Spyridon: For Downtown Nashville, it’s all about more hotel space

Friday, February 14, 2014, Vol. 38, No. 7
By Joe Morris


When he watched the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Music City Center in May 2012, Butch Spyridon was ready to exhale.

For more than a decade, he’d been one of the main driving forces behind a new downtown convention center, a project that was written off more than once. From advocacy studies through planning and development, the project stretched through the terms of three mayors and multiple Metro Council members, meaning dozens of pitch meetings, design changes and more.

Through it all, Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp., worked with his staff to bring new meetings to town, as well as keep the ones already here from leaving.

It’s been a lot to handle, and now with a $598 million new building to fill, and plenty of naysayers scrutinizing every financial report it makes, the pressure hasn’t eased up.

Neither has Spyridon.

Recently, he spoke with Nashville Ledger about the tourism business, hotel bookings, the dining scene and the “new normal.’’

Q: The center has been open for almost a year, but you were booking it pretty much the day after Metro government approved funding. Is it living up to expectations?

A: “We’re working hard just to keep up with demand. The building has done very well from an awareness and acceptance standpoint, and I’d say it’s an unqualified and overwhelming success.

“That means the challenge has been managing that demand in terms of proposals, site visits and all the things we need to do to market the space. None of that is a compliant, but we’ve had to ramp up exponentially in terms of the increased actual and proposed activity.’’

Q: What else is fueling interest in the facility?

A: “Nashville has become an increasingly popular destination. We have less hotel availability – and more demand – than ever. It becomes a bigger jigsaw puzzle for us, slotting everyone and everything in so that we don’t lose any business.

“Do you move something to a different year, or a different time of year? The goal is to sustain not only the convention business, but that tourism business, as best as possible so we can keep them all here as long as possible.’’

Q: The Omni Nashville hotel has opened, as have some other hotel properties in the center’s general vicinity. Are those helping with bookings?

A: “I hate to sound like a broken record, but we still need one or two more full-service hotels within walking distance of the building. We also need more 400-plus-room hotels in the area. And this is on top of what we have in the inventory now as well as what’s coming online soon.

“To make that happen, we are talking with people, we are engaged and we are actively recruiting anybody. That’s really not our job, but we have the data and the research, the historical performance data and future booking data, to back up our point.

“We have real-time numbers that demonstrate how strong the market is, and so that’s the role we can play when it comes to getting more hotels here.

Q: At 2.1 million square feet and 350,000 square feet of exhibition space, the Music City Center levels the playing field between Nashville and many other similar-sized cities. What does it do in terms of the size groups you recruit now vs. before?

A: “It goes back to that jigsaw puzzle. The larger groups we book fit right into what we knew was out there. The NRA, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Heart Association … we’ve booked a number of groups with more than 10,000 people.

“The average size we book has tripled from what we did before, from being around 2,000 to 6,000 people or more.

“The key to a lot of what we do is – are these groups the right mix? You need smaller groups, with shorter stays, to balance out the mega-impact bookings. You need those between those big groups, so you’re not empty.

“That’s our business model, and when we piece it together the right way, and don’t rely on any one industry group or market, we find success.

Q: You mentioned finding the right fit in terms of size. What about “fit” as defined by what a group is, or does?

A: “We do try to chase a little bit of everything. Right now, we are the hottest hotel market in the country. With that come higher rates, and the hotels expecting a higher-end type of business for their rooms.

“Part of our evolution is growing into new market segments; going after people who are going to spend a little more to pay those higher rates. Those may be audiences who have not been approached by us in the past, but may be attracted to us.

“Who can afford us? Who’s desirable from a price point perspective? Those questions get answered in part by the requests for proposals that we receive, and the site visits we are asked to host.

“But those questions also shift all the time, and so we pretty much work to get everybody here we can. If we get them here, we can sell them. The only obstacle we have right now are the available dates, and are our hotel packages attractive enough. Any other issue is pretty much fair game.’’

Q: In the past, the Nashville Convention Center and, by association, the then-Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, had a “gentleman’s agreement” with Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center to either pursue business jointly, or leave the field so that one or the other could succeed. That also extended to building a new facility, which some thought would hurt the hotel’s bookings. How’re the two entities getting along these days?

A: “There never was a formal agreement saying that we couldn’t go after the same business, so there’s nothing like that in place now.

“I think right now they have more bookings than they ever would without the Music City Center. They really benefited from the center’s opening and all the positive media coverage of it and of Nashville. I don’t have any hard numbers for them, but I do know they had an extremely good 2013 in terms of sales, and if anything they’ve been helped.

“Of course, we sell them, too. When there are no available dates downtown, it’s an even stronger opportunity for them to grab some new business. We work to keep all that business here, and that doesn’t just mean the Music City Center.

“We said the center would benefit both sites, and it’s working out exactly as we said it would.’’

Q: Have there been any surprises lately in terms of your sales efforts for the Music City Center, or Nashville tourism in general?

A: “Our leisure business is the answer there. To a degree the new center and all the new restaurants have spurred it, because the dining scene is exploding downtown and elsewhere in the city.

“Of course, that makes it a little harder to sell the group business, because we have all those people in town Thursday through Saturday, and they are paying a higher rate for rooms than what a group would book. It’s a benefit, but it’s also a challenge.

“The other surprise is client awareness and acceptance of the new building. They get that it’s a next-generation facility, and they love it.’’

Q: All that said, what do you hope to accomplish in 2014 in terms of your “must do” list?

A: “We have to get one or two more hotels downtown. Then we need to find the balance of sustaining our momentum and finding what our new normal is. We have to make sure that our newfound position is not short-lived.’’

Q: How can city leaders and the business community help in that regard?

“Everyone needs to remember how we got here, and the strength of our brand. It’s southern hospitality, and the authenticity of our destination. That’s the music, and what we have to offer in terms of retail, dining and cool neighborhoods, as well as our attractions.

“A lot of creative entrepreneurs are opening restaurants, for example, and if we perpetuate that we will benefit. If we let a bunch of chains come in and replace local venues, especially in or near downtown, then we are in trouble.

“We can’t let ourselves look like any other American city. People come here for the unique things we have to offer, so we must continue to help our downtown, and our neighborhoods, develop those venues.’’