“Nashville seems to be the ‘it’ spot. There has been a lot of investment in downtown, and there have been so many improvements in facilities and infrastructure. There’s a lot of excitement about Nashville right now.”
Christopher Bartholomew, a senior meeting planner for Shaklee Corporation, experienced it firsthand when the company brought 5,000 attendees to town last summer for the Shaklee Global Conference, which had previously met in the city in 2007.
“Nashville is very compact and convenient,” Bartholomew adds. “I hesitate to say this, but it’s sort of like Las Vegas in that regard. You can walk out of your hotel door and have entertainment right there. But it’s far better than Las Vegas, at least for our group. Nashville is fun and exciting, and has all the great music and dining, but it also always feels like a place where you can really bring family.”
— Butch Spyridon, President, Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.
Mahindra USA Inc., which manufactures the world’s No. 1 selling tractor, met in Nashville in 2012 and returned November 2013 for its National Dealer Meeting, a group of 1,279. Dayne Patrick Sean Sullivan, CTA, of Adventures LLC, has planned Mahindra’s meetings for seven years and sees Nashville as a destination that is very proactive in the meetings and incentives industry — an attribute that’s not only good for corporate and incentive groups but also for planners.
“We met in Nashville for several reasons,” he says. “The city’s central geographic location makes it convenient for attendees who wish to drive, and it also offers ease in flying in and out of the airport. Nashville has a friendly atmosphere, and the downtown area has a lot to offer attendees when they’re not in meetings. And the convention and visitors bureau is very easy to work with and offers great assistance in planning and logistics.”
While Music Row is arguably Nashville’s most famous neighborhood, it has been joined by a host of others with claims of their own. Consider the wholly revitalized heart of downtown, which could rightfully be called Meetings Row. Anchored by Music City Center (MCC) and Omni Nashville Hotel, both opened in 2013, the compact area also includes Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Bridgestone Arena and the Country Music Hall of Fame (CMHF). And it intersects with the city’s down-and-dirty live music scene on Lower Broadway, a.k.a. Honky Tonk Row, making it easy for planners to create meetings and functions that flow seamlessly and satisfy diverse needs.
The city believes it has hit exactly the right note with its expansion initiatives, and according to Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., corporate America agrees. “Reception for the new campus, and by that I mean Music City Center, the Omni Hotel and the expanded Country Music Hall of Fame, has been far beyond our expectations. We reached out with great success to groups that had outgrown us and groups that wouldn’t have previously considered us,” he says. “There was a perfect storm in terms of a changing music scene (no longer is it just about country), a growing dining scene, Music City Center and a national TV show. It elevated the city, and it has not slowed down yet.”
Even before the ABC TV show “Nashville,” the city was featured in Bon Appetit, GQ and The New York Times. “The New York Times,” Spyridon says, “looked at the whole city — the burgeoning fashion, music and dining scenes, as well as the new construction and facilities — and concluded that the city itself was destined to be the next big hit.”
That’s exactly what brought GQ to Nashville for its sales conference. At first glance, urbane, fashion-forward GQ doesn’t seem like a natural fit for the middle Tennessee city.
“Our mission as a brand is to find the best that’s out there, especially in places that people wouldn’t necessarily think about, places beyond New York and L.A.,” says Peter St. John, who planned the October meeting when he served as brand promotion manager for GQ. “In featuring Nashville in the magazine, we featured a city that’s incredibly vibrant and with amazing dining, art and music scenes.
“We like to take the team to those “of-the-moment” places, cities that are hip and current and maybe surprising. Nashville is all of that, so it speaks very well to what we do as a publication and to who we are as a brand.”
Nowhere is the city’s “of-the-moment” status more apparent than in its explosive dining scene. “The food scene started with talented local chefs. But there had to be a foundation to support new restaurants,” Spyridon says. “That came as the music scene evolved and as Music City Center grew; both have supported our growing dining scene, which now includes well-known chefs from other areas. Seven restaurants have opened in the past year within a two-mile radius of Music City Center, and they’re doing well.”
— Dayne P. S. Sullivan, CTA, Meeting Planner, Event Manager, Mahindra Inc. USA, San Antonio, TX
Fame and awards aside, Nashville restaurants, chefs and caterers appear able to rise to any challenge meeting planners put to them.
“When you think about bringing New York City media people to Nashville, the expectation might be that the food could not live up to what this group has access to every day,” St. John says. “With the GQ team in particular, coming from a publication that writes so much about the best food and restaurants in the country, even in the world, it could be a challenge to please everyone. But we all left with stretched stomachs from the incredible food.”
The group of 50 GQ attendees raised forks at several notable meals, including brunch at the Capitol Grille, located in The Hermitage Hotel, and dinner at Rolf & Daughters, housed in the historic Werthan Factory Building in Germantown and named by Bon Appetit one of 2013’s Top 10 New Restaurants in the nation. There were lunches and catered events, and a test of local ice cream sandwiches, too. “All of it not only lived up to our expectations, it absolutely surpassed our expectations,” St. John says.
The Shaklee group depended on meals and breaks provided by Gaylord’s catering team and concessions at Bridgestone Arena. “Our food needs can be complex,” Bartholomew notes. “We’re a health and wellness company, and our business leaders and customers walk the walk. We require healthful foods, and we have many attendees who require dairy-free or gluten-free dishes. Both the Gaylord and Bridgestone Arena worked with us to create what we needed. We are also a global organization, and we had a group of about 200 from China in attendance. They had specific breakfast requirements and the Gaylord team worked to customize foods for them as well.”
James Beard Award-winner chef Sean Brock opened Husk Nashville in May, an addition to his original Husk in Charleston, SC. Located in a historic home in the Rutledge Hill neighborhood, Husk offers private dining in the Stables, a meticulously renovated space accommodating up to 30 for a reception or 26 seated for dinner. It exudes warmth with its polished wooden floors and walls of salvaged barn wood. The menu offers just what you’d expect — a new take on Southern food that converts the most discerning diners. “Our management team came in a day early and ate at Husk on Sunday night,” St. John says. “They even had pig’s ears—and they were delicious.”
At The Southern Steak & Oyster in downtown’s SoBro (south of Broadway), the private dining space for up to 75 is VIP-ready. The GQ group ate lunch there after a half-day of meetings and the chicken salad remains high on their list of faves.
Among the newest stars to rise on Nashville’s compelling skyline is the 800-room Omni Nashville Hotel, opened September 30. It sits across from Music City Center and is connected on several levels to the adjacent Country Music Hall of Fame, creating adjoining function space in the two buildings that can be utilized in creative ways. The hotel has a total of 80,000 sf of meeting space.
“We based our meeting at the newly opened Omni Nashville and Music City Center,” Sullivan says. “The deciding factor for holding this meeting in Nashville was space that has come online recently and the flexibility it afforded. The Omni’s downtown location also provided a true Nashville experience for attendees with access to the city’s nightlife, and it was within walking distance to our meeting and offsite venues. We have used Omni hotels in the past and service has always been great, and we knew we could expect the same again.”
The Omni’s catering department received high praise. “Staff was quick to respond to the needs of my attendees,” Sullivan says. “This group is very culture-and-food diverse. We had attendees from five countries with varied food requirements, and the hotel was proactive in assuring that each person was fed in the manner in which they were accustomed and given the type of food they required.”
Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center was Shaklee’s base in 2007 and 2013. “The Gaylord staff gave us a five-star experience in terms of food quality, service level and responsiveness to requests,” Bartholomew says. “Our main venues were in the Delta Ballroom area of the hotel — the largest ballrooms. Most evening functions were in the Delta Lobby A area, which opens onto a nice patio and has floor-to-ceiling windows, so there’s easy flow between indoors and out. We were able to be creative with other meeting spaces offered by the hotel. For example, we set up a photo shoot in one ballroom and a store setup in another. I really loved the great hospitality we experienced at Gaylord. The staff members we worked with were very personable without sacrificing focus on the business at hand. They had exactly the right combination of charm, grace and execution.”
Nashville has a substantial and eclectic collection of spaces in which to do business, 2.1 million sf of it in Music City Center, which opened in May. By year’s end, some 200 events were already booked for 2014.
Mahindra USA Inc. held the majority of its meetings at Music City Center. “We used part of the Grand Ballroom, one of the exhibit halls and most of the breakout space,” Sullivan says. “It’s laid out very well — though they should have put more outlets around as they seem to run a lot of cords.”
Sullivan has high praise for most of MCC’s staff, especially the AV and catering departments. There were problems, however, mostly related to a system in which only one person, the V.P. of operations, can make decisions. “She ended up being a roadblock in the planning because she had to personally approve everything, and I told her that,” Sullivan notes. “I would ask the conference service staffer if we could do something and she would always have to go back to the V.P. to ask.”
Sullivan also felt there was unneeded nickel and diming — the V.P. wanted an additional $500 for the group to use an unused room for 35 minutes to stage dancers — and he found about $2,567 in double billing. His caveat to planners: “Be cautious about what space needs you will require, request a detailed bill and make sure you have read the handbook; they continue to add more rules and then tell you that’s how it must be done.” That said, Sullivan calls MCC “an incredible, state-of-the-art facility,” and he plans to send out an RFP for a 2015 Nashville meeting.
The GQ group was based at The Hermitage but met in Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which nicely bridges classical ambience and contemporary needs. “We didn’t necessarily want a new space, but it had to meet our logistical requirements with respect to AV and other technology,” St. John says. “The Schermerhorn has a new but classic aesthetic, and it feels established yet up-to-date. It has authenticity and character. In other words, it really captures what Nashville is today and that worked well for our meeting.”
Although the majority of Shaklee’s meetings were at the Gaylord, Shaklee wanted attendees to experience Nashville as a destination, and using Bridgestone Arena for some sessions made that easy. “We programmed long lunch breaks between sessions so folks could explore the city on their own. After our Saturday general session, we provided hotel shuttles until 1 a.m. so attendees could go out on Broadway after the meeting to all the music venues and get the downtown experience.”
Whether for teambuilding, galas, touring or free time, the best way to play in Nashville is to listen. And sing. And dance. And taste.
Sullivan booked a function at the Country Music Hall of Fame at the suggestion of the CVC. “We wanted to give our attendees a true taste of Nashville and the country music for which it’s famous, so we brought in Georgette Jones, daughter of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. The evening was amazing. The staff worked with us to customize our menu for our multinational attendees and went out of their way to ensure that the event was a success. This whatever-it-takes attitude is what we found from most people in Nashville, and this venue exemplified that.”
The GQ team went for a broad experience. One afternoon, half the group visited Corsair Distillery to get insight into Tennessee’s burgeoning craft-whiskey industry. The other half toured United Record Pressing, where vinyl meets the digital age. Another day, they all gathered at Imogene + Willie, one of the city’s trending clothing stores, where St. John staged lunch. “It’s a great space,” he says. “The lunch, catered by Otaku South, was amazing Southern-style Japanese food. It was a very cool, very Nashville experience, and everyone on the team got a pair of jeans before we left.”
Teambuilding took place at Mercy Lounge at the suggestion of Spyridon. St. John had wanted something interactive but engaging and related to an authentic experience in Nashville. “The first part was a performance by three singer-songwriters, which was so good as well as interesting. Then we broke into groups and wrote songs about GQ. There was no real criteria for who won — maybe Group 2 was loudest — but everyone had a great time during the entire thing.”
For the finale, St. John chose Aerial, a private event space on Broadway that can host up to 250 attendees. The glass-enclosed rooftop with a sleek bar and surrounding 2,000-sf patio was ideal for the high-style event. “We wanted to curate our own experience, a GQ honky-tonk,” St. John says. “We set the stage with a massive marquis sign — a huge metal G and Q with light bulbs on them, set up outside. We started with cocktails on the patio accompanied by a singer and guitar player, and then a chef from one of Nashville’s top restaurants, The Catbird Seat, did our sit-down dinner. We had awards, speakers and a full-on dance party, and then we went out honky-tonking on Broadway. It was a total success.”
In 2013, the chic Hutton Hotel became Nashville’s first Forbes Four Star property and was lauded in the 2013 Forbes Travel Guide for its stellar service and green initiatives. The Hutton offers 247 guest rooms and 13,600 sf of meeting space.
The 410-room Sheraton Music City Center Hotel features an outdoor courtyard that can host up to 500 for a reception among its 32,000 sf of meeting space. Updates this past year focused on the fitness center, underscoring the property’s resort feel. And even groups can take advantage of complimentary airport transportation.
Hilton Nashville Downtown continues its reinvention. Phase one, completed in December, included all 330 guest rooms, the Grand Ballroom and meeting rooms, and a new executive lounge. Phase two, slated for completion late summer, will transform the atrium lobby and lounge and feature a glass circular entrance and a re-imagined lobby bar. The Hilton offers 17,800 sf of meeting space.
The Renaissance Nashville Hotel, which lost its competitive advantage of being attached to the convention center when Music City Center opened, embarked on a $20 million upgrade to its 700 guest rooms, among other enhancements. The full rollout will be unveiled in early 2014. The hotel also will benefit from the proposed $230 million redevelopment of the convention center site announced by the city in December, a mix of office, retail, dining and entertainment space, including a museum and conference center.
Nashville’s continuing evolution has changed it and the way people think about it, perhaps especially planners. “Because of the recent media attention, the TV show, award ceremonies, etc., the city’s reputation has become much more refined and cultured,” Sullivan says. “Nashville now offers planners more options, and these options allow for greater opportunity for doing business.” C&IT