NashvilleFebruary 1, 2014

Love at First Sight By
February 1, 2014


Love at First Sight
Music City Center

The Music City Center.

Nashville, defined for decades as the country music capital of the world, has undergone a full-fledged and remarkable renaissance over the last several years.

Today, it is the world capital of all kinds of music — and a first-rate meeting and convention destination. Association meeting planners from coast to coast are falling in love all over again with the new Nashville.

“As a local, I have watched Nashville grow significantly over the last several years,” says Angela Layton, CMP, CMM, a proud Nashville resident and former corporate meeting planner who is now senior meeting planner for the locally based National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA), which will use the city for more than a dozen executive meetings this year.

“We are now fortunate enough to have a new convention center and a new convention center hotel,” Layton says. “And when you take that into account, along with Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center and other hotels, then you have a variety of venues that can really house a meeting of any size.”

“We are now fortunate enough to have a new convention center and a new convention center hotel. And when you take that into account, along with Gaylord Opryland and other hotels, then you have a variety of venues that can really house a meeting of any size.”

— Angela Layton, CMP, CMM

Senior Meeting Planner, 
National Association of State Boards of Accountancy

Nashville, TN

Music City Center Redefines the Landscape

Nashville’s status as a red-hot meeting and convention destination has been generated by the opening of the new $623 million Music City Center complex, which includes a 1.2 million-sf convention center and, as of its debut September 30, the $250 million, 800-room Omni Nashville convention center hotel, which is connected to the newly expanded Country Music Hall of Fame.

Developed in the heart of a robust downtown, which boasts a nationally acclaimed dining and entertainment scene, the state-of-the-art Music City Center includes a 350,000-sf exhibit hall and 60 individual meeting rooms that total 90,000 sf. Ballrooms include the 57,500-sf Grand Ballroom and 18,000-sf Davidson Ballroom. In addition, the complex, which features a green roof with a 200-kilowatt solar panel, is designed for environmental sustainability and is expected to achieve LEED Silver certification.

The critically celebrated new convention center has been the key catalyst in the dramatic growth of Nashville as a genuine A-list association meeting destination, Layton says.

Joseph Hite, CMP, director of event development at the Arlington, VA-based American Trucking Associations, a federation of trucking associations, was so impressed with Nashville and its planned Music City Center that even before it was completed, he booked the destination for five consecutive ATA annual meetings, for approximately 3,200 attendees each, from last year through 2017.

“Music City Center is something planners need to see first-hand,” says Hite, who hosted his annual meeting last year at Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center. “I think they’ve done an amazing job with the design of that building. It’s really a special venue. It stands out. It doesn’t even look like a convention center. It looks like a place you really would want to spend your day, because it’s beautiful.”

In addition, the facility is conveniently located within easy walking distance of Nashville’s hottest local restaurants and world-famous country music honky-tonks.

Hite, as well as his executive management and attendees, developed an affection for Nashville in 2008, when Hite hosted ATA’s annual fall meeting and national technician skills competition there for 1,000 attendees.

ATA soon committed to come back for five consecutive four-day annual meetings held early each year.

For this year’s meeting, held at Music City Center, Hite’s hotels are the Omni Nashville, as well as the Renaissance Downtown, Hilton, Hyatt Place and Hampton Inn — all within easy walking distance of the convention center.

Booking Nashville for five consecutive years was an easy decision, Hite says. “The whole plan that the CVB laid out, with a new, state-of-the-art convention center and the new Omni hotel and the other hotel plans — along with the ease of getting around the city — it was just a good choice for us,” he says.

And, he says, based on his experience, he expects other meeting planners to follow his example. “I think that for a lot of meeting planners, it’s a surprise to see the variety of things to do in Nashville, and also with the dining and entertainment scene,” he says. “I think people are often surprised to learn that Nashville is not just about country music.”

Airlift and Hotel Inventory

In addition to its impressive new meeting infrastructure, Nashville also offers excellent airlift — another pleasant surprise for planners.

“The airlift was fantastic,” says Sheila King, CMP, director of meetings and education at the Indianapolis, IN-based Vacation Rental Managers Association (VRMA), which used Nashville for the first time last October for its four-day annual meeting for 908 attendees. “Airlift is a factor that we always look at when selecting a destination. We also look at more than just what airlines fly in and out and from where. We also look at how easy it is for our attendees to get in and out of the airport. And the fact that there were so many airlines flying in and out and that they offered so many flights a day was a huge factor in our decision to use Nashville.”

In fact, Nashville’s broad and efficient airlift surprised her, King says. “We were not expecting that, so I was really surprised by how accessible it was from anywhere in the country.”

So were VRMA’s members, apparently. They set a new record for attendance at the meeting.

“All of our meetings have been growing,” King says. “But location definitely played a role in the success of the Nashville meeting.”

King used Gaylord Opryland as her hotel because its size and vast facilities and resources meant she could host the entire event under one roof.

“When we walked in for our site visit, I was totally impressed,” she says. “Since the flood a couple of years ago, they didn’t just rebuild the hotel exactly as it was. They made changes that made it even better for meetings. It’s just a fantastic facility.”

One aspect of Gaylord Opryland King particular liked was the fact that it could function “like a hotel within a hotel,” she says. “Although it’s very large, they were able to put our sleeping rooms and our meeting space in the same area of the hotel, which made it really feel like we were in our own area. And that was another key factor for us.”

She also gives Gaylord Opryland an A+ for its food and beverage service. “The food was phenomenal, and the service was great,” King says. “They just did a fantastic job for us. It’s just an outstanding meeting property.”

Although Gaylord Opryland, the new Omni Nashville Hotel and the Renaissance Nashville Hotel often dominate the conversation when it comes to major meetings, Nashville also offers options for smaller meetings, too.

Among them is the wildly popular, 247-room Hutton Hotel, opened in 2009 and now a AAA Four Diamond and Forbes Four Star property. Last July, Travel & Leisure bestowed one of its coveted “World’s Best” awards on the hotel as one of the top large city properties in the continental U.S.

Dining and Entertainment Scene

Although the new Music City Center and Omni Nashville Hotel, along with Gaylord Opryland and smaller properties such as the Hutton, have been the major factors in the emergence of Nashville as a popular association meetings destination, the concurrent development of a fabulous and eclectic local dining and entertainment scene also is a big plus.

“We have a lot of new restaurants,” says Rhonda Marko, CMP, CMM, DMCP, president and CEO of Destination Nashville, an award-winning destination management company. “And we have one of the hottest restaurants in the country right now — The Catbird Seat, which opened a little over two years ago.” The Catbird Seat is an intimate, exclusive fine-dining restaurant by renowned chef Erik Anderson.

Marko’s other favorites from the current list of hot dining spots include Kayne Prime, a local steak house, and Husk Nashville, housed in a building that dates back to 1895 and a sister outpost to the internationally renowned Husk Restaurant in Charleston, SC, from chef Sean Brock, a James Beard Award-winner and a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement. “The food and the presentation at Husk are magnificent,” Marko says. “And 90 percent of what they serve is produced locally.”

Another dining option highly recommended by Marko is Etch, located in the Encore condominium in the hot SoBro neighborhood located South of Broadway and offering prized global cuisine from chef Deb Paquette.

Layton agrees that The Catbird Seat is arguably the best choice in town at the moment for groups, but she also has high praise for The Southern Steak and Oyster.

Even though ATA hosts serious meetings that keep attendees very busy during the day, Hite says, the dining and entertainment scene in Nashville provides an important benefit for attendees and exhibitors.

“The dining and entertainment scene in Nashville plays a role in the success of the destination, not just for our meetings, but in all meetings held in Nashville, I think,” Hite says. “Even though our attendees are busy during the day, they do want to go out for dinner or to have a drink, especially if it’s with customers. And Nashville has always been a very positive place to get that kind of socializing and business done because it’s really easy to get around the city. And there is also a lot of range in terms of price, whether that’s fine dining or casual dining. It’s just a really good and convenient city for entertaining.”

King’s attendees “absolutely loved the dining and entertainment scene,” she says. “When they go to a city, they want to really experience that city. They don’t want to go to chain restaurants, and they also don’t want to be stuck in a hotel. They want to be able to get out and see what the city has to offer. And they just loved the local food and the downtown scene in Nashville. They especially loved the country music honky-tonks along Broadway. They loved the fact they could wander along from bar to bar and just hear great music and have a fantastic time.”

Offsite Venues

Given its reputation as “Music City USA,” Nashville also offers a wide range of spectacular offsite venues.

King hosted an evening at Tequila Cowboy in downtown Nashville that featured an open bar, buffet dinner and live music. “I liked the value that we got for taking over a beautiful venue with a buyout,” she says. “I also liked that it had many different individual areas. For example, in one area there was a live band. In another, there was karaoke. In another, there was a DJ. So attendees could go to a particular area based on the kind of experience they wanted to have. They also had a mechanical bull and darts, so there were just a lot of things to do, depending on what you were interested in. But the whole thing was under one roof. And the food was fantastic. They offered a lot of variety. For example, they offered Southern food like barbecue, but we also have attendees that are more health-conscious, so they offered healthier food for them.”

One of Marko’s time-tested, go-to offsite venues is Wildhorse Saloon, a three-story historic warehouse that now serves as a landmark 66,000-sf dining, live music and dance destination. Its restaurant and catering operation is famous for its Southern barbecue, steaks and fried pickles.

“It can hold up to 1,500 people,” Marko says. “But you can do a buyout and also use adjacent Riverfront Park to stage an evening for 5,000 attendees. And some of the best bands in town started at Wildhorse Saloon as house bands, so they have established relationships with all of those bands.

Layton notes that there are also some less well-known, world-class venues that she has used very successfully over the years.

Among them is the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, home of the Nashville Symphony. “It’s a beautiful venue,” Layton says. “It’s an amazing venue for dinners or receptions or private concerts.”

She also likes the historic War Memorial Auditorium, operated by the state of Tennessee and located across the street from the state capitol building. “I love the architecture on the outside,” Layton says. “But inside, it offers a beautiful canvas for a variety of options for meetings and events.”

Layton also recommends the General Jackson Showboat, which cruises the Cumberland River. “They do a nice cruise and also offer dinner shows,” she says. “With a buyout, you can bring your own entertainment onboard. It’s just a really special thing to do in Nashville anytime of the year. The view of downtown Nashville is amazing from the river.”

“I think the Nashville CVB really sets the standard for the kind of service a CVB should provide. Butch Spyridon and his team are not only responsive, but they also have great ideas. They are really willing to help, in some areas where other CVBs are not necessarily willing to help.”

— Joseph Hite, CMP

Director of Event Development
American Trucking Associations

Arlington, VA

Nashville CVB

Yet another advantage of doing a meeting in Nashville is its convention and visitors bureau — the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. (NCVC) headed up by long-time president Butch Spyridon.

“For all of our meetings, we work with the local CVB,” King says. “And the Nashville CVB was phenomenal. The customer service that you get in Nashville as a planner is, in general, just exceptional. It’s top-notch. Like Destination Nashville, the DMC we used, they just make everything easy for you as a planner. And they also make it an enjoyable experience for attendees.”

Hite also gives high marks to the NCVC and credits its performance as one of the key reasons ATA committed to five consecutive annual meetings in town.

“I think the Nashville CVB really sets the standard for the kind of service a CVB should provide,” Hite says. “Butch Spyridon and his team are not only responsive, but they also have great ideas. They are really willing to help, in some areas where other CVBs are not necessarily willing to help.” For example, Hite says, the NCVC helped research and book entertainment — a service usually provided by a DMC for a price.

A Bright Future

Although the last few years have brought a dramatic rise in Nashville’s stature as a meeting destination, all indications are that the future is even brighter.

“There is a lot of great development going on that will continue to shape the future of the city,” Layton says.

Although the new Omni Nashville convention center hotel is the city’s star attraction, four new major downtown properties are now in development. Marriott plans to build a 400-room property. Hyatt Regency is developing a 450-room property. And Westin will build a 400-room property. Meanwhile, InterContinental is planning a 281-room hotel on the city’s west side. No completion dates have been announced yet.

Recently renovated hotels include the 700-room Renaissance Nashville Hotel, with 100,000 sf of meeting space, which completed a $20 million renovation in February.

The 474-room Sheraton Nashville Downtown Hotel, with 25,000 sf of function space, will complete a $3.25 million renovation in April.

The 330-room Hilton Nashville Hotel, with 18,542 sf of meeting space, will complete a $25 million renovation in June.

The 340-room Loews Vanderbilt Hotel, with 24,000 sf of meeting space, will complete a $17 million renovation by the end of this year.

All of that adds up to a city that means more than its moniker “Music City USA.”

“I think Nashville is comparable, in terms of value and service, to other, much better known destinations,” King says. “It’s just a fantastic destination, and we want to go back at some point. And our attendees want to go back. And they don’t say that very often about a destination.” AC&F

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