Jack Soden was a stockbroker in Kansas City in the early 1980s when he met Priscilla Presley through a mutual acquaintance. She was executor of Elvis Presley’s estate and, along with her co-executors, “was wrestling with the IRS and Graceland costing a lot of money,” he says. “Delta [Elvis’ aunt] still lived in the house, the maid still came and cleaned, cousins and uncles still cut the grass and painted the fences.”
Something had to be done, and if Soden thought it was obvious how to turn it around — open the mansion up to tours — not everyone else did. “The city council commissioned a $50,000 feasibility study,” Soden says. “I still have it, kind of a prized possession, because the summary was that Elvis is dead, life will go on, and Graceland is not part of the future of Memphis.”
But Soden was optimistic, in part, he says, because he didn’t know enough to be afraid. “How tough could it be? People were coming every day and parking across the street, and writing on the wall, and looking at Graceland.”
Priscilla bought into Soden’s optimism and, despite his acknowledged lack of background in music or tourism, the co-executors gave him the chance to make a business plan to open Graceland. He started taking home tours around the country: Biltmore, Monticello, Mount Vernon, even Thomas Edison’s home in East Orange, New Jersey. People’s fascination with Elvis opened doors: An unimpressed assistant at Hearst Castle reluctantly took a message but minutes later the manager of the historic venue called and said, “How cool! Tell me, Jack, what do you need? Tell me about Graceland.” Soden says that, at least in early 1982, he was the nation’s expert on home tours.
On June 7, 1982, Graceland opened to the world. Still, there were doubters. “The Monday morning that we opened Graceland, there were reporters asking, ‘Elvis is dead, this is going to fade, his fans are going to get older and no longer travel — what do you do with Graceland then?’”
Soden knew if that happened, it would be because Graceland didn’t project Elvis into a changing world. “So we’ve never stopped keeping Elvis relevant,” he says. “Elvis is timely and timeless. If we worry correctly and creatively, then that timeliness and that relevance will never become a problem.”
The internet has given Graceland a powerful international reach. Elvis fans are abundant in the UK, Scandinavia, Germany, France, Brazil, Chile, and Japan for starters. This has helped cement it as one of only a handful of tourist attractions to pull in hefty global traffic — in 2017 it had visitors from 135 countries. Part of its enduring appeal is Elvis Presley Enterprise’s careful reliance on research and adaptation. “We’ve been able to grow it, to adapt it so that new, young generations find something that’s relevant to them when they come here,” Soden says.
And that means rolling with the technology. “It must be like 95 percent of the marketing and media tools we have didn’t exist 10, 15, 20 years ago, 25 years ago,” he says. The challenge is “to keep introducing over and over again the magic of Elvis to new and long-time eyes and ears,” Soden says.
As important as social media, Soden says, is old-school sociability: “It’s my favorite form of research. I go across the street to the visitor plaza and talk to our guests. ‘Where are you from? How long are you in town for? Why did you choose Graceland? Where are you going from here?’ And the people end up telling you their Elvis story.”
The culture at Graceland was established from the beginning by Soden, who jokes that since he was the first employee of Elvis Presley Enterprises, he took the best title. He impressed on employees that “Elvis was an entertainer, he had a sense of humor, he loved to make people happy. We were going to be in a business that the goal was to make Elvis fans happy when they came to Graceland.”
Working at Graceland, he decided, should be fun: “It used to be a mantra, ‘If you’re not getting up in the morning and looking forward to coming to work, then we’re doing something wrong.’ It wasn’t a choice to make, it was that we had to hire good people and let them be themselves.”
His rationale was that employees who feel respected and valued will do a first-rate job of making Graceland’s visitors feel respected and valued. “All you need to really succeed in tourism is a smile,” he says.
The future of Elvis Presley Enterprises is happening now. In 2013, Joel Weinshanker acquired an ownership interest in Graceland in a partnership with Authentic Brands Group out of New York and the Presley family. Weinshanker took over management of Graceland operations and started the current expansion that Soden had been hoping to get done for years, including a first-rate 450-room hotel, a permanent “Elvis the Entertainer” exhibit, a soundstage, a proper visitor complex, exhibition space, a concert development deal, and other elements to keep Graceland vital. Much has been done or is happening, and not just to showcase all things Elvis.
Soden is optimistic that attractions on a grand scale — think the Wonders Series of the 1990s — can bring blockbuster crowds to Memphis and Graceland.
And if Soden is optimistic about it, then you’d best pay attention.