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USA Raft expands: thinking regionally

W. Kenneth Medley II • Apr 22, 2019 at 12:00 AM

USA Raft is a long time whitewater rafting business that is expanding to a full blown resort thanks to longtime employee, advocate and business savvy owner/operator Matt Moses.

The company has been operating under different owners since the 1980s in some form or fashion. Moses has been with the company off and on over the years before taking possession of the business. He is an outspoken and diligent advocate for what he does and the community he serves.

Moses received a degree in Outdoor Recreation in 1991 from Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont. At the time he says people would “downright belly laugh” when he told them his major. There was not jobs, a market or economy around the subject.

This negativity did not deter the aspiring entrepreneur. Moses continued to grind his way to the top of the ladder within his chosen specialty. He says he had some cushy jobs along the way, which include being an international adventure travel guiding and tour leading.

“Back in 2011 I purchased USA Raft on the Nolichucky in the French Broad, along with the brand name and identity,” said Moses. “We offer rafting on the French Broad, Nolichucky and Watauga Rivers. The first thing we added was caving to USA Raft. We have this awesome Worley’s cave in Bluff City.”

Moses went on to say that including offerings with other businesses within the region helps the whole “pie grow.” He believes in regionalism as a way to help land conservation and economic sustainability. That is one reason he says that he spends time at regional meetings discussing such topics.

KM: Why did you choose Outdoor Recreation?

MM: Thankfully my parents instilled a love for the outdoors in me. I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. Most weekends we were camping up along the Appalachians here. They instilled that love. It was always clear I was not going to be an office guy. This is about as much time as I am going to spend in this office today. I will go out and work on the property or something, but I always had a passion for people, a passion for the outdoors. I always liked to push the envelope a little bit, and typically wasn’t one to choose a paved path. I went to college in Vermont from North Carolina not knowing anybody. Green Mountain had one of the best-known Outdoor Rec. programs at the time. Now, you can find them all over the place. Back then they were few and far between.

My parents always encouraged us to follow our passion. My brother did that and he is in the ministry doing what he loves, and my mom loves to point out that our jobs are very similar. My brother is a pastor loving and caring for people and sharing what he is passionate about, and I do a lot of the same thing in a different way.

KM: In your opinion, what is the appeal of the Nolichucky and this region?

MM: I think one thing that is unique about this property is here we sit two miles off of I-26, a major interstate. Paved roads all the way in, it gets a little narrow right here at the end, a little cliff like. Still it feels like you are in the middle of nowhere, you know. We are surrounded by the Nolichucky River on one side, the Cherokee National Forest is right out the backdoor, so close they made me shave off my back porch. The Appalachian Trail comes right down into our property. You have the takeout from what we hope to see designated as a Wild and Scenic section of the river before long. The feel of remoteness, but the fact that you have a grocery store six minutes down the road, we have a new hospital four minutes down the road. It is accessible but the sense of remoteness and ruggedness and being in the middle of the mountains; it is hard to find something like that. When you pair that with being at the end of a world class whitewater experience that this offers…the typical rafting trip from Popular, North Carolina, to right here which is considered the end of the gorge is eight and a half miles. The first six are in North Carolina; the last two and a half are in Tennessee. The only manmade thing you see the whole time until you get to this property is a railroad track. That is really unusual, it is really unusual in the Southeast in particular. There are a lot of great commercially rafted rivers in the Southeast. More than any other region, I would confidently say, but this one is by far the least commercially utilized. There are not a lot of outfitters on here. It is a little harder to be an outfitter here because there is no dam. We are rain dependent, so that comes with a lot of challenges, but it also makes it a more special experience. I would venture to say for 99% of our guests, never in their lives have they been in a location as remote as they are while rafting down that gorge. I think you would have to get dropped off by a helicopter in the middle of the Everglades to get that remote on the East Coast probably. The sense of beauty, the being surrounded by nature and the accessibility, I think, are some of the key things that are making this so successful.

KM: What has led to your decision to expand to full resort status, what will be different?

MM: As I have alluded to, adding activities and lodging as we move along has provided a clear path that our long-term success is determinate upon. Our cash flow used to spike during the three summer months and then drop right back down. To be a healthier organization we want to try and level that out a little bit. We do have to run this like a business. I have somebody in there pounding away at QuickBooks, running me reports, you know. If we don’t run this like a business we will not survive. That is the big challenge for us, me remembering that I am not a river guide and I need to keep my butt in here being a better CEO.

Adding the Adventure Resort concept certainly made for a lot more work. November through March, that used to be very much our off-season and our downtime. There is a lot less of that now because we are busy taking care of guests that are here. Typically it is weekend business in the off-season but it has definitely changed the work pattern. We have added four year round jobs with the addition of the resort property. These are not college kids coming in and taking a job from locals. These are locals doing it housekeeping positions, facilities and maintenance management positions. I am proud to be bringing jobs to this region. We have a lot of local guides now too, more and more. One of them explained it best. They were trying to tell me that their parents didn’t understand; and didn’t consider this a job. ‘I think that if you are not punching a time clock, they do not consider it real work,’ and I can see that around here. We are trying to change that dynamic some and help people appreciate tourism, appreciate our natural assets and how we as locals can enjoy them. But also how we can monetize them for our community. Everybody loves to gripe about how the majority of our county is owned by the Forest Service so therefore it is not taxable land. This is true, but there are still ways to get dollars out of it and you know these folks don’t just come spend money with me. With every room night that I sell, that is at least one more person, usually two to four more people that are in this area for a longer time. That means more fuel, more eating out, more shopping, more visiting local establishments, and in our community lodge, that all our guest have access to, in our bathrooms and all our rooms we have lots of information to promote both our partners in business and other local businesses. We believe that if we can get them to downtown Johnson City to enjoy a brewery or a great restaurant, music or whatever is happening down there, and they stay here they will come back. We know that Johnson City is going to treat them right and we know that downtown Erwin that is growing is going to treat them right. The simple benefit of having a taproom, outdoor supply store and new restaurant or two opening up; that is helping us keep people here longer and keep them coming back. Our guest tend to return, so they enjoy coming back and, ‘oh wow, you all have a taproom in Erwin now. That is huge,’ you know and they go visit the taproom. That has been fun and encourages the market response.

We want to communicate that we do a lot more than rafting and that you can come spend a week or a day with us. You can stay here and you do not have to do guided activities. There is plenty to do and we will help you. We love helping people plan their trip here. We have a group that the last time they were here we shuttled them up the AT and they hiked back down to us. It is seven miles from Indian Grave Gap to here. This year they are going to go to (Lamar Alexander) Rocky Fork, and check out that awesome new state park. It is a change of scenery for them. They wanted to do a service project while they are here and we have two other groups doing service projects. We are going to send one to the fish hatchery and one to Rocky Fork to do their service projects and share the love a little bit.

KM: How many people do you employ?

MM: We peak out at 83 in the June. Those positions range from drivers to property management; of course a lot of those are guides, but yeah 83 people. I feel like I own a landscaping company, a transportation company, food service company, house keeping service and we do some rafting and guiding activities too.

KM: You are not just involved with USA Raft within outdoor recreation in the area, can you tell me about your public role?

MM: I feel like it is my duty to give back to an industry I love and has been good to me, and to a community that I love and has been good to me, and a region for the same reasons. I enjoy being involved with the whole push for regionalism for example. Early on I was involved with the Outdoor Taskforce that NETREP set-up. I am the Taskforce chairperson for Unicoi County. These little taskforce are really getting things done. We are accomplishing a lot and I communicate from the overall taskforce to Unicoi and vice versa. I sat on the founding group for Meet the Mountains Festival. That was a lot of meetings but man did that go off well. What an exciting first year for an event and what a success I would say. I was very involved with that. On behalf of Unicoi County I went to the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia, to help us retain our ability to receive grants from the regional Appalachian Commission. You have to have a county representative at these meetings to retain that status so I got to do that. I was honored to represent our county and I learned a lot. That was really neat. I go to Washington D.C. at least once a year. Typically to lobby on behalf of Land and Water Conservation Fund, which just got fully authorized. I might talk to them about issues that affect Unicoi County. I enjoy that kind of thing and I think that it is important. It is a way to give back to my industry, my state and my county.

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