All the high-stakes players were at the table in Memphis on October 27, 2016, for the opening of The Guest House at Graceland, the much-anticipated 450-room hotel next door to the Graceland mansion. Priscilla Presley was front-and-center, of course, representing the Presley family. She wielded the scissors at the ribbon cutting ceremony and hosted tours of the facility for the Today show and Entertainment Tonight film crews. Flanking Priscilla at the opening ceremony were Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE) president and CEO Jack Soden and Graceland manager Joel Weinshanker. Also on hand to provide information and tours was Keith Hess, managing director of The Guest House.
Billed as the “largest hotel project in Memphis in over 90 years,” The Guest House was conceived in late 2013, when Authentic Brands Group LLC took EPE under its corporate umbrella. Weinshanker came on board at Graceland at that time, vowing to take the mansion to “new and exciting heights.” Presley fans were both hopeful and skeptical. After wandering in the wilderness for a decade, EPE appeared to be in the hands of a company that would shepherd it into the future with care and commitment. But would the actions of the new owners match their rhetoric?
In January 2014 the Memphis Business Journal reported that Graceland‘s expansion plans included a “possible new hotel” to replace the aging Heartbreak Hotel across the street from Graceland. By April 2014 the “possible hotel” was in the design stage, and Priscilla Presley brandished a shovel during a groundbreaking ceremony during Elvis Week in August that year. The original planned opening for the following summer had to be pushed back. During Elvis Week in August 2015, EPE announced the grand opening would be held October 27-30, 2016. That deadline was met, but the original budget was not. Originally touted as “75-million” project, the final bill for The Guest House came in at $92 million.
At Elvis Week in 2015, Weinshanker promised, “The Guest House at Graceland will be like no other hotel in the world—designed as if Elvis built an extension to his own home. Our guests will feel like they are staying in an actual guest room at the mansion, and they’ll experience the same warmth and Southern hospitality that Elvis always showed his guests.” In a hotel press release at the opening last week, he recycled the “Southern hospitality” language, adding that The Guest House is a “one-of-a-kind resort experience, bringing our guests closer to Graceland than ever before.”
Press reports certainly indicate that no expense was spared in making the seven-story Guest House a true luxury experience for visitors. It offers 159 king rooms and 271 queen rooms starting at $149 a night. For the high rollers, there are 20 themed suites on the top floor renting for up to $3,000 a night. Among the suites are the “Vernon and Gladys,” the “TCB,” the “Palm Springs,” and the “King’s Suite,” said to be patterned on Elvis’s own living quarters upstairs at Graceland. The hotel’s amenities include a swimming pool, five restaurants, and a 464-seat theater. Special Elvis-related highlights include a white grand staircase lit by a chandelier, which is a larger replica of one hanging in Graceland’s foyer. The lobby ceiling conjures up the image of a Presley jeweled cape, and the TCB logo lightning bolt is evident here and there throughout the hotel.
Priscilla Presley cuts the ribbon opening The Guest House at Graceland. Assisting are Jack Soden (left) and Joel Weinshanker (right). (Mike Brown | The Commerical Appeal)
Wayne Risher’s opening day article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal stated that Priscilla played a major role in designing the hotel’s interiors, the top floor suites in particular. “He loved detail and he was so stylish himself,” she said on the Today show.” He had such a flair. And actually that’s really what this is all about—it’s flair, it’s taste, it’s beautiful, it’s comfortable. I mean everywhere you look, Elvis is here.”
A conscious effort was made not to have Elvis’s picture prominent at The Guest House. “You don’t have pictures of Elvis everywhere,” she told Risher. “You do have his style: a little bit of his jumpsuit, his guitar, TCB, his belt. But it’s not in your face.” In a People.com article, Priscilla further explained the decision to keep Elvis’s image off the hotel walls. “We didn’t want it so Elvis-themed and Elvis everywhere, because you can see that at Graceland. He wouldn’t have wanted a hotel full of his picture.”
So, instead, an apparent decision was made by the hotel designers to have visitors feel Elvis’s presence in The Guest House instead of seeing it. Hotel manager Keith Hess offered his take on the theme. "If Elvis was living today, this would be his style: very contemporary, cutting edge. In fact, there are lots of pieces here that are almost what he had in the mansion 40 years ago. You know, he was that far ahead of the curve on this contemporary (design).”
(Hess may have been stretching Elvis’s style quotient a bit, particularly as it applied to home décor. Can you say “Jungle Room”? In the People.com article, Priscilla laughed when reminded of that chamber at Graceland. She responded that if Elvis were alive today, “he would not live in the Jungle Room,” which Priscilla now calls “the first man cave.”)
At first, it seems odd that Elvis’s image got the subtle treatment at The Guest House. After all, from the beginning the hotel was touted as an expansion of Graceland, as an opportunity to increase visitors to the mansion. When The Guest House was just a proposal in 2014, Jack Soden made the following statement.
“We feel the time is right for growth at Graceland and we are excited about this proposed project, which would enable Graceland to enhance the visitor experience and deliver an even higher level of world-class hospitality and customer service to the hundreds of thousands of guests who visit from around the world each year.”
A “Do Not Disturb” door sign at The Guest House at Graceland features Elvis’s “Taking Care of Business” logo. (Mike Brown | The Commerical Appeal)
At the grand opening, Soden was still talking about a close relationship between the hotel and Graceland. “The hotel will sell Graceland and Graceland will sell the hotel,” he predicted. “I think it will start to increase attendance at Graceland, sooner as opposed to later. I think it will cast a wider net for tourism, and honestly, it will invite back the 20 million people who have been here in years past.” (Graceland welcomed it 20 millionth visitor on May 3 this year.)
A hotel news release the day after the opening, also emphasized the close connection between the hotel and the mansion.
“The primary design goal for The Guest House at Graceland was to create a resort which would complement and celebrate Graceland Mansion—almost as if Elvis was adding a guest house to his original home—without taking away the Mansion’s prominence as the focal point. The warm, welcoming spirit of southern hospitality that Elvis embodied at Graceland was a big inspiration to the design process and a key driver of the design.”
So, if the goal was to funnel paying customers back-and-forth between Graceland and The Guest House, why tone down Elvis’s profile at the hotel? I’m guessing that the market analysis that was done in the initial hotel planning stage revealed that to be profitable The Guest House would need to “cast a wider net for tourism,” as Jack Soden mentioned above. In other words, just marketing the hotel to Elvis fans wouldn’t draw enough patrons to fill the rooms year round.
One of 20 Elvis-themed suites on the top floor of The Guest House at Graceland. Billed as “The ultimate in rock ’n’ roll living room.”
Initial strong bookings were stressed at the grand opening. Manager Keith Hess announced, “We are off to a great start, with guest rooms booking very quickly for resort stays over the coming months. The response so far has been amazing.” He also noted that The Guest House is sold out for Elvis Week 2017. The challenge, however, is to draw non-Elvis tourists and event groups to the hotel to augment what appears to be a declining base of Presley-motivated visitors. Elvis’s core followers, those who became fans when he was alive, are aging out of the Graceland market at an increasing rate, resulting in a slow drop off in the number of visitors at the mansion in recent years. The sudden failure of last year’s Elvis exhibit at the Westgate Resort and Casino in Las Vegas was a troubling signal that Elvis’s marketability might be slipping.
Also, while The Guest House’s location next door to Graceland will help draw Elvis fans to the hotel, it’s not a good location to attract tourists who come to Memphis for other reasons. The Whitehaven community is a high poverty area in the southern part of the city. It's somewhat of a lengthy drive from downtown, where Memphis’ other major attractions, such as Beale Street, the National Civil Rights Museum, and the Mississippi River boats are located. Attracting the tourists who come to town primarily to see other sites will have to be a priority for The Guest House.
The hotel has the facilities to accommodate conventions, reunions, weddings, and other special events. Tourist packages are also available. According to Hess, response to The Guest House has been “amazing, not only from Elvis fans, but from leisure travelers, tour groups and business and corporate clients who can’t wait to experience this extraordinary resort.”
The softening of Elvis’s presence at The Guest House was probably intentionally designed to appeal to non-Presley clientele, who might not enjoy seeing Elvis’s picture and memorabilia every time they turn around. Only time will tell if The Guest House is successful in drawing both Elvis fans and other tourists to its address on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Certainly all Elvis fans hope The Guest House will become a trendy and popular place to stay in Memphis.
And there’s more good news in the wings for Elvis fans. The Guest House is just part of Graceland’s expansion plans. Under construction across the highway from the hotel and Graceland is a $45 million, 200,000 square foot entertainment complex, named “Elvis: Past, Present and Future.” It’s scheduled to open in March 2017. Elvis Presley Enterprises’ new ownership and the leadership of Jack Soden at EPE and Joel Weinshanker at Graceland are making this a great time to be an Elvis fan. — Alan Hanson | © November 2016
“You don’t have pictures of Elvis everywhere. You do have his style: a little bit of his jumpsuit, his guitar, TCB, his belt. But it’s not in your face. We didn’t want it so Elvis-themed and Elvis everywhere, because you can see that at Graceland."