Callaway Gardens said Wednesday it has hired someone with a background in both resorts and theme parks — including Dollywood and Silver Dollar City — as its new president and chief executive officer. He succeeds Edward Callaway.
William “Bill” Doyle III starts work Monday and is being given the mission of keeping the 63-year-old, 6,000-acre nature preserve and resort in Pine Mountain, Ga., just north of Columbus, on the path to recovery after several troubling years of declining attendance and rising debt.
Callaway, who has served as president and CEO since 2003, said the primary goal of bringing in an executive with Doyle’s experience and acumen is not to turn the property into a theme park. It’s to make the gardens a more fun place to visit — with new events and activities — and to bring more customers through its gates, people who ultimately will enjoy the natural surroundings as well.
“So it’s inventing fun things to do in a beautiful setting,” Callaway, who turns 60 this year, said in an interview Wednesday. “For a long time we’ve had a beautiful setting, but the fun stuff to do while you’re there isn’t developed as much as it needs to be.”
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Callaway Gardens, founded in 1952 by the late Cason J. and Virginia Hand Callaway, once reported annual attendance topping 1 million. But visitation steadily declined over the last 15 years as people who had visited there frequently in the past turned to other destinations and activities. A second punch came from the Great Recession, with financially spooked consumers curtailing discretionary spending and much of their traveling.
The environment has loosened up somewhat over the last couple of years, with Callaway Gardens having apparently bottomed out at about 450,000 visitors in 2013 and 2014, and now generating positive cash flow to help reduce debt. Edward Callaway said it now will be up to Doyle and his expertise to take the gardens and resort to the next level with new programming and branding efforts — once he gets his feet on the ground and explores the territory.
“He’s much more in a discovery mode and is likely to be there for some period of time,” Callaway said. “He’s got a lot of people he wants to talk to and get an understanding of everything, including our team member base. So he’s not walking in with all the right answers. He’s walking in with all the right questions.”
Doyle, who is relocating from the Tampa, Fla., area, was not available for comment Wednesday. In a statement from Callaway Gardens, he expressed excitement at the opportunity he has been given.
“My experience and leadership at both resorts and attractions will allow me to contribute greatly to Callaway Gardens — a place with so much history and heritage — especially at a time where we sense growth and opportunity,” he said.
The new president and CEO has worked more than 25 years in the hospitality sector, most recently as executive vice president of Rhode Island-based HVS Hotel & Asset Management.
Before that he was president of the resort division with Atlanta-based Herschend Family Entertainment, which owns Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., Wild Adventures in Valdosta, Ga., and with Dolly Parton co-owns Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Water parks and other attractions are part of that company’s mix, including the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition team.
Doyle’s other management jobs were with Coral Hospitality and Naples Bath and Tennis Club, both in Naples, Fla., and Brasstown Valley Resort in Young Harris, Ga. One of his early employers was The Ritz-Carlton in Naples.
Asked Wednesday if Doyle’s experience and connections with the large hotel and theme park operators could potentially set Callaway Gardens up for an eventual sale to a commercial entity, Edward Callaway emphatically said no, that this is the complete opposite.
“This gives us a chance for a longer term run by being professional with the management of the resort,” he said.
Callaway said his primary motivation is to continue the legacy of his grandparents, which was nurtured by his father, the late Howard “Bo” Callaway. For some time, he had been considering a way to turn top management over to someone who is not a Callaway family member, but while he is still young enough himself to make certain the course taken would ensure the gardens’ decades-long mission.
“The new leadership needs to be connected to the mission of the gardens and the original owner’s intent. There’s a lot of moving pieces here; it’s not just the resort,” said Callaway, who will remain on the Ida Cason Callaway Foundation, the non-profit that owns the gardens. He also will focus more on philanthropy and the gardens side of the attraction, while Doyle will likely be more resort-oriented.
But make no mistake about it. Callaway said there are all kinds of possibilities ahead for the gardens. He said a Ferris wheel is pretty much out of the question, while a water park might be a possibility. The best bet is there will be more events such as the summer concert series that kicks off May 16 with country performer Travis Tritt.
Doyle already will have plenty to work with as he enters the picture. On the grounds of Callaway Gardens are two golf courses, restaurants, a large man-made lake and pavilion, butterfly and horticultural centers, a zip-line course and Birds of Prey show. There is a luxury lodge and spa on the premises, along with a more modest hotel just outside one of its gates. Colorful azaleas traditionally attract visitors in the spring, while Fantasy in Lights has become a major holiday draw.
Callaway said Doyle’s background in the resort and park arenas, along with his branding skills will help position the gardens for the next decade and beyond.
“The second thing (we liked) was his personal characteristics,” Callaway said. “He’s just easy to be around and a good guy, good integrity, kind of quiet but thoughtful. So he just really fits us.”
The two executives will be working side by side for some time, Callaway said, as his successor gets a better feel for the moves that need to be made. But one thing will be stressed, and he believes it’s something Doyle will easily understand after spending some time in Pine Mountain.
“At the heart of Callaway Gardens, it’s about connecting people to nature,” Callaway said. “It’s about getting them to put down their emails and cellphones and text messages in this crazy world we live in, and connecting them to what’s divine in themselves through nature. That’s our essence.”
Callaway said the gardens staff was told of the major management move late Wednesday afternoon. The gardens has 315 full-time employees on the payroll, while its part-time workforce can range from about 440 to just under 1,000, depending on the season and events taking place. The gardens receives assistance from about 250 volunteers.