In the past, Portland and Austin have reigned as America’s darling hip cities.“Now, it’s Nashville’s turn,” The New York Times noted in January. Last year, Food & Wine named the Music City one of the country’s top metropolises for foodies. And the accolades, whether they’re for food, stunning new hotels or an art exhibit, just keep on coming. It’s no coincidence, then, that Nashville has emerged over the last year as one of the country’s hottest meeting and convention destinations.
That lofty status has been aided and abetted by the opening of the new $623 million Music City Center, a 1.2-million-sf convention center; a major expansion of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to be completed in 2014; and the $250 million, 800-room Omni NashvilleHotel, across from the Music City Center, set to open in September. The hotel, which has 80,000 sf of meeting space, will be fully integrated with the Country Music Hall of Fame’s expansion.
— Butch Spyridon, President, Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., Nashville, TN
Meanwhile, Nashville continues its long and historic run as the center of the music universe, with country music as its brightest star. “We are ‘Music City,’ so obviously we want to give delegates a unique experience filled with — you guessed it — music,” says Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. “Nashville isn’t just where the music is played, it’s also where the music is made. And that gives rise to a creative culture that permeates every aspect of the city. It is that creative vitality and Southern hospitality, paired with accessibility and affordability, that has made Nashville a popular meeting destination.”
Given the city’s internationally known personality and profile, it’s no wonder the new Music City Center was built at the heart of downtown. The state-of-the-art facility includes 350,000 sf of exhibit hall space 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 on track to achieve LEED Silver certification. “It’s within easy walking distance of Nashville’s famed honky tonks, as well as countless live music venues,” Spyridon says. So far, a total of 123 meetings representing more than 1 million room nights have been booked into the world-class convention center. And many of those want easy proximity to the unparalleled nightlife and entertainment Nashville has to offer.
Bob Whittemore, manager, marketing communications, at Chandler, AZ-based Aclara, which sells advanced metering services to gas, water and electric utilities, discovered Nashville by accident when he attended an industry convention there several years ago. After getting enthusiastic support from the CVB, he booked back-to-back annual customer conferences at the Renaissance Nashville Hotel for 600 attendees.
And both Whittemore and his attendees took full advantage of the magic of Music City, visiting such iconic landmarks as The Bluebird Cafe, an intimate honky tonk where on any given night, any country music superstar might be having a beer at the bar; and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, another landmark honky tonk that presents live music and is alive with the ghosts of Nashville legends such as Lefty Frizzell or Ernest Tubb.
Whittemore also had high praise for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which is currently being expanded with a new $75 million, 220,000-sf addition that will almost double its size when it is completed in early 2014. New event spaces will debut in October and will include a 10,000-sf Event Hall, the 800-seat CMA Theater, a terrace with skyline views, a private dining room and more.
As a result of such unique venues, Nashville has been gaining favor with meeting planners for years now, even if it has reached a new apex this year.
Heather Willis, employee development and event planning coordinator at Nashville-based retailer Journeys, is herself a Nashville native with a newfound passion for her hometown. “The thing I’ve been most impressed with about the city is that in the past five years,” Willis says, “there have been so many new trendy restaurants and cool venues, in addition to the development of downtown with the new convention center and Omni hotel, as well as other new hotels that have opened or are planned. That means Nashville is now more of a destination than it ever has been before.”
As a result of the new convention center and the new Omni headquarters hotel, Willis is seeing an unprecedented spike in interest in Nashville as a meeting destination. “Those are big draws,” she says. “And they are drawing a lot of attention.”
Because Nashville has long been known as Music City, it’s no surprise that many of its most popular and unique offsite venues are music-related.
For his first meeting, Whittemore used 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 Southern barbecue, steaks and fried pickles.
Whittemore staged an evening that included dinner, live music and line-dancing lessons. “Wildhorse Saloon was very easy to use, because you just sign a contract and they do everything,” Whittemore says. “They provide the venue, the food, the entertainment — that means as a planner, I don’t have to hire a band or rent chairs.”
Rhonda Marko, CMP, CMM, DMCP, president and CEO of top destination management company Destination Nashville, a Global Events Partner, also uses Wildhorse Saloon regularly. “It can hold up to 1,500 people,” she 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 there as house bands, so they have established relationships with all of those bands.”
For his return to Nashville, Whittemore used Honky Tonk Central, another popular country music venue with good food and live bands — and again scored a big success with attendees. In addition to its music-related venues, Nashville also offers an eclectic mix of one-of-a-kind venues for groups of all sizes.
For small groups, Willis likes Sambuca, an upscale, strikingly modern restaurant and bar located in Nashville’s trendy and red-hot Gulch warehouse district. “It’s a really cool, modern place that has great music like jazz and piano, and great views from its upstairs dining room,” Willis says. For small groups, Marko favors Belle Meade Plantation, an antebellum plantation that features a carriage house that can accommodate 140 attendees for a sit-down dinner.
For medium-sized groups, Willis recommends Cannery Ballroom. “It’s a unique space, because it has four venues in one,” she says. “We ended up using three of the four spaces for a ‘Rock Stars and Groupies’ party we did.” In addition to Cannery Ballroom, individual venues include Mercy Lounge, concert venues, plus the new High Watt — a smaller live music venue — and One, which offers great views of the city and new convention center. “It’s a very special venue,” Willis says.
For large groups, Willis enthusiastically suggests fabled Ryman Auditorium, a restored church that served as home to the Grand Ole Opry until 1974 when the Opry was moved to the sprawling Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center complex, which is now one of the city’s biggest attractions. Over the years, Ryman Auditorium became known as “the mother church of country music” and is still featured in movies and TV shows and used as the venue for major concerts.
“We had our awards show for our own annual meeting at Ryman Auditorium last year,” Willis says. “It’s an awesome venue. To sit in those historic pews, with the stained glass windows behind you, in a place where all the greats of country music have performed, is a really special experience.”
Marko also makes frequent use of the Ryman. She often creates sit-down dinners on the fabled stage for up to about 200 attendees. She has also done concerts with superstars such as Cheryl Crow, Keith Urban and Tim McGraw. “And it’s easy to get them when they’re in town,” Marko says. “They love to do it and because they’re local, you get a much-reduced rate, and you don’t have to pay their travel expenses or fly their band in.”
Yet another venue that Willis likes is Cheekwood, a botanical garden that stages major art exhibits, such as its current Light: Installation by Bruce Munro, a stunning outdoor installation by the acclaimed British artist. “And no matter what is going on there at the moment,” Willis says, “Cheekwood is just a gorgeous botanical garden and another very unique venue that is great for groups.”
Marko also stages unique offsite events at some of Nashville’s most famous recording studios, where a catered dinner is followed by a recording session backed by top Nashville musicians. Attendees get to record and take home a disc of them singing — an unforgettable experience.
Meanwhile, Nashville continues to debut new venues.
Anthem, located in the North Gulch neighborhood, is a new live music venue that can accommodate 1,000 attendees and features a VIP room with a capacity of 400, a boutique “dive bar” dubbed Revelry, and a full kitchen.
Marathon Music Works, located in the Marathon Village neighborhood, is housed in an historic building from the early 1900s that has been lovingly restored and transformed into yet another new music venue and event space.
Events on 3rd is another historic, multispace venue in the heart of downtown. Two adjoining spaces can accommodate groups of up to 300.
The Johnny Cash Museum, officially authorized by the estate of the country legend and member of both the country music and rock & roll halls of fame, opened in May and showcases the most comprehensive collection of Cash artifacts and memorabilia in the world. The venue also features a 250-seat auditorium.
Houston Station, a renovated warehouse located in East Nashville near Greer Stadium, features multiple individual venues, including The Ambrose House, a Victorian mansion that offers a unique environment and ambience for small to medium-sized groups.
One of the factors that has catapulted Nashville to its elite status as a meeting destination over the last few years has been its eclectic and acclaimed local dining scene. The city now ranks as one of America’s top enclaves for foodies, notes Marko, herself a foodie and part-time food writer.
“We have a lot of new restaurants,” Marko says. And we have one of the hottest restaurants in the country right now: Catbird Seat opened two years ago.” The Catbird Seat is an intimate, exclusive fine-dining restaurant owned by renowned chef Erik Anderson.
Marko’s other favorites from the current list of hot spots include Kayne Prime, a critically acclaimed local steak house, and Husk Nashville, housed in a building that dates back to 1895 and a sister outpost to the famous Husk Restaurant in Charleston, SC, from chef Sean Brock, a James Beard Award-winner and a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement. “Husk is so good,” Marko says. “The food and the presentation are magnificent. And 90 percent of what they serve is produced locally.”
Another eatery 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 female chef Deb Paquette. “They are now expanding and doubling their size because they have lines around the block for lunch and dinner,” Marko says.
Willis likes some of Nashville’s more eclectic new restaurants, such as Fido coffee shop, frequented by local music superstars such as Taylor Swift. She also likes Frothy Monkey, Bongo Java and new burger joints such as The Pharmacy Burger Parlor and Beer Garden, and Burger Up, which specializes in grass-fed beef. “It serves one of the best burgers I’ve ever had,” says Willis, who also recommends Edley’s Bar-B-Que and Urban Grub Fish Pit and Southern Cantina for popular local fare.
Despite its many new attractions, to many planners, Nashville is still often best known for one of its most famous and celebrated meeting landmarks, the massive Gaylord Opryland resort complex, which features the largest non-gaming hotel property in the U.S.
Ruth Hensley, who retired earlier this year after planning her fifth consecutive annual managers conference for Marshfield, OH-based O’Reilly Auto Parts at Gaylord Opryland for 5,400 attendees, loves the hotel.
“Gaylord Opryland is just awesome,” Hensley says. “The staff is incredible. I had the same conference coordinator for five years. She got to the point where she knew what we wanted before we knew we wanted it. Meeting and convention business is their bread and butter, and they just do an amazing job. And that’s true of everybody you work with.”
Because of Gaylord’s formidable infrastructure and capabilities, O’Reilly Auto Parts had no need to go offsite for anything. Hensley also singled out the resort’s meeting space for praise. “They have such a good variety of meeting rooms, in terms of size,” she says. “They also have a fabulous exhibit hall and ballrooms that are just beautiful. We held our general sessions for 5,400 in the Delta Ballroom. But they also have very nice rooms for smaller meetings. They pretty much have you covered, no matter what you need.”
Somewhat surprisingly to many planners who visit Nashville for the first time, golf ranks high among the city’s major obsessions. Some country music superstars such as Vince Gill play every chance they get, and it’s said that a lot of local music business gets done on the city’s links.
“And you can play golf in Nashville for most of the year because it’s pretty warm for a lot of the year,” Willis says.
“We have many golf courses,” Marko says. “But the one that is most popular is Gaylord Springs at Gaylord Opryland. They just remodeled their clubhouse, and it is a fabulous venue for groups. And the course is an 18-hole Scottish links-style course.” Nashville’s other top course is Hermitage Golf Course.
In addition to the new Omni hotel, Nashville has bold plans for expanding its hotel room inventory. A total of 2,300 new rooms will be added over the next several years, says Nashville CVB president Butch Spyridon.
For example, a new $135 million, 450-room Hyatt Regency will be developed near Broadway and Second Avenue at the heart of the downtown convention district, with 25,000 sf of meeting space and several retail and dining options. Construction of the Hyatt Regency could start this year, and completion is expected in the fall of 2015.
The 340-room Loews Vanderbilt Hotel, with 24,000 sf of meeting space, recently completed a $17 million renovation.
The 673-room Renaissance Nashville Hotel will soon begin work on a $20 million guest room renovation to be completed next spring. The hotel recently announced acquisition of additional meeting space at the Nashville Convention Center, which is directly connected to the hotel. The new 70,000-sf meeting and prefunction space is in addition to the hotel’s existing 30,000-sf space.
The AAA Four Diamond Hilton Nashville Downtown (15,000 sf of meeting space) will emerge from an extensive multimillion-dollar re-invention in December 2013 that will include upgrades to all 330 guest suites, the grand atrium lobby and lounge, grand ballroom, hallways, meeting rooms and fitness center, which will double in size. The hotel also will introduce a concierge lounge featuring sophisticated spaces for work and leisure, window walls, a centerpiece fireplace, private meeting room, and food and beverage service. Hilton Nashville Downtown — the only all-suites hotel in downtown Nashville — will remain open during the phased enhancements with minimal guest impact. Guest suites will be updated floor by floor. Each guest suite’s private parlor will feature a centerpiece sofa, custom entertainment center with flat-screen TV and contemporary workstation. Bathroom upgrades include glass-enclosed walk-in showers for king guest suites.
In July, the 247-room Hutton Hotel received Travel + Leisure’s coveted “World’s Best” award as one of the top large city hotels in the Continental U.S. The hotel, which offers 13,900 sf of meeting space, opened in 2009 and is now a AAA Four Diamond and Forbes Four Star property.
Whether it’s music, dining and entertainment, cool offsite venues or even golf, Nashville aims to please — by offering a thoroughly unique and authentic experience. “We want to offer an ‘only in Nashville’ experience to everyone who comes here for a meeting,” says CVB President Spyridon. And now, he says, Nashville is better situated than ever to be able to do that. C&IT
Destination Nashville produced this corporate event on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, “the show that made country music famous.” Credit: Destination Nashville and Schenk Photography
A rendering of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s 10,000-sf Event Hall. This and other new event spaces will be unveiled in October as part of a large expansion project. Credit: Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.
The 1.2-million-sf Music City Center made its debut in May. Credit: Music City Center
The Wildhorse Saloon, housed in a three-level, historic warehouse, boasts the largest dance floor in Nashville at 3,300 sf. Buyouts and private event spaces are available at the 66,000-sf venue, which has a restaurant and bar along with live music and dancing. Credit: Wildhorse Saloon
Country music superstars like Keith Urban who call Nashville home can be booked for corporate groups, eliminating the cost of transportation for the band. Credit: Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp
Towering over a private event at the Parthenon is a 42-foot statue of Athena. Built in 1897 for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, the venue is a full-scale replica of the original Parthenon in Athens. Credit: Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.
The historic Ryman Auditorium, steps from the new Music City Center, was once home to the Grand Ole Opry. Groups can relive history and hold dinners and events on its fabled stage. Credit: Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.
A rendering of the Omni Nashville Hotel, a headquarters hotel for the Music City Center. The hotel will connect to the newly expanded Country Music Hall of Fame. Credit: Omni Hotels