Coronavirus tourism done right: a visit to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC
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After canceling multiple trips due to the coronavirus pandemic, my family was in need of a break. Trying to navigate two full-time jobs along with homeschooling (read: entertaining) a five-year-old had taken a toll, so we set our sights on a trip within driving distance of our home in Florida. This took us to the North Carolina mountains for a week, complete with socially-distanced hikes, plenty of takeout and a lot of relaxation in the spacious Airbnb we had booked.
However, we simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the Biltmore Estate on our trip. Despite going to college in central North Carolina (go Deacs!), my wife and I had never visited the renowned property in Asheville. The estate’s extensive page on reopening reassured us that significant, concrete steps were being taken to minimize our risk of contracting COVID-19 on the grounds, so we purchased tickets online and pulled through the gates mid-morning on Wed. July 8.
And color us impressed.
Here’s how America’s largest home is taking the right approach to reopening as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
For starters, the Biltmore Estate is requiring reservations for all guests, including annual passholders who want to gain entry into the house. These are timed tickets for either the self-guided or audio tour of the massive mansion, though you can still get onto the property before your scheduled time. In addition, passholders aren’t eligible to bring guests until after 5 p.m. — and even then, they’re limited to Antler Hill Village.
If you are looking to visit, you’ll want to plan in advance. We purchased our tickets on June 24 — two weeks before our intended arrival day — and found that our time options were already a bit limited. And as I write, most of the tickets for this week with entry before 3.pm. are already gone.
Even though these reservations do lock you into a time to enter the house, you are free to explore the other attractions before and after your scheduled window.
It’s also worth noting that the complimentary tasting at the on-property winery — included with admission — now requires reservations as well. We made that our first stop (prior to lunch) to ensure that we had our choice of times. The doors to the winery open at 11 a.m.
The reservation requirement goes hand-in-hand with the next measure: limiting how many guests are allowed not only on property but throughout the various attractions. One of the security guards at the entrance to the house made an off-handed comment that the house is operating with 20% capacity, though the Biltmore’s website just indicates that “daily capacity is very limited.”
Regardless of the exact figure, we found the property to be far from crowded, despite visiting the week after a major holiday. Steps were also taken to ensure individual spots weren’t overwhelmed with guests.
We encountered this multiple times during our visit. An employee was stationed at the entrance to the Downton Abbey exhibit — a key draw for my wife — monitoring how many guests were inside at once. The small, costume-centered Downton exhibit in the Antler Hill Village had similar safeguard in place. In fact, we waited roughly 5 minutes at the door before we were let inside, joining just a handful of other guests in the three-room exhibit.
This was very evident at the winery as well. Even with wine-tasting reservations, we still were delayed for at least 10 minutes while other groups finished their drinks — and the massive tasting room was (at most) 30% full.
However, nowhere was this more apparent than inside the house. Whenever the flow of visitors slowed down ahead of a particularly small space, a Biltmore Estate employee was there to hold more guests from entering. This ensured that smaller rooms held no more than 10 visitors at a time. While this slowed us down a bit, as we opted for the self-guided tour rather than the audio guide option, it was much appreciated to maintain social distancing during our stay.
Mandatory, Enforced mask-wearing
Masks have become a bit of a flash point in the travel world, with Delta along with American and United threatening bans for passengers who flout their respective mask-wearing policies. Like it or not, North Carolina requires everyone to wear masks after an executive order from the governor, but some reports indicate spotty enforcement.
That was not the case in the Biltmore.
Every employee was masked across the entire grounds, and outside the house, staff members offered oral reminders to queuing guests every few minutes. When a woman without a mask approached to take a picture with one of the lions that flank the house’s main entrance (next to where I was standing with my wife and daughter), she was given a stern reminder of the policy — and wasn’t even allowed to take the photo without her mask on.
There wasn’t any rudeness to the reminders — just gentle nudges to ensure the well-being of other guests.
Clear markers for social distancing
Across the entire grounds, the Biltmore had taken time to lay out clear markers to ensure separation between guests. We encountered them waiting in line at the creamery (try the vanilla milkshake), exploring both of the Downton exhibits, walking through the entire winery and waiting to enter the house. In addition, multiple outlets for shopping and dining remain closed — mainly in the relatively-cramped stables area off the house.
Finally — and most importantly — I have to commend the employees of the Biltmore Estate. It didn’t matter where we encountered them; every, single one was wearing a mask and playing a role in ensuring the safety of visitors. I lost count of how many we saw disinfecting surfaces like the counters in the wine-tasting room or the door handles of the stores in Antler Hill Village. There were dozens of staff members stationed throughout the house, controlling crowds and monitoring masks and social distancing.
It was quite clear that training for these individuals wasn’t an after-thought but instead reflected a comprehensive plan from management to ensure a successful reopening.
I never thought that my first visit to the Biltmore Estate would be in the middle of a global pandemic, but a road trip to North Carolina turned that thought upside down — and I’m very glad for it. The estate has taken clear steps to protect guests and has created an environment that minimized our risks while still creating a memorable experience for me and my family — so much so that we purchased the Biltmore’s 2020 commemorative Christmas ornament as our trip’s keepsake (a tradition my wife and I started back in 2006).
When that ornament takes a spot on our tree this year and in future holiday seasons, we likely won’t remember the anxiety of the summer and the trips we had to cancel. Instead, we’ll look back with fondness on our Biltmore visit — and in a pandemic, that’s something that all tourist sites should aim to emulate.
(All photos by the author)
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