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Cumberland Caverns offers great adventures - down under!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Teddy Jones is shown conducting a tour inside Cumberland Caverns. (Photo by Nicole W. Little)

Teddy Jones couldn’t help but smile when asked if he had taken any college courses for his job.

“I never thought (about being in his current position),” says Jones, “but I am sure glad I am.”

Since 2008, Jones has been the general manager of Cumberland Caverns, one of the busiest tourist attractions in the Upper Cumberland. The caverns are located near McMinnville.

Born and raised in the area, Jones was working as a marketing director for a company that changed its management. That gave him an opportunity to change his career.

“I saw the opportunity,” said Jones, who called Cumberland Caverns a “hidden gem in the Upper Cumberland.”

One of the reasons the board of directors hired Jones was because of his marketing background.

“A lot of the same principles apply,” he said.

Jones also said there is a “great network” of cave owners across the country and he has utilized their expertise when making decisions about Cumberland Caverns.

Once he took the job, Jones said he realized in one memorable moment it was the right choice. He was in the parking lot and a family of four had just taken the cave tour. He said the mom, dad and two teenage boys were all smiles and talking about the experience.

Jones thought to himself: “This is the business of making people smile.” It remains a core principle at Cumberland Caverns.

Another huge decision which had to be made is directly related to 2008 — the economic downturn. Jones said companies across America were trying to decide whether to “hold on” or to move forward, spend even more money and try to make it successful.

In 2008, the cave had 24,000 visitors. In 2010, that number had jumped to 35,000. This year, the cave was 1,000 visitors ahead of last year in the first quarter.

“We wanted to get our name out more,” he said.

They decided to do an intense marketing program, utilizing everything from brochures to a greater presence on the Internet to advertising campaigns in various publications. Jones said last year, the number of people who found out about the cave on the Internet was larger than through the traditional brochures.

“That’s the first time the Internet ever rose above brochures,” he said. “It’s amazing to see how the Internet has grown.”

They have also found a large presence on Facebook, something Jones said he was hesitant about at first. But when his 64-year-old mother had a Facebook page before Jones, he knew the time had come.

“I resisted Facebook,” he said, now admitting it has allowed even more exposure and gives them a chance to tell even more stories and information about Cumberland Caverns.

Singin’ the Blues

One of the biggest boosts in publicity for Cumberland Caverns was the advent of “Bluegrass Underground,” a monthly concert series which is about to get even more exposure.

The concept was dreamed up around a table one evening and the reason was quite simple — acoustics. Inside Cumberland Caverns is the Volcano Room, a huge area which was ideal to develop seating as well as perfect sound quality.

Interestingly, that room was formed by the confluence of two underground rivers, one running north and south and the other running east and west. That resulted in the roof and walls having a very different kind of formation, all uneven and perfect for acoustics. Jones said other cave owners from around the country have said it is the perfect room developed by Mother Nature.

“I knew that room was special,” said Jones.

The concerts began in late 2008 and have been broadcast on WSM Radio, home of the Grand Ole Opry. The shows are now aired from 5-6 p.m. before the Opry, a prime spot on one of the most well known and listened to stations in America.

Jones said the concerts blend “the two greatest things” about Tennessee — natural beauty and music.

Now, the Volcano Room is going to be showcased to an even wider audience. A 12-part series featuring the concerts will be aired nationwide starting this September on PBS. (Go to and click the “Web only” link for complete details.)

Jones said the concept had always been discussed and noted a “perfect storm of timing” took place to make it happen. WCTE-TV is filming the concert series using the latest in high definition cameras as well as surround sound audio.

He said the Bluegrass series has also contributed to the growth in attendance at the cave. There’s been a 40 percent growth in daily visitors since 2008.

Jones believes many people who attend the Bluegrass series might not have necessarily planned to go into a cave. However, he said once they do, “it gets to be addictive.”

That, he said, has opened it up to a “broader demographic,” leading to increased attendance. He said it’s likely increased attendance at other caves as people become comfortable and want to explore caves.

First in the nation

Another innovative concept developed at Cumberland Caverns is having overnight programs for Scouting troops. It was in the 1950s when officials at the cave developed having the programs. Jones believes it was the first cave in the nation to develop the program.

Up to 300 people can camp out in the cave on an overnight adventure. It even includes some adventure caving for the youth, something Jones said is very popular.

They recently constructed a concessions area in the cave, quite a feat in itself, which adds another element for visitors who stay overnight. It’s also used for the Bluegrass series. The fact the cave is a constant 56 degrees is also a bonus and, as Jones points out, since it’s a cave, there are never any cancellations for rain or inclement weather.

Another program which helps youth in the area is the fact high school students can work as guides at the cave. He said several students are employed each summer to work as guides. The staff at the cave fluctuates between 12 and 18, depending on the season.

Jones called it a “tremendous opportunity” for the high school students, saying they learn skills ranging from public speaking to general job duties.

“We are turning teenagers into leaders,” he said. “We are blessed to have some great young guides.”

Spelunking we will go

Besides the normal guided tour in the cave, which features beautiful features, running water, steep steps, a spiritual light show and much more, there’s also the adventure caving aspect.

Jones said a wide variety of people come to do some spelunking. He said there is a national network of spelunkers who travel all over the country to explore caves.

Cumberland Caverns has also instituted “Spelunktacular Saturday,” where people of all ages can come and participate in a two-hour adventure tour. Whether it’s a mom and her son or a larger group, all are welcome. They take place every Saturday starting at 1 p.m. and no reservations are required.

There are currently two routes for the tours and Jones said they are developing a third route which is the first new offering at the cave in several years.

One of the biggest missions is education, he said, and teaching everyone about safety. Though fun, he said spelunking “can be dangerous,” and they take extra steps to ensure the safety of everyone.

I can see for miles and miles

Cumberland Caverns is considered a “show cave,” one of many around the country. It has also been designated a National Natural Landmark by the federal government.

To date, 27.1 miles of the cave has been discovered and mapped. Jones said in the 1950s, major exploration of the cave began and it was in the 1970s when cavers from all around the country began extensive mapping of the system of caverns. The latest major new discovery came in 1976 when one and one-half miles of the cave was newly mapped.

“It has been very thoroughly explored,” said Jones, who added there have been some “incremental discoveries” over the years, but nothing major. He added people continue to explore and try to find new passageways.

Cumberland Caverns is owned by a corporation with a board of directors made up of six people. One of the primary focuses of the board and the staff is preservation and education. Jones considers himself and the staff “guardians” of the cave with a major focus on education. He is hopeful the cave can be preserved as best as possible so his grandchildren can enjoy the cave.

They have tried to keep a “uniqueness” about it, he said, including keeping dirt paths. They also work hard to keep the cave clean and presentable.

Jones calls Cumberland Caverns an “adventure destination” and it’s hard to argue that everyday is an adventure at the place, both for those who operate the cave and the thousands of visitors who take the tours and do some spelunking.

For more information about Cumberland Caverns, visit or call 931-668-4396.
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