Callaway Gardens CEO says the resort is boosting its profits

Remember the Harvest Moon Festival at Callaway Gardens in 2011, a major weekend event that featured 21 musical acts, including the well-known B-52's, the Gin Blossoms and Shawn Mullins?

Edward Callaway, chairman and chief executive officer of the gardens, certainly does. The nature preserve and resort in Pine Mountain, Ga., north of Columbus, had hired outside consultants who suggested using a large event to jumpstart some life into the gardens, then grow overall attendance from there.

"It was a great weekend. It was incredible. But it was a disaster," Callaway said in an interview Wednesday. "We spent $700,000 and got $200,000 back, and it contributed to our problems."

The festival, in essence, was the final straw in a downward spiral that forced Callaway Gardens -- at six decades old -- to sell off about 7,000 of its 13,000 acres, then make other financial moves to reduce its crippling $44 million in debt to a more manageable $7 million.

Now, two years later, the "reinvention" of the gardens and its resort remains a work in progress. But Callaway said tremendous strides have been made in improving the resort and its amenities, with attendance rising from just under 400,000 in 2012 to about 450,000 last year.

"I would tell you it's a combination of the economy seems to be coming back and people are taking a few more trips," the CEO said. "And Callaway Gardens has figured out how to put some things in the gardens and around the beach that are fun to do. It's no longer just a fantastic place to see, but there are fun things to do once you get here."

Sweating the details

The process, he said, has included sweating the details, trying smaller things to improve the visitor experience, and fostering innovation.

Chief among them has been scheduling family-oriented movies at Robin Lake Beach on Friday nights, then inviting regional bands to perform adjacent to the man-made lake on Saturday nights. Admission after 5 p.m. was lowered to $5.

Occasionally, an up-and-coming band or performer will be scheduled for a stop at the gardens on their way between shows across the Southeast. Rising country singer Frankie Ballard was there earlier this month.

Since 2013, a $3 million renovation was completed on the Mountain Creek Inn just outside the resort, with the lobby and swimming pool wrapping up this year. Bike trails were repaved and recently a children's course was added to the TreeTop Adventure & Zip Lines attraction, just underneath the adult course.

"Families would come up and they had to turn away and go home because their kids couldn't get in" because of the adult-sized harnesses and cables, Callaway said.

In all, excluding the Mountain Creek remodel, about $1.5 million was spent on various enhancements and maintenance at the gardens over the last year, he said.

"We haven't spent that much money in 10 years," he said. "Basically, as we make more money, we spend more money. It's not-for-profit, so all of it goes right back into the place."

Key hires

There was also a decision to change leadership in various departments at Callaway Gardens, the CEO said. Jan Goggan was hired as director of sales to focus on attracting groups. Russ Cronberg was brought in to operate the inn, but he quickly rose to the position of general manager of the resort.

With two golf courses on the property, PGA pro Wyatt Detmer was named director of golf, and Geoffrey Murray and Michael Gonzalez were hired as food and beverage director, and executive chef, respectively. The latter two worked extended periods at Biltmore Estate, a major tourist draw -- about a million visitors a year -- with its European-style architecture and lush grounds in Asheville, N.C.

"We really weren't in position to attract that kind of talent when we had the uncertainty about our future in 2012," Callaway said. "After we were able to sell that land and pay off our debt and get that uncertainty off the table, we immediately went out and started attracting the people we knew we needed."

Gonzalez, who joined the staff in March, said his mission is to "create excellent food with excellent service and an extraordinary environment" that will keep guests coming back for more.

That will include eliminating canned goods, cooking from scratch and using seasonal vegetables, such as asparagus and peas in the spring. He's not bringing specific dishes with him from Biltmore, but there are plans eventually to revamp the restaurants' menus.

Gonzalez said he plans to make a slow transition, however, so that he can learn the staff and get acclimated to the gardens and what is needed to satisfy hungry visitors. He said the existing kitchen staff is inquisitive and eager to learn.

"I could write you the best menu on Earth, but if I don't have the right people to execute the vision and people that are passionate and excited about what they do as their craft, then it really does me no good," he said. "I've really been blessed, in that sense, that I've got a great staff working with me."

Attracting visitors

Callaway said the flurry of activity and changes made over the past year are making a huge impact on the gardens, with it experiencing its best financial performance "ever" in terms of profitability.

Part of the turnaround has been attracting more groups to the resort, some that had abandoned it over the last decade as the overall experience and amenities -- including Mountain Creek Inn -- had become "stale." Across the board, he said, groups connected to education, military, state, federal, health care and corporations now are giving the Harris County attraction another try or checking it out for the first time.

Gaining business back has included attending trade shows and other conferences for the first time in several years to court those groups, the CEO said. Marketing to the general public has encompassed more social media, but also traditional elements, such as TV and radio commercials in Atlanta, along with billboards in the Georgia capital of 6.5 million residents.

Callaway did not discount the influence of visitors from the Columbus area on the gardens, however, calling it "huge" and saying the city's new whitewater course and coming zip line over the Chattahoochee River should give someone a reason to stay another day in the overall area.

Asked what's next for Callaway Gardens, the CEO said there are no major announcements on the horizon. Instead, there will be a "whole bunch of little things," such as installing new irrigation in spots and adding more color with new plants and bushes.

He insists there are no plans to change the basic mission of the gardens, which were founded by his grandparents, the late Cason and Virginia Hand Callaway, back in 1952. The couple, at their essence, wanted to have a place where people could find peace, quiet, relaxation and inspiration amid the forest canopy, cool lakes and trails.

Through the years, a horticulture and butterfly center have been added, while Robin Lake Beach has remained a centerpiece of recreation. It all complements the splash of color from azaleas in the spring and the man-made wonder of Fantasy in Lights during the November-December holiday season.

"Callaway Gardens has the opportunity for that peace and that quiet and that garden experience," Callaway said. "But we've also recently begun to say if you want to have some fun, in a beautiful setting, we're all about that, too. ... Now there are just fun things to do right and left."

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