CEO: Callaway Gardens is open for business and here to stay

Callaway Gardens is not closing its gates and plans to be around for years to come — including this weekend’s Masters Water Ski & Wakeboard Tournament.

That was the message put out to the resort’s employees Monday evening via email and in a YouTube video posted this afternoon by Edward Callaway, chairman and chief executive officer of the Ida Cason Callaway Foundation. The non-profit organization oversees Callaway Gardens and its resort operations, which include hotels, restaurants and various other money-making businesses.

“As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Gardens opening, we have received many phone calls asking if we will be open this weekend, and several phone calls from groups coming this fall to inquire if we will be open for their visit,” Callaway told employees in the email. “Not only will we be open, we will be in a better position to give them Callaway Cares service than ever.”

The CEO has overseen the foundation and the 13,000 acres of property it owns in Pine Mountain, Ga., north of Columbus, since 2004. In a Ledger-Enquirer interview last week, he discussed at length the Harris County tourist destination’s heavy debt load and the need to slice off roughly 4,000 acres of the land to pay off what it owes.

An investment subsidiary of Atlanta-based Waffle House, Yellow Sign Inc., now holds the lien on the property and is working to line up an undisclosed buyer. It bought the loan from Columbus-based Synovus Financial Corp. in late March.

“We turned a major corner at the end of March and our future looks brighter than it has in a decade,” Callaway told employees in the email. “The crisis of this winter is over. We have a new lender and a company that wants to buy some of our land — which will pay off our debt. Truly remarkable.”

Callaway pointed out that the Youtube video with his comments is the first time the organization has used social media in such a way.

He noted that renovations to Mountain Creek Inn off U.S. Hwy. 27 are under way and should be finished this fall. He also said the first quarter of this year — which included two rounds of layoffs impacting 44 people — was the “best” it has had in a decade.

“We didn’t cut the front line because you need people to serve,” Callaway said in the Ledger-Enquirer interview. Overall staffing has declined from 800 full-time equivalents in 2004 to about 500 today, he said, with management staff reduced by half to about 70 currently.

“We’ve been able to make this work with fewer people and it’s working well,” said Callaway, who initially resisted the last round of cuts. “I hate to admit it, but I think service levels are up ... The organization is extremely flat now. Decisions are made quicker. People have more freedom to serve the guests.”

The “more robust” first quarter exceeded Callaway Gardens’ management team “significantly,” the CEO told the newspaper, attributing it to a rebound in the economy.

“We can feel it in the groups,” he said. “I can feel it in the individuals. People maybe have been putting off their vacation. I believe our price point is a good one. It’s not real expensive. It’s a value overnight stay or a value day. And it’s a lot of fun.”

Once the property sale is completed, Ida Cason Callaway Foundation plans to launch a “Renew the Gardens” campaign. The preliminary goal is to raise $25 million and use that money to refurbish the attraction’s buildings and roads, while also planting species of flowers and other vegetation that bloom throughout the year.

The Gardens is best known for its colorful azaleas in the spring, and the Fantasy in Lights holiday event in November and December. The Masters Water Ski event takes place this Friday through Sunday.

Annual attendance at the Gardens, once at about 1 million, fell to 395,000 last summer.

“Even though Callaway Gardens has had a difficult time over the past few years, our future looks bright again and we are not only open for business, but we are taking steps to improve our guest experience,” said Callaway, rallying his employees.

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