll also tell you that we’ve been partnering 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 base of Bald Knob.
The new Giles County trail center will essentially be viewed as the gateway to all the recreation trails that Giles County has to offer. So that’s a pretty big deal.
Q: You’ve worked in hospitality your entire career going back to your first job in high school when you landed a part-time gig as a front desk clerk at a Howard Johnson’s. From there, you earned a degree in hotel 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 about the industry?
I’m from Saratoga Springs, New York. It’s a sleepy college town in the winter but a very busy town in the summer. And I saw what tourism did for a town. I loved the energy around the hotels. You’d go in, 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, right? You didn’t have big time women leaders blazing a path in so many different areas like you do today.
So I decided in high school that I wanted to go into hospitality. I loved the energy. I’m outgoing. It just seemed so rewarding, and more of an instant reward when you’re in that business. You get to make a difference in someone’s day. That’s an instant reward. I wanted to be a part of that environment.
Q: Dirty Dancing, which is now celebrating its 35th anniversary, is such a big part of Mountain Lake Lodge’s identity. Fans flip 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 incredible. Who doesn’t stop and hum along when you hear it? It just takes you back.
I didn’t know all the trivia. Our fans know every word. It has a cult-like 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.
In the beginning, when we rebranded, the initial advice from consultants was to abandon Dirty Dancing altogether. They wanted us to get rid of it. When I got here, being a woman and listening to what our female customers were saying, I said we haven’t been listening to the customer. That is not the right move.
Can you imagine if we had abandoned it 10 years ago? There never would 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’re almost sold out for 2023 already.
Thank God, they put a woman in charge. I’m just saying.