As a meeting destination, Nashville is hotter than a country music star with a chart-topping hit. The city’s fast-growing meeting, convention and hotel space is attracting record numbers of meetings and conventions, including many corporate groups that had never before considered Nashville.
Such companies include Experian, a global information services company. Experian will hold its first-ever meeting in Nashville in April at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, which offers 600,000 sf of meeting space. Experian’s three-day North American sales conference is expected to attract 750 attendees.
Experian began to consider Nashville at the suggestion of the company’s former CEO. “About five years ago, he asked us about meeting in Nashville,” says Laurie Touchberry, CMP, Experian’s director of corporate events. “The suggestion really surprised us, but we looked into it. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Nashville has so much more to offer than we thought as far as properties and meeting space. We liked that downtown was close and that it’s a walkable city. And I didn’t realize what a great place for food it is. We are excited. This is a whole new type of destination for us.”
“We were pleasantly surprised to find that Nashville has so much more to offer than we thought as far as properties and meeting space. We liked that downtown was close and that it’s a walkable city. And I didn’t realize what a great place for food it is. We are excited. This is a whole new type of destination for us.” — Laurie Touchberry
Touchberry sought a property that could meet Experian’s considerable technology needs. “Most of our salespeople will have at least two devices,” she says. “We do real-time online polling during our presentations and 50 to 60 breakouts. We have to make sure people can tweet about sessions and share information online with others who couldn’t make it to the meeting.”
Experian also needed ample bandwidth for its meeting app. “The app has been pretty popular the last few years,” says Touchberry. “It offers lots of information about the meeting and breakout agenda so people can make their personalized agendas. We give them information about speakers and a map of the venue because it is huge. There’s attendee contact information so they can network before, during and after the event. We can also push out communications to attendees by email or text.”
Touchberry discussed her technology needs during her site visit. “We asked them specifically about the bandwidth and told them what our usage has been in the past,” she says. “They assured us they have enough bandwidth and gave us examples of how they met the technology needs of other corporations.”
The Experian meeting also will take advantage of Nashville’s musical heritage. “We will have a networking dinner at the Grand Ole Opry, where we will have some type of musical entertainment,” says Touchberry. “After that, many people will hit the places downtown.”
Corporations meeting in Nashville for the first time are helping the city set records. The number of hotel rooms sold and the amount of hotel tax collected increased 48 consecutive months through 2014, according to the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. (NCVC). In October 2014, Nashville set an all-time monthly record for hotel room bookings. In addition, Nashville’s year-over-year hotel demand in November 2014 was the fastest growing in the nation, according to Smith Travel Research.
Nashville’s brand is broader then just country music. The city now has a dual reputation — music city and top meeting destination. “We have made ourselves into a very planner user-friendly city,” says Carol Norfleet, CMP, DMCP, executive vice president and COO of Destination Nashville, a local DMC. “The Gaylord, one of the largest convention and meeting hotel properties under one roof in the nation outside of Las Vegas, gave us the resort market. The Music City Center (MCC) gave us a downtown urban convention center property. So we have the best of both worlds for meetings — downtown urban and a resort in one city.”
The face of Nashville’s new reputation is the Music City Center. The city’s new 2.1-million-sf, state-of-the-art convention center features a 350,000-sf exhibit hall, 60 meeting rooms and the 57,500-sf Grand Ballroom. In addition, the MCC holds LEED Gold Certification and engages in environmentally sustainable practices, including maintaining a green roof with a 200-kilowatt solar panel.
Music City Center is a prime reason why Nashville booked meetings at a record pace in 2014, according to Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., who expects to set more records in 2015. “This will probably be the fifth year in a row of record sales,” he says. “We will probably show at the end of the year that we hosted four of the largest conventions in the history of the city. We are very competitive, and we are winning more than we lose against our competitors. The MCC has enough space to attract 75–80 percent of the convention business nationwide. We feel like that’s the sweet spot.”
Nashville is especially hot in the corporate meetings sector. Norfleet says the reasons are innumerable. “We are within a day’s drive of 60 percent of the U.S. population,” she says. “We are a Southwest Airlines hub. The meeting space within hotels and the convention center is fabulous. There is a lot to do. And there are many great venues.”
Norfleet notes that the downtown music venues are popular among corporate groups. “Our biggest showcase downtown is the Wild Horse Saloon, which is three stories,” she says. “It showcases country music and other types of bands. It has the biggest dance floor in town, and there is a lot of square footage for large groups. The honky-tonks, which are everywhere you turn, keep live music going almost 24 hours a day.”
In addition, Nashville offers posh private event venues. For example, Aerial, located on Broadway, hosts up to 250 people in a stylish space with a glass-enclosed rooftop and 2,000-sf patio.
Nashville’s many recording studios also are popular venues for events, receptions and teambuilding events. “We rent the studios for groups for an afternoon or evening,” says Norfleet. “Many times, as a teambuilding exercise, we bring in songwriters to write a song with attendees and they record it on the spot.”
In addition, the food scene has exploded over the last few years, Norfleet says. “There was a time when if it wasn’t a food chain or a basic restaurant, it wasn’t here,” she says. “Now we have everything from ethnic cuisine to fine dining. Celebrity chefs are starting to discover us. I keep a running list of restaurants I need to try. There are about 20 on the list. Most opened in the last year or will open soon.” Many of the restaurants are located within a few miles of the MCC, she adds.
Beachbody Inc., a Santa Monica, California-based direct sales company that markets fitness, weight loss and home-exercise DVDs, plans to take full advantage of most of Nashville’s venues. Beachbody will hold a three-day meeting for more than 20,000 distributors in Nashville this July.
The company is planning four parties for its top four tiers of distributors. “We are using the Country Music Hall of Fame for our top group,” says Kelli Gilbert, Beachbody V.P., global events and recognition. “We don’t know who the country music entertainer will be yet. We are closing part of downtown near Sixth Street for another party, and The Wild Horse Saloon for another.” For the fourth party, Gilbert will be shutting down Second Street or Lower Broadway downtown, the heart of the live music scene known as Honky Tonk Highway. The newly expanded Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is connected on several levels to the Omni Nashville Hotel and is across the street from the Music City Center.
Beachbody’s meeting functions will take place in Nashville’s most prominent meeting and convention sites: The MCC will host opening and closing sessions; distributor recognition events will take place at LP Field, a football stadium; and Bridgestone Arena will be the site of the general session.
There was a time when Nashville couldn’t provide meeting space and hotel rooms for 20,000 attendees. Not anymore. “We are contracted with about 43 hotels,” says Gilbert. “We are creating a shuttle service for guests. We have over 1,000 rooms at the Gaylord Opryland, and we are creating a separate shuttle system there for those people.”
The NCVC played a crucial role in helping Beachbody with the numerous details involved in planning such a large and complex meeting. “They have been instrumental in every decision we have made, including the vendors we selected, closing down parts of downtown, and the hotel package. They have been like a partner or extension of us. It’s the first time we have experienced that,” says Gilbert. And, she adds, “We feel like everything we are getting has been the best possible value for us.”
Beachbody selected Nashville after meeting in Las Vegas for three consecutive years at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino. “We had great experiences there but we just wanted to try something different in another part of the country,” says Gilbert. “Nashville has gotten such a good reputation, and it’s something on people’s bucket lists. It is so different from Las Vegas, but that’s what is good about it.”
Gilbert and her staff leaned toward meeting in Nashville during their site visit. “When we saw Nashville, we thought it would be one-stop shopping for us,” says Gilbert. “They had the space and availability. It’s well-positioned in the U.S. for our distributors all over the country. And we liked how much they wanted us to be there.”
The only thing that limits Nashville from attracting even more and larger meetings is sleeping room supply. The demand for rooms exceeds the supply, says Spyridon. “The biggest obstacle for us in terms of getting more business is having enough room blocks,” he says.
More rooms are on the way. Plans call for building two new hotels: The Westin Nashville Hotel and a JW Marriott — across from the MCC. The 35-story JW Marriott hotel will be the tallest building in Nashville and will offer 500 to 600 sleeping rooms. The JW Marriott is expected to open by the end of 2017.
Developers broke ground on the 454-room Westin Nashville in mid-January. The Westin Nashville will feature two restaurants, as well as a rooftop pool and bar. Construction of the hotel is expected to be completed by the end of 2016. In addition, plans are underway to break ground on the Virgin Nashville Hotel this spring, which will bring another 240 guest rooms to Nashville in fall 2016.
The 800-room Omni Nashville Hotel connects to the Country Music Hall of Fame and sits across from MCC. The property offers 80,000 sf of meeting space. Both the hotel and the MCC opened in September 2013.
The 340-room Loews Vanderbilt Hotel has undergone renovations that include a redesigned lobby, refreshed corridors, and new public and guest bathrooms. The project also added a new Mason’s Southern brasserie-style restaurant and Mason Bar, which features live music, a nine-screen media wall and a Mason jar chandelier. The property offers 24,000 sf of meeting space.
The Hilton Nashville Downtown — the city’s only all-suites, full-service luxury downtown hotel — has completed a new lobby and renovated all 330 suites as part of a $32 million renovation. The hotel also improved its 17,800 sf of flexible meeting space, including the grand ballroom. In addition, the hotel has a new executive lounge complete with a grand fireplace. The AAA Four Diamond property has transformed its grand atrium lobby into a lively social space with a Nashville-inspired design that includes warm woods, polished marble and sleek metals.
The lobby features a new grand circular entrance and marble floor with modern rugs and elegant but comfortable furniture that invites guests to relax and network. The renovation also transformed the Parkview Café & Lounge and MarketStreet restaurant. The entire renovation project will be complete when the Hilton Nashville introduces a Trattoria II Mulino Italian restaurant this spring.
The hotel also features The Palm Steak House, a fine-dining venue with a reputation for attracting musicians including Harry Connick Jr., Lady Antebellum and Little Richard. The Sports Grille is currently being converted to an upscale Italian restaurant
Located across the street from the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Hilton Nashville offers Wi-Fi throughout the hotel and features onsite car rental service.
The Renaissance Nashville Hotel has completed the final phase of a $12 million renovation that included its 700 guest rooms, meetings rooms and grand ballroom. The project increased the fitness center’s space by 50 percent. Renovations also included a new lobby, guest floor corridors and the addition of a Starbucks. The 673-room property offers more than 31,000 sf of meeting space.
The 28-story Sheraton Nashville Downtown Hotel is undergoing a $25 million makeover. The renovation includes all 482 guest rooms; a brand new lobby featuring a floating wooden staircase; a 25-story glass chandelier; and custom seating areas. The property has 25,000 sf of meeting space.
The Sheraton Music City Hotel, which offers a resort-like setting, has refreshed its fitness center. Complimentary airport transportation is available. The 410-room property offers 33,000 sf of meeting space.
Any planner who still views Nashville as simply a great place for country music doesn’t know the destination. “There is not enough time to do everything you want to do in Nashville,” says Norfleet. “The hardest decision is what to leave out.” C&IT