BEAUTY IN THE FRIDGE

Focus: BTN interview: Butch Spyridon, chief executive, Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation

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After two years of closed international borders, flooding, Covid-19 and innumerable other challenges, you might expect tourism leaders in the United States to be a touch downbeat.

Not a bit of it, with Butch Spyridon, chief executive of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation, effusive in his optimism when it comes to the future of the city.

Having begun to turn the corner on the pandemic, he tells Breaking Travel News the capital of Tennessee is poised to rebound and make the most of a decade of growth.

“For whatever reason, a younger, leisure market has gravitated to Nashville this summer,” he explains.

“This is a combination on pent-up demand, an infusion of federal dollars, that we here would call ‘found money,’ and just a need to do something.

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“We have been one of the fortunate markets, I would say.

“Before the summer here in the United States, it was mostly mountains and beaches that were benefitting, so we took it on the chin for over a year.

“Now, we have started to see a recovery.”

While the city, with a population of 700,000, is unlikely to ever rank number one nationally, it is beginning to occupy a more positive place in the American psyche.

“In the last five-to-ten years, Nashville has become a place Americans would like to visit once in their lives, a ‘put it on my to do list’ kind of place,” adds Spyridon.

“We hear this a lot when we are travelling, and when people arrive in town.”

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A lot of this attraction is centred on music, with Nashville playing host to more venues than a city of its size has any right to.

A heritage of recording and performing is now being leveraged to create a new identity for the destination.

“There is also a great deal to see here – the National Museum of African American Music was both a personal and a professional mission for me,” the tourism chief continues.

“It was the missing jewel in the music crown we have been trying to build, and getting that done and open is a big statement for us.

“But, more than that, it is a great museum, very high-tech, very entertaining and interactive – it has won rave reviews, not just from the black community, but from the public at large.

“We also have the Country Music Hall of Fame, and we are pleased with what they do with their rotating exhibits, while we love what the small music clubs have been doing to.”

Of course, a number of cities in the United States trade on their cultural roots, so this is a competitive market, but Spyridon argues Nashville is now on the top step nationally.

“In times gone by, we would have had to struggle to get any of the major acts to stop in Nashville, but that is no longer the case,” he says.

“Two decades ago, even the Nashville acts wanted to avoid us!

“But we built the Bridgestone Arena, and they realised the opportunity there was here – we can draw fans from a 500-mile radius, making us attractive to those larger acts.

“People want to make it a weekend, which in turn helps the city.

“The Titan Stadium took us to the next level again, and we have welcomed Beyoncé, the Rolling Stones and that real top level of touring act.

“Our friends in Austin claim to be the live music capital, but I would tell you we have more venues, while we also do better with the diversity of music, between those smaller events, right up to the stadiums.

“We also have the business of music here, the major headquarters of BMI and the publishing companies – we are friends, it’s a great city, but I love poking that bear!”

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This success has been noted by the hospitality sector, which has been pouring money into the city over the past few years.

The oldest hotel in town, the Hermitage, has been redeveloped, while Conrad, Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton are among the new brands to enter the market.

“We are really pleased that those flags, those properties that have been missing from our city, and our marketing ability, are finally arriving,” says Spyridon.

“I would ask ‘what took you so long?’, but I am glad they are here now.

“This is a big statement that we can draw that level of clientele and command that level of rate – all of those brands have recognised an opportunity here.

He adds: “My team here at the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation are due some credit, we have really put our shoulder behind the ‘Music City’ brand.

“We have taken the negative connotations of the city – ‘hillbilly,’ ‘racist,’ and ‘hay bales’ – and removed that from the personal impressions that people who had not been to the city had of it.

“As we have expanded our convention market, we have attracted a higher calibre of traveller, and that has driven the culinary scene.

“In turn this has driven the higher rate – we have shown we can deliver on a $300-$400 room rate consistently.

“We have been one of the top performing hotel markets in country, if not the top performing, over the past ten years.

“There has been double digit growth each year, both in terms of demand and in terms of rate; the data really called for those brands to be present here.

“Some heads will have rolled, because those brands now need to pay more for real estate, as well as more for construction.

“We will never pretend we are New York, Paris or San Francisco – but we can hold our own now.”

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This being 2021, however, there have been setbacks, the latest coming in the form of Hurricane Ida, which has caused flooding across the east of the United States.

“Two weeks ago, just west of Nashville, they were hit by a ‘1,000-year-flood’ that literally took out a small town, and they are in the process of rebuilding.

“Here in the city, we have lost the Bonnaroo Festival, which takes place just outside town at a location called the Farm.

“They have been flooded there – and that comes at the end of a tough year-and-a-half,” says Spyridon.

“Bonnaroo is cool, valuable and great for the region – we usually benefit directly and indirectly from it.”

But even this obstacle has damped Spyridon’s enthusiasm for the future.

“We have both turned the corner in the fight against Covid-19, but at the same time we are still battling against it,” he continues.

“The city recovered nicely, starting in June, while July and August have been pretty even in terms of visitors when compared to 2019.

“We are still struggling to get business travel, conventions and international travel, but we have fared better than most in the recovery, and we are still climbing.”

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With FIFA potentially shining the international spotlight on the city in the coming years, the future for tourism in Nashville does indeed appear bright.

“They are coming to town in a couple of weeks as we compete to be a host city for the FIFA World Cup 2026,” adds Spyridon.

“Here, again, we will show them how we plan to use music to differentiate our city.

“A total of 17 cities are vying for the final 11 spots – it is a dog fight – but we are confident.

“A win here would be a major next step in our opening to the world.”

He concludes: “If Covid-19 has done one good thing, it has demonstrated the value of tourism to our local and our state leaders.

“A third of the visitor spending in the state of Tennessee comes through Nashville, and our recovery has been prioritised both in word and in terms of financial support – so we are very grateful for that.

“It is fair to say our current mayor, John Cooper, was not a tourism fan, he had his concerns, but this has changed.

“It seemed to him the city was in a difficult situation financially, but tourism was roaring, and there seemed to be questions over how the city benefitted from the sector.

“There have been some painful lessons to learn, but we are getting there.”

More Information

To find out more about visiting Nashville, head over to the official website.

Chris O’Toole

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