What’s in a Destination?

03 Feb 2021

John Woods has distinguished The Park on Main- now he’s part of distinguishing all of Highlands for a whole new demographic

by Christa Miller

Photos by Sarah Lown

In his four years as general manager of The Park on Main, John Woods has made a shift. Having distinguished the boutique property with a laid-back vibe that welcomes all of a family’s members—both two-legged and four-legged—Woods is trying to create that same sense for the town of Highlands, NC as a whole new demographic comes to town. How’s he doing it?

Family friendliness, with distinction

Woods came to hospitality management by way of the U.S. Navy, where he served as an engineering officer working around a lot of heavy machinery. But Woods, a people person, needed more. 

“When I got out, I said, ‘Okay, what do I want to be?’ My love for travel, knowledge and people led me to hospitality, where I got all three rolled into one,” he says.

An extended family presence in the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau wasn’t all that attracted Woods and his two children. The chance to manage a small boutique hotel like The Park on Main was one he couldn’t pass up.

Extensive interaction with the guests was just one reason. The other was the ability to shape the property’s brand. That chance came following an extensive remodeling.

Thanks in part to Woods’ marketing degree and background, The Park on Main is now known around Highlands as “the doggie hotel,” a laid-back, pet-friendly property complete with “extras” like dog beds and towels in every room.

That wasn’t all, though. Encouraging families to welcome a new pet became part of the brand, and The Park on Main partnered with the Cashiers-Highlands Humane Society to foster dogs up for adoption.

By fostering the shelter’s more senior dogs, the hotel got animals who were better trained and more relaxed, willing to join guests on their walks around town.

“We’d keep a foster behind the front desk at all times,” says Woods, “and the dogs had free range of the lobby, sometimes lying by the front door waiting for guests to come in and pet them, give them a treat.” The result: 26 dogs adopted over a three-year timeframe.

It was part of what Woods calls “more of an extended family situation” than what larger, chain hotels can provide. “The guests know me… they know the dogs’ names, my kids’ names,” he explains. “[And] I know them.”

An active, hands-on role

That deep knowledge of guests’ needs, coupled with his leadership experience as a naval officer, informs Woods’ approach to hotel management. “I’m not going to ask anybody that works for me to do something that I’m not willing to do,” he says—whether that’s helping to change beds or air filters, clean a bathroom, or launder sheets and towels.

It’s a level of meticulousness that earned The Park on Main a prestigious spot on the Select Registry, a national nonprofit consortium of high-end boutique inns. “They have a very intensive quality assurance process,” says Woods, who serves on the organization’s board of directors.

His drive to improve the property didn’t stop even after the COVID-19 pandemic closed The Park on Main for nearly two months. It wasn’t just the chance to give the hotel’s 24 rooms a deep cleaning; it was also the luxury of time to look at the rooms from a guest’s perspective.

“Normally, we don’t have a room open for more than 24 hours, if that long,” Woods explains. “[The closure] allowed me to spend extra time going through every single one of the rooms. What can they see? I sat on the sofa in each room. I’d lie on the bed in each room. I’d sit on the floor because people will get on the floor to play with their dog, and look around, look up.”

When guests began to return, Woods and his staff continued to evaluate their needs. “What is going to be the most important thing to them… to experience that first night away from home?” he says.

A clean, clutter-free environment with plenty of open space seemed to be the most obvious answer. And even though The Park on Main had to curtail its adoption partnership for the safety of guests, staff and dogs, Woods says he’s looking at ways to modify the program.

Adapting for a shift in visitor demographics

Being so hands-on isn’t just about managing a hotel. It’s also a philosophy Woods brings to his participation in the Highlands-Cashiers community. As a hotelier, he’s in a unique position among small business owners: hospitality crosses sectors, traversing not just where people stay but also where they eat, shop and relax.

That’s why, as Woods’ children have grown, he’s moved from serving as president of the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) to more business-oriented roles. He currently serves on the boards of directors for the Highlands Chamber of Commerce (HCoC), the Macon County Economic Development Commission and the Highlands Tourism Development Commission.

This coming year, Woods will transition from serving as treasurer for the HCoC, to chair of its board of directors. The role will afford him the chance to shepherd the organization through a new challenge: adapting the Chamber’s strategic plan to a shift in both visitor and resident demographics.

For years, Highlands has been popular among baby boomers. Many executives and empty nesters have purchased second or even primary residences. “Before the pandemic, it was a rarity up here to see under 35 or even under 40 for more than a day or two at a time,” Woods says.

That was a concern for the Chamber. An aging population has different needs, which might not be compatible with those of younger visitors over the long term—10 or 15 years from now.

Just after the pandemic lockdown lifted, though, families started to spend more time in town. “Now we see a lot of moms and dads checking in [with] an 8-month-old, a four-year-old, a 10-year-old,” Woods explains.

He believes it’s because Highlands uniquely allows people to slow down and get outdoors, into nature—at an appropriate social distance, something even, say, a park in Atlanta can’t offer. “People have realized that as long as you’ve got internet, who says you have to be in Birmingham? In Nashville? Why can’t you be in Highlands?” says Woods.

The trend has driven what he calls a “record year” for Highlands: hotels consistently filled to their maximum capacity, retail shops thriving, even restaurants—limited to 50 percent capacity by order of the state governor—doing well.

As a result, the Chamber opted to delay the strategic plan, so they could collect the right data. The trend appears to be holding. Woods says that’s what will allow Chamber marketing to attract whole new groups: ones that will benefit everyone in Highlands, business owners and residents alike.

John Woods

General Manager, Park on Main

Birthplace: Newnan, Georgia

Family: Son, Patrick 18; Daughter, MacKenzie, 15

Education: BS, Chemistry & Physics; MBA, Marketing & Management

Hobbies: Snow skiing, reading, spending time with his kids, vacationing at the beach

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