If it ain’t broke…well, you know the rest, but apparently Gaylord didn’t

By JJ Rosen July 13, 2022

This article originally appeared in The Tennessean.

It’s summertime in Music City.

Pedal taverns are pedaling, guitars are picking, and the kids are out of school. Swimming, boating, baseball, ice cream, and even soccer— aside from a little bit of heat and humidity, what’s not to like?

For me, summers were always my favorite time of the year.  That is, until the infamous summer of 1997.

Yes, that’s right. Longtime Nashvillians know exactly what I’m talking about.

It was 1997 when our beloved Opryland theme park was closed and replaced by a mall.  For anyone here who grew up going to Opryland USA, the decision to close the park felt like nothing less than an apocalypse.  No more cooling off on the Flume Zoom (also known as the log ride), no more screaming on the Screamin’ Delta Demon or the Wabash Cannonball, no more getting soaked on the Grizzly River Rampage, and no more leisurely drives on the Tin Lizzies.

Music on the Show Boat, visits to the Angle Inn, funnel cakes, and Roy Acuff sightings—the list goes on. Just like that, the centerpiece of Nashville’s summer for locals and tourists alike was no more.

No one really understood why this happened, and 25 years later most of us natives are still carrying around some summer resentment. Why would anyone choose to replace America’s most famous music theme park with—of all things—a mall?

Gaylord, the company that owned Opryland was under new leadership, and they claimed the park wasn’t profitable. Their vision at the time was to get into the “shoppertainment” business and they felt that tearing down the theme park in favor of a mall would be a good business decision.

Bud Wendell, the legendary former CEO of Gaylord had left the company a few months before the decision was made said the move was the “dumbest thing I’ve ever seen,” and that the park was indeed making money. Wendell went on to say, “And the people that were responsible for it, I would think today would look back on it and say, yeah, it was a dumb, dumb decision.”

Hindsight is 20/20, but just imagine if we still had Opryland today.  With Nashville’s growth, there’s no doubt Opryland would have been a massive economic boon to the city and that Gaylord would have made a fortune (just look at Dollywood.) If Opryland was still here, tourists would not only flock to the honky-tonk scene downtown but would bring their kids along to experience all the music, food, and rides at the park.

So, Wendell was right, closing Opryland might rank up there as one of the worst business decisions of all time.

I find myself thinking about Opryland not only every summer, but every time our company is thinking about making any significant change.

On the one hand, businesses that don’t adapt to an ever-changing world can get left behind (remember Blockbuster video stores?).  But on the other hand, fixing something that’s not broken is extremely risky if not well thought out.

In the ever-changing world of technology that our IT consulting company works in, there’s been a constant pull between pivoting to take advantage of new opportunities and keeping our focus on what we know works.  With new opportunities presenting themselves every week, it’s sometimes hard to know what to do.

The people who made the decision to replace Opryland with a mall I’m sure thought they were adapting. But given where Nashville is now, and the fact they ended up eventually selling off the mall, it seems they might have been wrong.  They ignored the “don’t fix it if it’s not broken rule” to their own peril.

In order to avoid the same mistake, our company has tried to do three things:

  • Instead of replacing any of our core offerings, we simply add to them.   The idea is to be focused on what’s working and adapting at the same time.
  • Avoid groupthink at all costs.  I’m not sure how the decision to close Opryland happened, but my guess is, like many decisions, groupthink may have played a role.
  • Listen to our customers.  When Coca-Cola made the mistake of changing their formula to “New Coke,” their customers revolted.  They listened and quickly pivoted back.

Summer in Nashville is still fun. But without the sounds of banjos playing, the Rock n’ Roller Coaster, the Skyride, and a guitar shaped popsicle to cool down, it’s just not the same. Maybe one day Opryland will be revived, but until then we will have to be satisfied with a business lesson and a mall.

JJ Rosen is the founder of Atiba. A Nashville web development and IT consulting firm. Visit www.atiba.com or www.cabedge.com for more info.

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