Wine, Social Media and Southern Biscuits Help Belle Meade Plantation Weather the Economic Downturn

Strategy: Balance Your Budget, Enhance Your Product, Focus on Customer Potential, Know Your Customer/Product, Take Advantage of Tech

Type of attraction: Museum/Historic Site

Summary: An unlikely combination of wine, social media and Southern biscuits are the strategies leading Alton Kelley, executive director of Belle Meade Plantation, to declare: “These are going to be our best years.

An unlikely combination of wine, social media and Southern biscuits are the strategies leading Alton Kelley, executive director of Belle Meade Plantation, to declare: “These are going to be our best years. We are poised for a record-breaking year in 2011.”

In its 19th century heyday, the 5,400-acre Nashville, Tennessee plantation was a renowned thoroughbred horse farm with the Harding family’s gracious mansion as the centerpiece. Although the site today is one of the Nashville’s premiere historic sites, attracting 175,000 visitors annually, admission tickets are not enough to support the site. Additionally, local fundraising has become more difficult since the economic downturn in recent years. Kelley notes: “Every time there is a new charity in Nashville, the ‘giving pie’ gets thinner.”

“There was a lot of brainstorming among staff to come up with new ideas,” says Kelley. “We believe it is important that everything we do is connected to the site’s heritage. We just look for ways to modernize what the original owners did and make money to support the site.”

First up was a new product – wine bottled at an on-site winery. “We were looking for best practices,” Kelley explains. “We went to Biltmore Estate (in Asheville, North Carolina) and saw their successful winery with one out of five guests buying wine.”

Curator John Lamb confirmed the venture’s authenticity: “There are numerous invoices from the 1800s that show the Hardings purchased and served fine wines and also purchased empty wine bottles presumably to fill with wines made on the property.”

Since opening in 2009, the winery has become an all-staff effort. “The grapes are grown and crushed in Middle Tennessee, and the juice is brought to our tanks on site. Everyone on staff knows how to bottle wine – it’s a great group building exercise,” Kelley says.

The winery has been an overwhelming success, exceeding the first year’s 10,000-bottle sales goal of with sales topping 54,000 bottles. But, Kelley notes, “Starting a winery is a monumental decision. It’s not for the faint of heart!”

Determined to continue building visitation in spite of the economic downturn, the staff next turned to the opportunities offered by social media for no-cost promotions with a quick turn-around time. “In 2011, we started a Groupon promotion in third week of January,” Kelley says. (Groupon promotes “daily deals” to its subscribers through Facebook or Twitter – www.groupon.com) “We offered two tours and two free wine tastings at half-price and sold 1,300 tickets. That is 2,600 people who have 60 days to redeem their voucher.”

Groupon’s success prompted another discount voucher promotion through Living Social (www.livingsocial.com). “We had a coupon up for three days offering a chocolate pairing with wine and a mansion tour for a perfect Valentine’s Day, “Kelley says. “We sold 1,000 tickets – with no outlay of cash on our part. Those two promotions got us through January and February – usually our slowest months – with record visitation and record sales in our gift shop and winery.”

Even with those successes, the staff’s planning continues. “We were looking at travel trends, and we know that people want to be more involved than just taking a tour,” Kelley says. “Food is really a ‘hot’ part of travel right now, so we are going to roll out our own Southern culinary experience in 2011. We plan to bring in graduate students from the University of Mississippi Southern Foodways program to create a tour called Our Biscuits Shall Rise Again.”

Using the original kitchen and an 1889 oven that has been converted to a convection oven, visitors will have a chance to make Southern biscuits, beaten biscuits and cornbread. The experience includes a tour of the root cellar and smokehouse where visitors will learn why the South’s heat and humidity created a need for food preservation techniques such as curing ham.

“We will also stop in the herb garden to pick the herbs needed to make jambalaya,” Kelley says. “This will be an important opportunity to talk about the slaves who lived and worked here.”

For more information, visit www.bellemeadeplantation.com; contact Alton Kelley at alton@bellemeadeplantation.com.