Courtesy Elvis Presley Enterprises
To leave a Memphis convention without toes tired from tapping and fingers stained from barbecue sauce would be downright sad.
Soulful music and smoked meat are enduring symbols of this city of 635,000.
“Hopefully when visitors think of Memphis, they think of Graceland first and barbecue right behind it,” said Marianne Murphy, special events manager at Graceland, Elvis Presley’s estate.
In the past decade, it has become easier to give meetings a sense of Memphis’ musical and culinary culture. Graceland, of course, has been open much longer; but in the last decade, it has gotten into a groove as an events venue. In those years, two attractions devoted to Memphis’ music history have opened: the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum. Like Graceland, they welcome events.
Going to Graceland
With no venues purposely built for dinners, receptions and other events, Graceland has had to be creative.
“Events here started off fairly low key and it has evolved into a fairly good operation,” said Murphy. “Sometimes, it seems like we do events eight nights a week.”
To pull off an evening event for as many as 1,200 in four hours requires some human engineering. Graceland breaks large groups into smaller ones and then rotates the groups through several venues.
Some do dinner first, either in Graceland’s car museum or in the ticket pavilion. Other guests hop on shuttles and head across the highway for a tour of Graceland, Presley’s mansion. Others shop for souvenirs in one of many gift shops. Throughout the night, groups shift so that by evening’s end, everyone has dined, toured and shopped. In some cases, the evening is topped with make-your-own-sundaes in the plaza’s 1950s-style cafe.
A group of 150 or so could settle in at the Elvis Presley Car Museum, home to the famous pink Cadillac and 33 other vehicles. Murphy and staff can recommend plenty of area bands, but if a group needs to trim the budget, dispensing with live music won’t be too noticeable. Recordings of some of Elvis’ concerts can be played on a big screen in the museum’s village green.
“It is not necessary to have any other entertainment other than Graceland to have a wonderful evening here,” said Murphy
Eight approved caterers offer everything from casual to fine dining. “What we do most is barbecue,” said Murphy. “It is a relaxed easy meal.”
One of Presley’s favorite treats — once a nightmare to prepare en masse — has been made workable by a culinary innovation, the action station.
“Now I can do peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches as an action station,” Murphy said. Before, the sandwiches could become a mushy mess; now they are made to order, cut into bite-size samples.
Of course, even if groups don’t go to Graceland for an event, many attendees will want to go there, as Wendy Sullivan, meeting planner for the North American Bridge Championships has discovered. NABC’s competition will bring 4,000 bridge players to the city this month. “We sold out the Graceland tour so fast that I had to add another one,” Sullivan said.
Climb on board the Soul Train
At the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, visitors make the shift from rock ‘n’ roll to soul.
The replica of the famous record company is built on the spot where Stax Records originally stood, about 10 minutes from downtown. It was nothing but a weedy, litter-strewn lot when Tim Sampson, the museum’s communications director first saw the site.
“Someone told me, ‘Go stand on the corner where Stax Records used to be. We’re thinking about building a museum there,’” he said. Sampson did and saw a rough, blighted neighborhood. “I looked around and thought, ‘I don’t know if anybody is going to come.’”
In the end, Stax turned the area around. Where a scary, abandoned apartment building once stood is the Stax Music Academy, a program designed for at-risk youth. A charter school with a 50,000-square foot classroom building is also part of Stax’s $30 million campus.
Groups use the school’s classrooms and auditoriums for meetings and then adjourn to the museum for a reception and dancing on a dance floor that’s surrounded by big screens where old “Soul Train” episodes are shown.
Others opt to have the academy’s students perform. The students suffer no stage fright; they’ve performed at the Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and in Europe.
Although the exterior of the museum is identical to the original recording studio, the interior is a state-of-the-art museum. There are plenty of exhibits to see and hear.
“It’s a shrine to Stax,” said Sampson. “There’s not another soul museum in the whole world.”