Nashville had 15.2 million attendees in conferences and meetings last year.
Courtesy of Jacqueline Marko PRA Nashville and PRA Louisvill
Planners need no introduction to Music City. Nashville’s reputation as a premier meeting destination extends across the globe. While country music put Nashville on the map, today the city’s music scene covers many genres — and it’s not the city’s only draw.
Keystone Automotive Operations Inc./NTP-Stag brought its 2019 Expo to Nashville earlier this year, an invitation-only event of more than 2,500 set at Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center. Melissa Holland, CMP, event manager with Keystone, says the city and hotel are an excellent fit for her group.
“Nashville is a return city for our event and attendees. It’s a great destination providing ease of access to and from the airport, Gaylord Opryland, downtown area destinations as well as many historical entertainment options. When our attendees and exhibitors were made aware of our return, they were excited about heading back to Nashville with its many offerings, including the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Bridgestone Arena and the infamous Broadway Historic District: Honky Tonk Highway,” Holland says.
“With the winter weather unpredictable, Gaylord Opryland offers an all-under-one-roof inclusive destination to our attendees. We enjoy working with the Gaylord staff. They go above and beyond to ensure we’re well taken care of, and the accommodations are second to none.”
“We knew it was the right destination for our event. Our January program rotates to various locations each year. Knowing the level of service, hotel and venue offerings and year-over-year satisfaction we get with growing with the Gaylord team and properties, it’s a win-win.”
Holland’s group has worked with Gaylord Hotels for the past 10 years in Texas. “We always find the property and services to be first class,” she says.
It was in 2011 that Keystone decided to try the Opryland property. “We knew it was the right destination for our event. Our January program rotates to various locations each year. Knowing the level of service, hotel and venue offerings and year-over-year satisfaction we get with growing with the Gaylord team and properties, it’s a win-win.”
Holland offers high praise for members of the Opryland team. “During our program, we had a banquet captain who was outstanding. Our food and beverage lead was new to the events team with this activity, and while she is very detail-oriented and knowledgeable, she was nervous about the biggest miss — not having enough food for our major events.”
The team, Holland says, pulled it all together, especially the banquet captain. “He made her feel at ease and updated her every step of the way. He went above and beyond in our opinion to put her and our worries at ease, and everyone raved about the food and beverage. Opryland truly has a well-oiled machine.”
Keystone primarily used the Ryman C Exhibit Hall for the Expo and meal functions. “We also had several meeting rooms equipped with seating, and a projector and screen set up to accommodate up to 250 attendees for our education series, which precedes our opening event. The staff was very hospitable, regardless if they were new or a seasoned event professionals, in working with each of our key event individuals.”
Holland says one thing planners and attendees should know is that there’s a lot of walking involved at Gaylord, but she has a suggestion about that. “It’s a huge property with several layers and additions. Get familiar with the property by visiting it a couple of times prior to your meeting so you know how to direct your attendees. The best way is to get lost in the property and find your way out. It will take just a few times around the property and you’ll find the shortcuts to get you and your guests through with ease.”
The Expo’s closing event was set at Wildhorse Saloon in downtown Nashville. “This multilevel venue is perfect for a group our size, offering food and entertainment along with several A/V multimedia options in a one-stop-shop environment,” Holland says. “We used this property previously for our 2011 event. It works well and allows for our guests to get a taste of downtown if they choose to after our closing reception. And the Wildhorse staff was great to work with. Jessica Sprouse, Chelsea Noyes and the entire Wildhorse team ensured our event went off without a hitch. We toured several other venues and were excited to learn that the Wildhorse was available for our event dates. Wildhorse Saloon is on our return list.”
Holland says one unexpected challenge did arise at the Gaylord: Wi-Fi interference on opening night. “Unknown to our internal IT events team, one of our exhibitors had equipment that was scrambling our show Wi-Fi, which is integral to our overall show success. Thanks to the fast-acting collaboration of the Gaylord Opryland IT team and our internal team, the intrusion was identified and we able to get back up and running as quickly as possible. The entire IT team was very responsive that evening.” And, she adds, “The fact that we had several visits from the Gaylord executive team to ensure that our needs were being met was refreshing.”
Holland says there are a few things about meeting in Nashville that planners should know. “Nashville is well equipped with meeting options from small to mega large. There are venues that will blow your attendees away, from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to small intimate restaurants on Broadway. Explore all your options,” she advises, “even if you think something is out of your reach as you never know what you might be able to negotiate until you try. As many planners know, get at least three estimates for comparison to ensure you’re making your company’s dollars stretch.”
Additionally, she says, use local resources. “Consider working with third-party partners to ensure you hit a home run with customer experience. Utilize the local convention and visitor’s bureau (CVB) to get a good overview of the city and venues. Utilize as many CVB services as fit your event, including staff for registration to mitigate overall expense, a branded microsite that will give your attendees all they need to know about the city, marketing tools to assist with your theme, discounted attraction tickets for guests to explore what the city has to offer, etc. Don’t let one stone go unturned.”
Patricia Farmer, trade show and events manager with Philips North America, Oral Healthcare, needed a more intimate space for a national sales meeting with 125 attendees last summer, and Nashville was a fit for that meeting, too. “It was a central location for our staff to fly into from all over North America and we knew the city would offer fun activity options for a corporate event,” she says.
The Philips meeting was set at Loews Vanderbilt Hotel. “The property has a more executive, exclusive feel to it as you enter,” Farmer says. “It isn’t as large and overwhelming as other hotel chain properties can be.”
Food and beverage at the hotel was definitely a highlight. “In a post-event survey sent to all of our guests, the No. 1 favorite was the food and beverage. It was absolutely the best we’ve ever had at any hotel in the country,” Farmer says. “By far. Big kudos to the catering staff. They were fantastic and deserve a five-star rating.”
Also deserving of praise was the A/V team. “They were so professional, knowledgeable and easy to work with, especially the team that helped us during our general session,” she adds.
Décor and restaurants in the hotel were another hit. “Attendees loved the décor in the music-themed rooms,” Farmer says. “And many mentioned the great food in Mason’s, a restaurant downstairs in the hotel, as well as the fantastic specialty cocktails at Mason’s Bar.”
Farmer has praise all around for all of the Loews Vanderbilt staff. “I wish I could remember everyone’s name as everyone at the hotel was incredible,” she says. “But specifically Taneka Benjamin, who was a wonderful planning partner, along with Shane Fortner, the sales lead. And there were so many others who helped us throughout the days onsite.”
Loews Vanderbilt completed a full renovation of its Symphony Ballroom last year, including a new pre-function area, carpeting, walls and fixtures to create a sleek, modern space. One of its new lunch offerings available to groups for catering or to-go orders on arrival or departure day is a “create-your-own-healthy-lunch-bowl” from a customized menu at Mason’s and Mason’s Bar on weekdays.
While destination is a key component of any meeting, it’s the hotel staff and relationships upon which planners so often rely. When Susan Moss brought a technology summit to Nashville related to intellectual and developmental disabilities, it was the staff at Hotel Preston that made all the difference. “The catering staff at Hotel Preston has done a great job on the latest projects I’ve worked on with them,” she says.
And though the conference space was undergoing renovation during last year’s meeting, it’s the service level of the staff, particularly the sales manager, that Moss thinks back on. “Our sales manager was very attentive,” she says, “continuously checking in to ensure everything was running smoothly — really going that extra mile.”
Shortly after that meeting, a full renovation of Hotel Preston was completed, including updates to public spaces, meeting rooms, outdoor spaces and all guest rooms. Among the new amenities: Guests can call down and have an acoustic guitar delivered to their room — the perfect way to practice for one of Nashville’s music-oriented team-building sessions.
Local DMCs always have their finger on the pulse of the cities in which they work, and thus can help direct planners to exactly the right venues, activities and services to elevate their specific meetings. Nashville is no exception. Robyn Bass, DMCP, owner and president and CEO of Maple Ridge Events, a Hosts Global member, is one such resource. She worked on an April event drawing 1,700 attendees, which used multiple downtown hotels and notably one of Nashville’s most famous streets.
“Nashville served as the perfect location for this group as it’s situated in the middle of the country and provides easy access with multiple direct flights from both regional and national locations,” Bass says. “Most guests were staying at hotels within walking distance of Broadway and the Music City Center, our amazing convention center. This saves on transportation costs and allows guests to experience the heart of Nashville at their leisure, beyond set activities.”
A significant element of the annual summit was a private street party. “The main event was closure of Nashville’s famed Broadway.” Bass says. “We closed it between 3rd and 4th avenues and bought out multiple honky-tonks to give attendees the exclusiveness of a Broadway street party and the ability to bar-hop like locals do. The street closure included a custom Beer Garden, five local food trucks, fair games and a photo booth. The honky-tonks were filled with additional custom branding, entertainment and Nashville-themed food and beverage.”
Closing any street in Nashville is not easy, according to Bass. “But the most popular one, Broadway, is almost impossible. So, knowing the city’s pain points and avoiding them all together can help for a smooth process and program.”
That’s where a DMC can pave the way to fulfill a group’s ideal in terms of a truly “wow” experience. “Nashville is a unique city, which presents some challenges,” Bass says. “Working with a DMC that has relationships with the city and a pulse on the ever-changing landscape of what is — and more importantly, is not — possible in Music City can save planners a lot of headaches.”
For planners and their groups, the challenge is often patience, as was the case for this client in terms of closing part of Broadway. “The city, even if verbally committing, will not issue the actual permit for public-property events until two weeks before the event date,” Bass says. “So, you have to remain patient as you cannot rush them — and then have a hell of a backup plan just in case.” One thing Bass hopes is that planners have an open mind when it comes to hotels in Nashville, perhaps especially budget-friendly hotels.
“There are so many new hotels popping up daily, many of which exceed what we may think of as their ‘brand standard,’” Bass says. “We’ve all stayed in the old Holiday Inn atriums with rooms facing the pool in the middle, but our new Holiday Inn Hotel and Suites Nashville Downtown-Convention Center is unlike any I’ve ever seen. The soon-to-open Drury Plaza Hotel Nashville Downtown also exceeds all preconceived notions of a Drury hotel. From meeting rooms to décor to quality of service, all of our hotels in Nashville go above and beyond to provide an experience you can’t get in any other city.”
Jacqueline Marko, CMP, DMCP, regional general manager with PRA Nashville and PRA Louisville, calls Nashville’s incredible growth and evolution an asset. “Nashville is known as Music City, so many visitors come for the amazing music scene. They’re hoping to hear the next ‘it’ artist at the honky-tonks on Broadway, which feature live music open to close from up-and-coming artists.”
In addition to music, she points out, “Nashville is becoming known for its quirky neighborhoods featuring local artisans and chef-driven restaurants, including some of the top-rated restaurants in the country.”
Nashville has seen record-breaking year-over-year growth since 2010, Marko says. “In response, the city is expanding its international airport with more direct flights, such as British Airway’s direct flight between London and Nashville launched last year. There’s also substantial hotel development underway. There are more than 5,000 rooms currently in construction in the metro Nashville area.”
Although music has been a staple of Nashville meetings for years, planners can find many ways to give attendees unique, even one-of-a-kind experiences. “That might be hosting dinner on stage at the world-famous Ryman Auditorium with an intimate performance from Grammy award-winning songwriters telling the stories behind the music they wrote, or a private concert at a honky-tonk with an internationally renowned artist,” Marko says. Bottom line: “Groups want, and attendees expect, experiences that are all about the music.”
Music can be part of team-building, too. “While attendees certainly expect to hear music in Music City, they don’t always expect to make it,” Marko notes. “A popular team-building option we offer is a songwriting experience where we pair small teams with a local songwriter. They’re given a topic and about an hour, then perform the song they wrote in front of the rest of the group. You would be surprised how even those who usually shy away from the microphone let out their inner star in this friendly competition.”
Nashville’s evolving food scene is also fodder for team activities, according to Marko, from a cooking demonstration and tasting with a local top chef to a throw-down team-building competition on which a team can make the best barbecue sauce.
Marko points out that another positive for the city is that many venues and activities for groups are within about 20 minutes of each other. “We often hear from clients that they don’t want their attendees to sit on a bus for more than 30 minutes. From our airport to the convention hotels to the main attractions throughout town, everything is in close proximity, so attendees can spend more time in their cowboy boots on the dance floor than sitting on the bus waiting to get to their offsite event destination.”
With all the positives, it shouldn’t be surprising that Nashville is popular these days, and that means planners have to be proactive. “Start planning early” is Marko’s advice. “Many are surprised by Nashville’s popularity and the fact that last-minute bookings can be difficult. If you know you want to bring your group to Nashville and you’re within a 12-month booking window, flexibility is key.”
Like other DMCs, Marko works with all of the city’s hotels but does have a preferred relationship with a few hotels in the city, which can mean savings for planners. “PRA has established preferred relationships with Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, Omni Nashville Hotel, Hilton Nashville Downtown, The Westin Nashville, Kimpton Aertson Hotel, Bobby Hotel, The Hermitage Hotel and Union Station Hotel Nashville.”
On the hotel front, there’s lots going on in the city. Hilton Nashville Downtown, adjacent to Bridgestone Arena, recently transformed its Trattoria Il Mulino patio into a fully enclosed space for year-round dining and events. In ideal weather it can be opened up via garage-type doors and windows, meaning planners don’t have to worry if the weather turns bad on their outdoor event — plan A and plan B are in the same spot. The patio accommodates 80 for a reception, 32 for a seated event.
Sheraton Grand Nashville Downtown has already completed a $35 million renovation that updated guest rooms, public spaces and meeting space.
Branson’s Virgin Hotels Nashville is slated to open in the historic Music Row area this December, while Margaritaville Hotel Nashville should open in SoBro this fall. A new W Hotel Nashville is among those scheduled to open in 2020.
And then there’s the Sinatra Bar & Lounge — a tribute to Frank Sinatra and the good music, good food and good spirits he loved. The venue, scheduled to open in early 2020, is set in a historic 19th century building in Printer’s Alley. Sinatra’s preferred drink, Jack Daniels, will be front and center on the “old school” cocktail list.
There’s a reason 15.2 million visitors headed to Nashville last year, many of them to attend conferences and other business meetings. The mix of music, history, a cutting-edge culinary scene, vibrant industry, a central geographic location and a creative, service-oriented CVB all add up to make Nashville a destination that should top any planner’s list.C&IT