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VOL. 36 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 14, 2012

Funky to formal, area offers a variety of party venues

By Hollie Deese

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Cellar One provides access to River View Courtyard, which it promotes as the only open-air courtyard in downtown Nashville.

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A 400-person wedding, a bachelorette party, the latest No. 1 hit … 5 o’clock. Nashville is a town that will use any excuse to party. But it can’t be just any kind of party. It has to be a Nashville party, one that really shows off the personality of the area.

To meet that demand, non-traditional venues equipped to host these special occasions are growing and flourishing.

“Nashville is not the type of town that runs to hotels anymore for events,” says Randi Lasnick, owner of Nashville Event Space and Randi Events, both divisions of Hospitality Consultants. She launched her venue division in 2007, managing events in four venues downtown, including the Johnny Cash Museum, scheduled to open in November.

“I do some events at hotel ballrooms when it warrants it, but that is not what Nashville dictates. It dictates that urban look, that clean slate,” she adds.

Nashville is unique in that people don’t just book venues to celebrate weddings, birthdays and bar mitzvahs. Music labels need places to host artist showcases, shoot music videos or celebrate a No.1 hit.

One of the newest venues in town, Cellar One, is the fourth space in the building that houses Mercy Lounge, The High Watt and Cannery Ballroom, which itself is hosting the Americana Music Festival and Conference this weekend.

“People want something that is a little bit different, a little bit off the beaten path, and the music venues that we have kind of work perfectly,” says Deanna Bruton, special events manager for Cannery and Cellar One.

“We just hosted the Billboard country music conference, and they actually used three of our spaces over the course of three days. They did theater-style seating for a conference where Willie Nelson came and spoke, they had breakout sessions with a showcase featuring new acts in the Mercy Lounge and cocktails in One.”

It doesn’t have to be an industry event to warrant such a venue. Brides appreciate that brick walls, exposed beams and wood floors are much easier to work with than patterned carpet or traditional drapes. But they also like to show off their city to out-of-town guests, which is why you can book the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Schermerhorn Symphony Center and the Country Music Hall of Fame.

But iconic buildings aside, there is history and Nashville flair to be found all around.

“The raw space itself has a lot of history,” Bruton says of the Cannery. “Especially upstairs where we have all the original gears from when it was a cannery, so it has this funky vibe to it.”

Lesnick is the first to admit she was nervous about how business would do when the economy started to take a hit in 2006.

“I thought the first thing to go would be parties,” she says. “But you know what? People still need to get married, people still need to get their music out there and companies still need to get their products out. There is still a need. A 40th birthday party, maybe there is not a need. And maybe they won’t spend $30,000 on a wedding, but they will spend $20,000.”

The Pool Atrium at Fontanel Mansion can accommodate up to 120 guests at a seated function.

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Lesnick says she had to work harder for her money, but it also inspired her to add the venue side to her business.

“We would walk around downtown, and there would be these buildings that were empty,” she says. “People wouldn’t pay their leases and bailed.”

The first people she contacted were Gene Gilbert and Betsy Williams, real estate partners for a then-empty building at 103 Third Ave. It’s now Avenue, a three-level venue that can accommodate 600.

“I was like, ‘Hey guys, take a leap of faith with me. Maybe I can make some money for you.’ And we just came up with this concept of taking over these buildings and making money for the building owner and, in the meantime, being the exclusive event planner, which was a win-win situation,” Lesnick says.

Until last year, Dan and Brenda Cook had never operated a venue before opening Ruby, a venue that can accommodate up to 300 in Hillsboro Village. The renovated building was the old Primitive Baptist Church near Dragon Park.

“I like anything original, no matter what that is,” Dan says. “An original restaurant, an original bar, clothing, anything that is not cookie cutter. And that is what we try to be. We are in a niche world where 10 percent of the people are going to love it and 90 percent maybe not. I think that is the best you can do in this world because if you can excite 10 percent that is great.”

Also newly operating as an event space in the past year is Fontanel, the 136-acre estate formerly owned by Barbara Mandrell.

There are three private event venues on site, the mansion, a studio gallery built with concerts in mind and the original farmhouse where Mandrell and her family lived while the mansion was being built. Plus, they are about to break ground on a Southern Living design home, which will become a bed-and-breakfast after a year of being an attraction. Dotting the home will be little one-bedroom, one-bath pods where people can comes and stay the weekend.

“We want to make people feel at home whenever they come out here,” says Emily Cheatham, who works with the estate. “So whenever you rent the mansion you get the entire thing. We don’t block things off. You get to go in every single room sit on the furniture, pick up the music memorabilia and touch it or play the guitars.

“It is an event venue, but it is not like a hotel ballroom. It is really interactive and a great representation of Nashville and country music and that is what makes us so different.”

Nashville’s venue community also is about cooperation. If a spot if booked or not just the right place for a client, the operators don’t seem to mind referring them to other spaces in town.

“Randi Lesnick has five dates on hold with us with Hospitality Consultants,” Bruton says. “She loves the new venue One, and I think that is a real great example of us all working together.

“There are certain things we offer that other venues don’t have, and there are things other vendors have that we just don’t offer. Some people really want that hotel ballroom – crisp, clean, pristine and perfect. We are an old building. We do not have a rooftop, so we do not have any outdoor space. There is something for everybody and it doesn’t help things if you work against each other.”

Cook agrees, citing Houston Station and Oz as unique, independently-owned venues he would offer up as an alternative to Ruby.

“Like in any business, people want a highly differentiated product,” he says. “They want something rooted in place. They want a Nashville place. They don’t want a McDonald’s cookie cutter.

“There is nothing wrong with it, but it is not the Imogene and Willie, the 12South. That is not why people come to Nashville. You can do that Anywhere, USA.”

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