CEO tries to re-energize Callaway Gardens

How does a CEO rejuvenate a respected brand that became stale?

With Memorial Day kicking off the prime tourist season, I wanted to find out how the top dog at Callaway Gardens is dealing with a family treasure that had fallen on tough times.

Edward Callaway

Edward Callaway

No one is a harsher critic of what the 13,000-acre gardens and resort had become than Edward Callaway, the grandson of the founder who’s now in charge.

“From the 1990s to the mid-2000s, we were stuck. We didn’t do much. There was not a lot of innovation and it got real sleepy,” Callaway, 56, told me last week.

Sleep had costly repercussions, as a once top-of-the-mind tourist spot, 80 miles south of Atlanta in Pine Mountain, had become an after-thought for many vacationers.

A common refrain from consumers, Callaway said: “I love Callaway Gardens. I went there 15 years ago.”

The result: Revenue and expenses for the nonprofit gardens and the for-profit resort (golf, tennis, inland beach, bike and nature trails, lodging and conference center) went in the wrong directions.

Revenue fell from $47 million in 2007 to $35 million in 2009 on a combined basis for the nonprofit and for-profit operations, which is how Callaway views the financial picture. Operating cash flow during that time fell from $2 million to a negative $1 million, he said.

There was a mild rebound last year, and Callaway hopes his strategy will continue to pay off. Still, he said, it will take until next year — at the earliest — before the numbers reach what they were in 2007.

Here’s what he’s been doing to try to turn things around:

– Added a new lodge and spa in 2007 through a joint venture with Noble Investments, which provided the capital — something that was in short supply when Callaway took the helm in 2004. The other hotel on the grounds was built in 1956. Up-to-date facilities at the resort drive traffic to the gardens.

– Added a half-dozen new attractions, including “TreeTop Adventure,” which is designed to lure some younger visitors. The daring can “climb, leap, swing and whizz” their way through a dizzying course of zip-lines, swinging bridges, nets and logs.

“We needed a little hook to get them to come back,” he said. He thinks the $200,000 investment could light up the $160 million campus.

– Increased the marketing budget by 33 percent to $4 million a year.

“This is a marketing person’s dream,” he said. “The public knows your product and likes it and wants to use it, but they’re not. … Our message now is to come back to try the new things.”

– Added a residential component by teaming up with Cousins Properties. The real estate crash put a damper on the project. But Callaway still thinks they will be able to slowly add to the 180 homes that already have been sold.

– Cut costs, including employees. At the same time, he said, he is changing the culture to encourage employees to go the extra mile to provide good customer service.

“The real trick is to improve the customer experience while cutting costs,” Callaway said. “It’s all about the people — the employees. These guys will save you or kill you.”

He’s counting on the former.

- Henry Unger, The Biz Beat

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24 comments Add your comment

Jane

May 31st, 2011
6:39 am

I find it very interesting he is depending on excellent customer service from employees after laying off employees due to cost cutting.

native atlantan

May 31st, 2011
7:58 am

Thats because he like most of corporate america want to increase productivity with the employees that are remaining to do the work. Employees are scared, and those that are left work their ass of to remain. Productivity isnt the problem, high unemployment and spending are the issue. Too many businesses are finding ways to do everything with less, be it employees or supplies they had become use to having at their businesses in the past. With attitudes like that, my well known company that supplies products to many types of businesses continue to see sales decreases, and then we inturn let more folks go, and expect the remainder to work even harder.
What a vicious cycle this perpetuates.

TnGelding

May 31st, 2011
8:18 am

I’ve always thought it was overpriced. People are looking for value. Wasn’t much of the decline in revenue due to the recession?

SunnyInForsyth

May 31st, 2011
8:49 am

The slacker employees are killing the place. I know because I stayed @ the new hotel last summer and the housekeeping was horrendous. Oversights happen, but apparently they have multiple slacker employees and no one was available for hours to remedy the situation. I’ll not go back. Biltmore is better than Callaway for a short getaway and my last visit to Biltmore was fantastic!

Road Scholar

May 31st, 2011
8:50 am

Maybe add some restaurants with good food? You have to drive for miles to get a decent lunch or dinner!

Coweta County Resident

May 31st, 2011
8:53 am

Cost is what is prohibitive for me and my family to go to Callaway Gardens. We had family in town this weekend and were planning on a trip to the Gardens but not after seeing that the per person price was raised for Memorial Day Weekend. It went from $18/pp to $25/pp. We weren’t interested in doing/seeing anything that they “included” in the jacked up price. We simply wanted to tour the gardens. We have also wanted to go numerous times during the holidays, but at $25/pp to get in to the light display, it’s just not affordable.

bo

May 31st, 2011
9:15 am

It is interesting to see how some of GA tourism/landowner stalwarts like Callaway, Reynolds Plantation, and Sea Island have simply floundered in recent years. The first went stale and the latter two made aggressive investment decisions as the economy was about to tank. At least Callaway isn’t on the auction block like the other two.

Buzz

May 31st, 2011
9:40 am

The food at the restuarants needs to improve. The Lodge is a great place to stay but the old Inn needs updating.

art

May 31st, 2011
9:43 am

One reason “GA tourism/landowner stalwarts” like Bo mentions have floundered is they simply, in a word, suck. SunnyinForsyth likes Biltmore. So do I. It has something unique to offer other than being a tourist trap. The facilities are better than anything in Georgia by a country mile. You simply can’t compare The Lodge (at Reynolds Plantation) to either Biltmore’s own hotel or Grove Park Inn. As far as Callaway, if you want to stay in the equivalent of a Motel 6, I’m sure they’ll leave the lights on for you. But they may go out, as it sounds like they can barely afford the power bill.

Mike

May 31st, 2011
9:50 am

Callaway Gardens has always been overpriced. But then so are a lot of other attractions closer to Atlanta.

Larry

May 31st, 2011
9:57 am

Wow. What a bunch of cheap and negative nannies!

Where else can you go that is 60-90 minutes from the Atlanta area where you have 13,000 acres of beautiful landscape and gardens, the world’s largest fresh water beach, the best bass and fly fishing lakes in the southeast, two nice gold courses, a tennis complex, miles and miles of biking or hiking trails, tree tops courses, amphitheater with an incredible bird show, skeet and trap shooting, an amazing fireworks display on Robin lake the 4th of July, world championship water skiing, long jumps, and wake boarding on Memorial day weekend, Christmas lights show, more beautiful azaleas than anywhere in the world, a lodge and spa, a charming city like Pain Mountain and Warm Springs for shopping, and more?

Get your fat rears off out of the TV room, get your fat kids off their iPods and video games, stop watching soap operas and checking 200 emails every day and get your families out to enjoy nature at its finest!

Or, you can just go get a sunburn on the beach at Panama City and visit 7000 t-shirts shops or go to the mountains and rent a cabin, float down a river at 3 mph and eat BBQ!

Larry

May 31st, 2011
10:13 am

art,

You’re dead wrong!

As an owner of a large travel company, I have traveled all over the world at stayed at the most expensive hotels and resorts in Paris, London, Bermuda, Hawaii, and hundreds of other destinations.

Yes, the Biltmore hotel and Grove Park Inn are nice, above average facilities. But, after you tour the Biltmore house and the other typical resort hotel offerings what is left?

Callaway has dozens of outdoor activities available for any age IF you are the outdoors type! If you have a beer gut and/or you and your wife and kids are morbidly obese then, yes, go to the Biltmore or Grove Park Inn and pig out at the Prime Rib Buffet or Seafood on Friday and Saturday nights!
.

Christian

May 31st, 2011
10:17 am

What the article failed to mention is that Callaway is signing on to Marriott International’s “Autograph Collection” which will allow Callaway to have access and visibility on all of Marriott’s reservation systems, as well as take part in the Marriott Rewards loyalty program. That’s a huge step for them.

Yeah right......

May 31st, 2011
10:21 am

We stopped going to Callaway Gardens when we went to a marriage retreat only to be told that they only had rooms with 2 doubles no queens or kings. Then we got to get a cold shower with the shower head mounted at about the middle of our chests. The conference now meets at a different venue. The prices are also way to high and the service is the worst. We will never go back.

Yeah right......

May 31st, 2011
10:22 am

Sounds like Larry=Edward Callaway.

RxDawg

May 31st, 2011
10:37 am

“go to the mountains and rent a cabin, float down a river at 3 mph and eat BBQ!”

That actually sounds fun!

I don’t live too far from Callaway Gardens. We drove over to eat at their new restaurant. And I gota say, It was no where near what price we paid for it.

Larry

May 31st, 2011
10:41 am

No, “Yeah right,” I have been visiting there since I was a kid and now I’m taking my kids to learn and enjoy nature the great outdoors.

Just vist and thoroughly explore the website below and then do tell me where else can you find and do all of this other than Disney World?

http://www.callawaygardens.com/

ltcjdc

May 31st, 2011
10:44 am

We have had problems at Callaway several times. The facilities are well-worn and it is not a good value. Employees are poorly trained and management becomes very defensive when confronted with a problem. They need a new 21st century management model that focuses on pleasing the customer above all else.

RxDawg

May 31st, 2011
11:15 am

Bad food aside, it is still a beautiful place. The flowers on display in the spring are pretty magnificent. I can’t really speak to the service or resort sections as I’ve never actually spent the night there.

Marz

May 31st, 2011
12:12 pm

Add to the fact that Pine Mountain closes up tight on Sundays. There are no open restaurants, you have to drive for miles to find a place to eat dinner.

I love Callaway Gardens, and have been numerous times. The admission price is steep, but the beauty is worth it….especially when the flowers are all blooming.

Bruin

May 31st, 2011
12:28 pm

Smartest thing he could do is move it closer to Atlanta.

Mary

May 31st, 2011
1:50 pm

I couldn’t believe it when we took our granddaughter on Monday afternoon @ 3:00, that we would be charged $12.95/person PLUS our annual pass when all we wanted to do was visit the butterfly house for about an hour. We had NO interest in the Masters – which was probably over by that time, doesn’t it finish on Sunday? Of course, we didn’t go in. The gate attendant seemed very rehearsed when she said “then you may exit to the left.” She had probably been saying that all weekend long!

Jonathan

May 31st, 2011
4:31 pm

A hidden secret at Callaway is the Summer Family Adventure program. You go for a week and the kids have a day camp staffed by FSU students that keep them busy with activities throughout the day. I have fond memories of it and returned to work at the Gardens for 3 summers as a ski instructor during college. Other pro tips- the Lodge and the Country Store have great food, the cabins are the place to stay, very peaceful. The Gardens’ focus is on everything outside, don’t go here if you do not enjoy nature. Callaway has so much to offer: gardens upon gardens, the Sibley Center, the butterfly center, Robin Lake Beach, golf, tennis, gun club, birds of prey show, ropes course, circus, fishing lakes, and too many activities to mention.

southern hope

May 31st, 2011
4:31 pm

My family and I sort of bumbled our way into Callaway Gardens last year and we loved it. Maybe it’s because I have urban kids and they never get a chance to poke around but just being able to ride bikes on their own was the best. It’s a lazy, easy place to visit….no glitz…no excitement…just what we wanted….