Longtime hospitality industry player Mark Oldham is finding ways to bring tourism to his region while maintaining its authenticity. Owner of Dancing Bear Appalachian Lodge in Townsend and several other culinary-based endeavors, he is finding his place bringing the peace and beauty of East Tennessee to all.
Mark Oldham would never call himself a local. “I’ve only been here seven years,” he says. “I’ve met people who’ve been here for 20 years and they say they’ll never be considered a local.” But what he can call himself is someone deeply committed to this region.
Mark’s first foray was at The Regis Inn in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1984. The hotel was owned by his father, who offered Mark a spot there as a manager trainee. Mark took it, but after four years, he began to feel ready for a change. “Eventually you get to the point where you say, you know, do I really want to work for my dad? And I needed to see if I could do something else.”
While working at the inn, a salesman putting together an in-room guest directory came through needing a room. Mark struck up a friendship with the man and by the time he left, Mark was catapulted into the next chapter. Together they started US Hospitality, which grew from an “out-of-order hotel room” to the Inc. 500 in 1992. “By the time it was over, we did guest directories in 27 countries and all over the world.” He calls this experience “humbling.”
When the millennium rolled around, the internet was booming, and Mark says they needed to find ways to diversify. They merged with Uniguest, a company that placed computers in hotel lobbies. You might know them today as business centers. “We were very much ahead of that curve,” he tells me. Business boomed, but by 2013 he and his wife, Sharon, decided to hang up their hats as hotel service providers.
Throughout this all, Mark couldn’t stop noticing the hotel owners and managers. “They like having guests. They like serving guests, and they’ve got to have a servant attitude,” he says. “I just liked them.” And with hotel ownership and management in his blood, Mark took a leap at the age of 55. “We just didn’t want to get back in that rat race of traveling all the time.” So he and Sharon decided to reenter the “core hospitality business,” founding together Oldham Hospitality a year later.
The two were in Nashville when they decided to take the leap; they were thinking about moving west or up to the northeast. But fate had other plans, and Mark and Sharon spotted a listing for Dancing Bear the day it was put up for sale. They fell in love with the property. “It’s in the mountains. It’s close to our beloved Big Orange Vols—we’re big Tennessee fans.”
“We met here,” Mark tells me, as he looks out the window of his office. This space inspires him, he tells me, but so does the national park, serving his guests, and having his family with him for the ride.
Mark’s journey is marked by success but it wasn’t always simple. It’s taken hard work to get to where he is today, and it’s taken a lot of time learning about people. “That’s the hard part, right? Learning their personalities, learning what motivates them, learning how to motivate them, learning what maybe ticks them off…Weaving together a team and organization is very difficult.” He understood this firsthand during the merger, a decision he surprisingly tells me that if he had to do it over again, “I don’t think I would have merged with Uniguest even though it turned out okay.” One of his key business relationships was a tumultuous one, he says, “If you become partners with somebody, you’re either going to be best friends or best enemies, right? There’s no in between. And I really thought we were going to be best friends and we were going to have a great relationship. And it just turned out the opposite.”
But getting through it and selling was a victory. “That was my greatest triumph,” he says, “saying I’m ready to turn the page and get out of that business and move into something else.” It propelled him into the opening of Oldham Hospitality and eventually Dancing Bear and the bistro, among other culinary endeavors. “When we were back in ’84, ’85, at the Regis Inn, that was our biggest headache,” he recalls of the restaurant there. “My dad pulled his hair out. His partners pulled their hair out. And we looked at each other and I said, ‘Dad, if I’m ever in the hospitality business later in life, I’m never going to own a restaurant.’” He was 26 when he said that. It’s funny how things turn out.
Mark’s down-to-earth nature shines through on our call, and it’s obvious he loves this work. But it’s also obvious he loves his town. His other role in Townsend, where I actually first connected with him, is as chair of the Townsend Cades Cove Gateway Alliance. “You’ve got to have a love for where you live. You’ve got to try to make that community better.” He walks the talk.
And while he still won’t call himself a local, he’s certainly part of its fabric, biking and hiking on the regular, fly fishing when he has time. “The culture of the mountains is everywhere. It’s who you talk to. It’s who you work with. It’s what you do on your day off.”