After 42 years of working at the Grand Ole Opry, I’ve seen a lot. I have been with the company when I was employed at the insurance company that owned the properties, and I’ve had a lot of career changes since then. At one point we had a theme park, so I moved into doing the theme park operation and special events, which led to me being involved in ticketing for the park when we were trying to “modernize” what we were doing. I use that term loosely, because obviously things were done very differently that many years ago. Everyone didn’t have a PC on their desk—as a matter of fact no one did. For the theme park at the time, we were using a cash register system for park admissions. As we started trying to get our reporting a little bit more brought up to date, we brought onboard—literally—the General Jackson Showboat to our company’s operation.
At that time all the Grande Ole Opry ticketing was done manually. We would put the tickets up every week for the show that weekend, with the old box office in charge of everything. And so when we brought the General Jackson into the company in 1985, we realized we needed to find a computerized ticketing system that can work for the General Jackson that can do reserved seating. It wasn’t the smoothest process, and we were doing a lot of patching to make things work. Then in 1987 we actually had a robust IT department, and we wrote our own system to handle something that we called the “passport,” which gave you three days in the park, a General Jackson cruise, and an Opry show. We initially created a system just for that. So from a ticketing perspective we’ve gone from doing everything manually, to a shoebox operation, to recognizing that we weren’t going to be in the system development business. We needed to figure out how to use something that someone else in the industry was using. And ultimately, that’s how we hooked up with AudienceView.
Technology is huge. We still tend to be a very hands-on customer service operation, and we have a lot of guests who want to come and chat with us: What are the best seats? What should I wear? That’s a big part of what we do, but the reality is that you can now sell someone a ticket while you’re on the phone with them and assure them that it’s the best seat for them. You can give them the opportunity to print it at home if they’d like, or if they want to pick it up when they get here. It really gives the consumer many more choices than we had in the past, and provides much better information. If that same person calls back and says that now their friends are coming and they want to all sit together, making those changes is much easier now. Everything is recorded, so you’re able to talk to them intelligently while having all the right information in front of you. We are able to offer so much more from a service perspective than we could when everything was manual.
Initially it was tough. Internally there was a little worry because people are worried about where they’d fit in with the introduction of new technology. But pretty quickly when you actually start working through it and seeing the new things you can offer the customer, people start to understand their role better. People are pretty accepting of it, and it allowed us, from a customer perspective, to offer so much more than we were able to offer in the past. We had not been accepting credit card orders for many many years, if you wanted to go to the Grand Ole Opry you sent in a letter and a cheque.
And then there was the infamous flooding incident. I remember we were continuing to watch the water get higher and higher, and that’s when we started preparing. We got as many things up to the second floor as we could, and there was a point where we got a call from the safety director who told us to get everyone accounted for on the property, because it’s going to come over the levy. That’s exactly what we did, and we left that night on Sunday knowing that we would not be able to have Tuesday’s show in the Opry House. We left trying to figure out where we’d host the shows. A lot of people in the town couldn’t get out of their neighborhoods. The truth of the matter is that we were all somewhat in shock, but it was just “okay, this is what has to be done.” We delegated responsibilities, and we figured out the venue we’d use to host the show on Tuesday night. On the Monday before the show, we were able to go into the drowned venue by boat and we retrieved the ticket printers and the computers that were up high enough to not get flooded, and pulled those out and basically created a mobile box office. On the first night we got down and nobody knew the wifi password at the new location, so there were a lot of hand written tickets that night. None of us would’ve wished it to happen, but it did happen and because of it the Opry House came back better than ever. Now it’s a part of our history, and more than that it’s become a business in itself. We run tours every 15 minutes, and now when we bring people to the backstage tours and take them around, we can show them the flood line.
If I could give someone one piece of advice, it would be for people to continue to work hard, but make sure you enjoy it and take some time to soak up what’s going on around you.