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magazine home > archives > summer 2005 > features

Several U of M alumni are keeping the beat at Graceland and other related business ventures in their key roles at Elvis Presley Enterprises.

All about Elvis
by Jamie Peters

Never mind the estimated record sales at more than 1 billion, the countless impersonators or the legions of fans who make the pilgrimage to Graceland every August to commemorate the anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. Perhaps one of the most telling indicators proving that Elvis transcended rock-star status to reach the rare heights of an American icon is the grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich. When minutiae such as a celebrity's quirky culinary favorite become common knowledge around the globe, the enduring legacy of Elvis Presley is undeniable.

  Scott Williams

As a child growing up in Memphis, Scott Williams shared the same dentist with Elvis. Now, he is manager of marketing and communications at Elvis Presley Enterprises.

If celebrity is an intersection of innate qualities such as charisma and talent and the lucrative economic returns they generate, then the immensity of Elvis' success is incalculable. One common measure is the continued popularity of Graceland. When it opened as a tourist attraction in 1982 five years after Elvis' death, some critics pronounced that its viability would quickly fade with the King's appeal.

Those critics were wrong. Graceland attracts about 570,000 visitors a year and plays a vital role in Memphis tourism under Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. (EPE), which also generates significant royalty and licensing fees associated with Elvis-related products, music, movies and videos. Several University of Memphis alumni hold key positions at the company, helping run a business that revolves around the Tupelo, Miss., boy who grew up to become the defining image of rock-star cool. Elvis is an American legend who not only changed the landscape of music, but also stirred up social controversy with his then-risque hip gyrations during live performances. These alumni — who all are Memphis natives — spoke about the ins and outs of their jobs in preserving and perpetuating the King's legacy.

Sharing Elvis' dentist

When Scott Williams was a child, the mention or sighting of Elvis barely elicited more than a passing glance or a shoulder shrug. In fact, for Williams, Elvis sightings were as mundane as a trip to the dentist when he was 8 years old in the early 1970s.

Literally.

"Being a person who was born in Memphis, I used to drive down Elvis Presley Boulevard on my way to the doctor's office, so I actually saw Elvis riding his horse on the field," says Williams. "To me, when I was a kid, that wasn't a big deal. Elvis and I had the same dentist as well, so Elvis did not seem that big of a deal to me at the time."

Not until years later did Williams begin to realize how inextricably his city was tied to Elvis' devoted fan base.

"Whenever you travel and say you're from Memphis, people ask, ‘Oh, have you been to Graceland?'" says Williams.

If Williams were to answer that now, his response would be, "Almost every day." Williams has served as manager of marketing and communications at Elvis Presley Enterprises for five years following a career path that includes positions in the marketing departments at ServiceMaster and Baptist Memorial Health Care. Williams, who earned his bachelor's of arts in advertising from the U of M in 1989, was perusing The Commercial Appeal newspaper to make sure that a listing for an artist opening in his marketing department at Baptist was accurate when he spotted the ad for his current position. "It looked interesting, and so I applied for the job and got it," says Williams.

Since then, Williams, overseeing the four-person marketing department, has guided the development of high-profile sweepstakes promotions through partnerships with CBS and TV Guide related to the mini-series Elvis. This series aired during the television sweeps period in May with the documentary Elvis by the Presleys. Williams also oversaw the sweepstakes with the Lifetime network associated with the Broadway play All Shook Up as part of the company's push to increase its female fan base. The company also continues to enhance its Web site, a key strategy for building a younger fan base. The efforts include new additions such as "The Elvis Insiders" for dues-paying members, which includes a Web site at www.elvisinsiders.com. The club, which has more than 5,000 members at an annual membership fee of $29.99, enables fans to access to a Web camera that allows viewers to look outside Graceland as Elvis often did — through his second-story bedroom window.

"As good marketers, we in this department want to make sure that we position Elvis in the right way as new generations come along," says Williams.

This year the company also pursued a new avenue for drawing more people to Graceland. In April it ran its first TV commercials, two 30-second spots, to capitalize on the Elvis specials that ran on CBS. The spots ran via satellite on Dish Network channels that target women, including Lifetime, HGTV and the Food Network.

And there are still many more notes to strike when it comes to offering the public new reasons to visit Graceland, says Williams.

"There's enough content that we have in warehouses, in archives, in files that we could share content for eternity and never run out," he says.

Accounting for Elvis

Every August thousands of Elvis fans travel to Graceland to commemorate the anniversary of the King's death in 1977. As director of accounting, Barbara Batson (BS '90) spends the majority of her time crunching numbers, but Elvis Presley Enterprises' "manager on duty" program involves a different type of work-related transaction. During one typically steamy Memphis August at Graceland, Batson was working the candlelight vigil for Elvis, which occurs every August 15, the night before he died. Five to six water stations were strategically placed along the long and winding line of fans paying tribute to Elvis' gravesite behind the Graceland mansion. "They can't get out of line because they'll lose their place," says Batson.

Fans inevitably approached the table with a common question of "How much is the water?"

"It's free," Batson told them.

Barbara Batson  

Barbara Batson, director of accounting for EPE, has seen the fervor of Elvis fans up close when working at Graceland during Elvis Week in August.

Not the typical words that you expect to hear from an accountant, but then again, working at Elvis Presley Enterprises isn't a typical job. Batson joined the company in 1992 after an answering a blind ad in a newspaper. At that time her 16-year-old son had some words to say about his mom's new gig. "Mom, this whole Elvis thing is going to die out," he told her.

Although company officials concede that finding ways to cultivate Elvis fans among younger generations is a perennial challenge, Elvis Presley Enterprises has continued to grow and diversify, including the purchase of the Heartbreak Hotel in 1998. New York-based media and entertainment company CKX Inc. acquired the company in March in a cash-and-stock transaction estimated at $114 million, including the assumption of some debt. In the first three months of 2005 alone, Elvis Presley Enterprises generated nearly $5.8 million in revenue — $3.4 million from Graceland operations and $2.4 million in royalties and licensing streams. CKX also expanded its portfolio by acquiring in March the proprietary rights to the IDOLS television brand, including the American Idol series in the United States.

Of course, the CKX acquisition was not only good for Batson's career, but it also set the stage for the perfect verbal comeback. Earlier this spring Batson reminded her son of what he said back in 1992: "Mom, this whole Elvis thing is going to die out." Talk about eating your words.

Now that Elvis Presley Enterprises is part of a public company, the accounting department of nine staff members has spent numerous weekends this year preparing financial data to meet CKX's reporting deadlines to the Securities and Exchange Commission. All this can sometimes seem detached from the fervent fans clamoring at the gates of Graceland outside, but Batson has plenty of experiences that keep her connected to the passion of the fan base that drives the business.

For instance, there was the time when Batson had been with the company for several months, and Graceland was celebrating the release of the Elvis postage stamp on the King's birthday in January 1993.

"They had a tent set up and we were doing crowd control for the midnight ceremony," says Batson. She began talking to a woman with a heavy accent. Batson asked the woman where she was from.

"She said, ‘I'm from South Africa,'" recalls Batson. "I said, ‘Oh, what are you doing in the States?'

"I came for this," the woman said.

This key realization enabled Batson to see the lasting magnetism of the Elvis phenomenon firsthand: "I've learned since that the devotion of some Elvis fans has no limits."

Through a fan's eyes

Graceland was not just a home but also a playground for Elvis and his friends and family. Elvis often purchased hundreds of dollars worth of fireworks, and Roman Candles served as artillery in these "wars" in Graceland's backyard. He also raced three wheelers and go-karts, often shredding Graceland's carefully manicured landscaping, according to the book, Graceland: The Living Legacy of Elvis Presley.

  Shirley Davis Conner

Elvis Presley Enterprises sales manager Shirley Davis Conner works to bring tourists from all over the world to the region.

As sales manager for EPE, Shirley Davis Conner (BA '87) has been pitching the Graceland experience to tour operators, travel agents and tourists for 13 years.

But Conner has a confession to make.

"As a lifelong Memphian I had never been here until a couple years before I started working here," Conner says. "Growing up here you always take for granted what's in your backyard."

Elvis' backyard continues to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, and it's Conner's job to promote Graceland as part of a larger regional experience to international visitors, including not only downtown Memphis, but also nearby large cities such as Nashville. "A lot of people will associate Elvis with Memphis, but they don't know all the other great things that are around here, so a large part of our job is just to educate them about the region," Conner says.

In one such experience Conner traveled with a group of Elvis fans to the King's birthplace in Tupelo, Miss., during Elvis week. The early-1990s road trip led to a moment during Elvis Week that made an indelible impression on Conner.

"During Elvis Week I had volunteered to chaperone the group down to Tupelo to [Elvis'] birthplace," says Conner. "So we had a day trip down there. I got to know some of the Elvis fans on the trip. They were great, and we joked and had a great time. On the 15th — candlelight night — I walked up to see meditation garden because I didn't get to see it the year before with all of the flowers — I had only heard stories. When I was walking around I saw a couple of the ladies who were on this Tupelo tour just a couple days before. And I started to say something like, ‘Hi, how are you?' And something stopped me. I saw tears coming down their faces. And that was probably the moment I got it. I really understood how Elvis affected so many people; touched so many people. That was probably my first experience with true Elvis fans."

Whether it's number crunching, marketing or sales, the jobs of these U of M alumni boil down to ensuring that Elvis' star keeps shining for current and future fans. Just like any business, the execution is the hardest part, even if these professionals m­ake it seem effortless. Maybe they're just taking a page from Elvis when in 1956 he revealed the secret behind his electrifying live performances:

"Some people tap their feet, some people snap their fingers, and some people sway back and forth. I just sorta do 'em all together, I guess."

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