When Elvis Presley Enterprises laid off 50 employees two years ago, naysayers suspected they might finally be able to say, "See, we knew it wouldn't last."
The layoffs came as an already sputtering economy was thrown headlong into the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. With a third of its visitors from outside the United States, EPE and Graceland suddenly faced their first downturn since Elvis Presley's death.
The economy remained stagnant last year, but the 25th anniversary of Elvis's death was an international spectacle. Elvis was a theme in a Disney movie (and part of its soundtrack). A remix of a 1968 Elvis song, A Little Less Conversation, became a global hit single. A new "Elv1s: 30 #1 Hits" CD went triple platinum. Graceland broke its own merchandising rec ords.
For anyone who expected that to be the last hurrah - the blazing finale of a celestial object - 2003 is proving that Elvis has almost as much hold on the planet as gravity, apple pie and motherhood. "Waiting for the demise of the Elvis Presley phenomenon is a long, lonely wait," says Elvis Presley Enterprises CEO Jack Soden, who fended off the doubtful as early as two years after Graceland opened. "They would say, 'Well, I guess you're hoping to do well the next couple of years, because it's going to die off.' "
Graceland, which had 600,000 ticket-buying visitors last year, expects to draw more than 640,000 visitors to Memphis this year, he says. The Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Memphis estimates that will pump up to $400 million into the economy for the year - roughly $50 million of that this week alone as anywhere from 50,000 to 75,000 fans descend on Memphis for the 26th anniversary of Elvis's death.
Last year's 25th anniversary was the "biggest year ever," says EPE merchandising director Danny Hiltenbrand. It was up 21 percent from the year before. "But, through July of this year, we've already matched what we did in fiscal 2002."
Hiltenbrand says he can't explain it except for the huge surge of publicity last year, which moved tourists to plan a Memphis visit this season. The biggest tourism influx was in 1997, the 20th anniversary of the death, with 750,000 visitors. Soden thinks that number was helped along by a Wonders Series exhibition on the Titanic the same year.
But Soden says no one needs to look for deep explanations about the undiminished appeal of Elvis. "You don't have to re-invent Elvis or repackage Elvis or change the fan base. Elvis grabs fans the same way he did in 1954, 1955 and 1956."
Among dead celebrities, he last year topped the Forbes magazine list of biggest incomes, $37 million, beating out Peanuts comics creator Charles Schulz, Beatle John Lennon and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt.
While Soden says Elvis needs no repackaging, Graceland is, in fact, constantly repackaging him and watching his fan base grow progressively younger. Elvis would have been 68 this year. His manager, Col. Tom Parker, once paired Elvis with Frank Sinatra in a TV special in hopes of making the notorious "Elvis the Pelvis" appeal to an older audience. The trick now is to make dead Elvis appeal to the young.
Soden says 53 percent of the fan base is 35 or younger.
The Disney movie Lilo & Stitch last year exposed Elvis and his music to young children with four Elvis songs and a running Elvis theme. It reinforced Elvis as indivisible from American culture and as much a part of history as George Washington, the Louisiana Purchase or Bob Hope.
The EPE licensing division isn't taking that for granted, licensing an array of products in "junior" sizes and categories to appeal to younger fans. Carol Butler, director of worldwide licensing, says licensing revenue has increased every year since she arrived nine years ago. "I feel safe in saying our licensing is going to be up 10 percent over last year. I think that's because of all the exposure in the 25th anniversary year."
Wal-Mart became a licensee with a line of boxer shorts to appeal to a young audience. Russell Stover candies, a major licensee with an older demographic, asked for suggestions about declining sales, and Butler suggested "something colorful to appeal to a younger audience. They now have a CD box with a chocolate CD inside, and that's doing really well."
Graceland is exploring electronic licensing avenues, for instance Elvis tunes as downloadable ring tones for cell phones. This year's licenses include a line of "Jibber Jabber" infant clothing with Elvis themes like the T-shirt messages, "Shake, Rattle and Roll Over" or "Elvis May Be the King of Rock and Roll, But I'm A Princess."
Hiltenbrand and Butler say one of the most successful new products is a line of Elvis purses with rhinestones and glitter, which Hiltenbrand says "are flying out the doors."
The most popular Elvis items in terms of revenue for EPE are collectible plates, Elvis sculpted figures, Christmas ornaments, paper products (such ascalendars), Russell Stover candies, the new MBNA Elvis credit card and Elvis lottery tickets. Items once licensed "but that didn't last long" include metallic helium balloons, wallpaper, neckties (the country "went casual") and party goods for adults.
Among items she expects to do well this year are a line of collectibles by California designer Paul Frank, including several remakes of 1956 collectibles. Other items include a brightly colored marbled Brunswick bowling ball, Zippo lighters, pet accessories, an Elvis-themed Lionel train car and several items licensed through Spencer Gifts and aimed at young buyers.
Another EPE venture, Heartbreak Hotel, is booked a year in advance for Elvis anniversary weeks with guests given first option to register year after year. "On an annual basis, it probably has 80 percent occupancy, while hotels typically average 60 to 65 percent," says Soden.
EPE's Elvis Presley's Memphis club, competing with the entire Beale Street entertainment district and its heavy focus on the blues, has not been as successful as EPE had hoped. It also has suffered because of competition from Tunica casinos, which can afford to pay higher fees for performers on a regular basis. Figures for the club are proprietary, but Soden is cryptic about its future:
"If Elvis Presley's downtown gets better and works great, it will be there for a long time. If it doesn't, I don't see that as a cornerstone to our whole presence in Memphis."
Hiltenbrand says the rest of Elvis Presley Enterprises is beneficiary of the Elvis persona: "Elvis is one of those kinds of comfort foods in tough economic times, with security concerns, stress and war. Elvis hearkens people back to a simple, light-hearted time."