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VOL. 41 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 15, 2017

Increased competition keeps venue owners on their toes

By Joe Morris

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City Winery is a unique venue with four spaces for rent, the concert hall, cellar, winery  and lounge.

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From networking mixers and intimate concerts to blowout weddings, fundraisers and personal-milestone celebrations, Nashville’s event venues are seeing traffic like never before.

The city’s growth in size and profile has created a vibrant and competitive venue-rental scene, and with the holiday partying season right around the corner, it’s not too early to book the perfect spot to celebrate.

Even before Nashville became the destination of choice for the corporate headquarters of global concerns, as well as every bachelorette party east of the Mississippi, it was a city that knew how to throw a party.

Hotels, nightclubs and event venues were not in short supply, and could handle the unique needs of most all comers.

That’s still the case, but with the city’s rise as both permanent home and vacation destination for so many, there has been a corresponding uptick in the size and variety of events people and companies are looking to put on here. There’s also much more competition as new hotels, restaurants and other businesses add event-rental opportunities into their spaces to snag some of that spending.

For both traditional and novel sites, that means more marketing, outreach and networking than ever before, not just to corporate and private event planners but also to the destination-management companies who are looking to give their clients that unique, only-in-Nashville experience.

Few venues will talk price, largely because every event has a different budget and that affects everything from the amount and type of food to the number of bartenders, floral arrangements, entertainment and other add-ons. What they all will say is that they can work with any group, with just about any budget, to make something happen.

For some larger, more legacy venues, the key is providing multiple or even full turnkey services. That’s the case at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, says Nando Rodriguez, senior director of events and culinary.

“When we are fully booked, we are looking at 12 different spaces,” explains Rodriguez, who came to the venue after a stint as general manager for Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center’s attractions arm, which includes the Wildhorse Saloon and General Jackson Showboat.

“One of our strengths is that we can cater to almost any type or size of event. But one thing that we must continue to do is stay in front of mind for many types of consumer.

The Omni Hotel, adjacent to the Music City Center, has over 80,000 square feet of meeting space in flexible size configurations.

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“We opened up expanded space in 2014, and it was a new, shiny penny.

“It’s still really shiny, but it’s not new. We have to make sure we’re reminding people who have been with us before of all that we have to offer, and also market to new people in town because they’ve never been here before,’’ he adds.

That approach is working for the hotels in town, as well. Eight years in, events have been a strong performer for The Hutton Hotel as well, says Adam Spivey, director of sales and marketing.

“We’re very fortunate to have developed a reputation as a premier boutique property to host a number of events ranging in size, style and occasion,” Spivey acknowledges. “Our ‘bread and butter’ business usually centers around corporate and entertainment travel, but we also do our fair share of association and social room blocks.”

Unique offerings = solid bookings

Selling space attached to a major tourism destination gives his team a leg up, Rodriguez says. The museum also benefits from longstanding relationships and agreements with the nearby Music City Center and the ever-growing number of downtown hotels.

“A lot of the smaller hotels don’t have much meeting space, because they’re not built for that,” he notes. “Then we can partner with them for the various spaces we have, which runs from a 10,000-square-foot event hall to a u-shaped, 40-seat boardroom. That gives us some leverage, as well.”

The focus at the nearby Omni Nashville Hotel is selling hotel rooms, but meetings and events are key to that core business, explains Tod Roadarmel, area director of sales and marketing.

“Roughly 70 percent of the people who walk through our front door are here to attend a meeting or event, and that’s why we have 80,000 square feet of space dedicated to those,” Roadarmel points out. “We use that space to sell our 800 guest rooms, but how far we are up or down in one inventory can affect the other.”

The Omni has a room-block agreement with the Music City Center and city of Nashville that sets aside a certain percentage of guest rooms for citywide conventions, a deal that Roadarmel says is sound for all parties. But at certain times of the year the sales and marketing team will infill with holiday parties and other events when convention traffic might be lighter.

The same approach is happening at the Hutton, Spivey adds.

The Music City Center offers catering - with a fabulous chef - as well as space for meetings and events.

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“Nashville is rapidly becoming a holiday destination, and we’re excited to be able to help folks celebrate whether they’re local businesses capping off a successful year or companies from elsewhere visiting during what used to be a bit of a slow period,” he adds.

“We measure a successful holiday season by being able to provide both the party facet and sleeping rooms for all attendees; when the two coincide, and we’re able to also incorporate food and beverage revenue we’ve really checked all the boxes.”

At the Music City Center, the calendar is a little more advanced, with convention bookings for years down the road. But a global outreach for events doesn’t mean the locals are overlooked when it comes to rounding out the short-term calendar, says Charles Starks, president and chief executive officer.

“One of the things we often said when we were building the center was that we wanted to see local groups use the facility,” Starks explains.

“Be that a nonprofit event, fundraiser, holiday party, whatever. Our first focus is to bring the big groups in, because that would benefit the entire city. But in between those large conventions, and the local, regional and statewide meetings we host, we want to see those community activities in here as much as possible.”

Another venue that’s capitalizing on its unique offerings is the City Winery Nashville, which opened in October 2014, and offers not just different size rooms for large-scale or private dining, but is also a concert venue and, as the name would indicate, a winery.

“Our concept is urban wine country, and we’re not just making wines but also serving them from around all over the world,” says Liz Hughes, event director.

“From catering to food and beverage to valets, we manage it all in house. We promote being a great banquet facility as well as a great concert facility, and having both of those along with our culinary and wine programs is really our sweet spot.”

Demand, competition rises

With more options than ever before, and more groups and companies seeking space, venue sales and marketing in Nashville rivals the real estate market for a frenzied pace.

Rodriguez says that while there are more venues elbowing their way to get in front of planners, there are also more planners on the hunt for venues – not quite a break-even scenario, but not one that’s truly cutthroat just yet.

“You’re seeing a lot more movement on both sides,” he adds. “New companies are moving in, which means people are coming to live here. A lot more tourists are coming. That means more restaurants and clubs opening up. Many of them recognize that hosting events is a lucrative little side business.

“But not everyone can compete with everything, so there’s still plenty to choose from. For instance, we offer access to the museum, which is unique to us. But other venues have their own differentiators as well.”

Sometimes that’s a dual marketing track meant to capture business from near and far. Despite its steady convention traffic, for example, the Omni has sold itself as a venue for locals since it opened in September 2013, Roadarmel adds, pointing out the various dining, bar and spa destinations it offers to entice in area residents. “We do market everything we have here, and when it comes to events, we can offer discounted room rates, as well as discounted valet parking.

“We’ve developed a strong reputation for hosting charity events, which gets a lot of corporate visitors and locals in the door, and that helps us build business exponentially.”

The Music City Center also targets local nonprofits and other philanthropic groups, Starks says, pointing out that the center has hosted 248 events for them in the center’s four years of operation.

“That’s the Girl Scouts, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Nashville Inner City Ministry, The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee… we’re very aggressive and out soliciting those people, because we have pockets of space that can fit a lot of needs.

“If they are looking to have a speaker come for an event, but that speaker only has one available date and other places can’t accommodate, we become a choice because we have space, and also a great team that will work with all kinds of budgets.”

Party like it’s 2020

How long will Nashville’s “It City” reign last?

Hard to say, but the venue-rental opportunities are likely to stay abundant no matter what.

Sure, some restaurants and other spaces will go offline, but the sheer number of new hotels alone that have opened in the last few years, not to mention those going up now, will guarantee choice and variety.

Add to that various nooks and crannies that are now being stuffed with partygoers and it’s an even rosier picture.

“I came out of the hotel business, and I’ve been here a long time,” Starks notes. “Some are going to be more aggressive than others about going after event business. What has surprised me is all the little, more boutique places that are turning into event sites.

“People are creating a space that may only hold 50 people, but they are marketing it well and they are bringing in opportunities. We are a big enough market now that they can be successful doing that. I think that’s why you’re seeing events going on not just downtown, but all over the entire city.

“There are a lot of traditional spaces, and a lot of really cool spaces, that weren’t here before, and that inventory is leading to a lot of growth.”

Will that growth lead to sharper elbows, especially if the city’s influx of new residents and visitors does ebb even a little?

Probably not, says Dena Tidwell, senior executive of sales and catering for the Wildhorse Saloon, which is a popular weekend destination but also hosts a wide variety of different events during the week.

“We are seeing a lot of new hotels, and of course the convention center, and many of their guests come here,” Tidwell points out. “It’s still a pretty small community when it comes to venues and event spaces, though, and we all have great relationships. We’re very competitive, to be sure, but we also pass things back and forth with each other.

“Everybody likes to win the bid, but we also share the wealth. If we talk to someone, and we’re not a good fit, we’ll send them somewhere we think will be. There is plenty to go around right now as far as finding somewhere fun to go.”

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