Nashville's rise as a trendy convention destination illustrates why city branding should focus on the individual stories and spirit of the local community and indie entrepreneurs to help differentiate the urban visitor experience.
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There are more than 50 hotels under construction or in development in Nashville today, driven in large part by convention business. About 40 percent of the city’s inbound visitors are convention delegates, which is significantly higher than most U.S. cities.
Nashville is also the only midsize city among the top five metros in the country with the most aggressive hotel development pipelines, joining New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Dallas, and it had the hottest housing market in the U.S. last year.
How did such a small city — whose most indelible tourism industry asset for decades was the Grand Ole Opry — rise to become one of the trendiest cities to visit and live in America, and one of the top 10 most popular for conventions?
According to Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of Visit Music City, the region’s convention and visitors bureau, a lot of it has to do with the local music industry.
During the last 10 years, Nashville’s music scene has evolved to encompass all genres, fueling what Rolling Stone calls an underground movement where, “DIY artists have been rising up to find their own voice.” Today, the local musicians are the driving force behind the growing indie ethos in Nashville, and thanks to Visit Music City, they’re also the face of the destination brand.
“The artists, songwriters and musicians are incredible ambassadors, and we have worked with so many that they can organically tell our story for us,” says Spyridon. “The importance of remaining true to who we are as Music City cannot be overstated. Music, creativity and genuine Southern hospitality are what we do best. That’s the foundation of our brand.”
How Nashville developed that music industry storytelling strategy for the convention industry was two decades in the making.
In the late 1990s, Nashville’s economy was in a bad spot. Visitor arrivals were declining, and the destination brand equated primarily with country music and old Southern tropes. So, the local hospitality industry began discussions in 1998 about building a new convention center, and a feasibility study was conducted in 2001. It then took years for a broad coalition of local government, economic development, and business leaders to raise funding and align their visions around the design and development of a new convention center.
The Nashville Music City Center finally opened in 2013 as the country emerged from the recession, and the city’s visitor economy has since surged in arrival, event, spend and occupancy volumes:
Source: Visit Music City
However, a lot of cities opened new convention centers in the last five years. The second part of the equation behind Nashville’s success revolves around Visit Music City’s branding strategy celebrating the local musicians. That has helped fuel the city’s rise as an ‘it” destination, joining the ranks of other destinations such as Austin and Portland where individual creativity is valued and fostered, to drive competitive advantage in the face of widespread American homogenization.
In 2014, for example, the bureau invested more than $300,000 to produce the hour-long “For The Love of Music: The Story of Nashville” documentary to define the soul of the Nashville lifestyle. The documentary profiles all different types of singers and bands, ranging from gospel and blues to rock and country, and it shows the business savvy and clout behind the local music industry. Overall, the film helps dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding the city for meeting planners who’ve never visited.
“Planners will tell me, ‘Oh, my group doesn’t like country music,’” Spyridon explains. “So I ask them, ‘Have you ever been to Nashville?’ No, they haven’t. Or they’ll say, ‘Nashville isn’t sophisticated enough for our group.’ And I say, ‘Have you ever visited Nashville?’ No. So, for us, it’s all about the stories we’re putting out there that explain how we’re unique.”
Visit Music City is launching a longer, more expensive follow-up documentary in May 2018 focusing on the local songwriters, who typically don’t get the same recognition as the singers.
Following is our conversation with Spyridon about how Nashville ultimately built its visitor brand around the spirit of its musician community.
Skift: Take us back to the 1990s. What was the catalyst for building Music City Center?
Butch Spyridon: Necessity and almost desperation. We were a city dominated by Opryland, and at that time, the end of the ’90s, Gaylord Entertainment. The Opry, the Opryland Hotel, theme park, riverboat, and everything related to that kind of dominated. When they closed the theme park and started building hotels around the country, their priorities changed and we were left at a crossroads. We took that opportunity, I’d say, and instead of feeling sorry for ourselves and panicking, we assessed where we were, who we were, and asked the question: “Did we want to be in the hospitality industry as a destination? And if so, what would it take to not just sustain it but grow it?”
Fortunately, for me, the answer was, “Yes, we should attempt to be in the business.” Then, the answers to what it would take were: building the brand; working off an event strategy so that we shined a spotlight on the brand — the talent is the brand in our town, and events are demand generators — and then building what turned out to be the convention center.
It was a three-legged stool that the community got behind in 2003 and 2004. We had a strategic plan. We were given the keys to the brand, and we knew how important it was because we didn’t have all the typical normal demand generators that other destinations had, meaning: gaming, theme parks, mountains, beach or huge business travel like a New York, Chicago or Dallas. We knew we had to make it work.
Skift: What was the destination brand vision from a visitor standpoint back then?
Spyridon: Capturing the authenticity behind the city was at the heart of it all. We didn’t try to become something we weren’t. We tried to take what we had, and maybe polish it, make it more consumable, and at the same time, broaden the perception of what Nashville had to offer. It’s kind of like looking at what you do have, and what has always been there, and tapping into the legacy of the city. It’s all about the stories of our local songwriters, our local musicians and artists and everyone in that industry. It was conscious decision to share their stories, and by sharing their stories, you’re sharing the Nashville story.
Skift: Was there a goal to develop that storytelling beyond country music at the time?
Spyridon: There was a creative culture that permeated the city, but we never back then, as a community, we never really embraced it. Everybody knew about country music, but there were all of these other artists that lived here, and songwriters that wrote across genres. So we looked at exposing that, not instead of country music, but along with country music. It’s like country music is the front door, but we have the whole house, so lets take it and run with it. Ironically, and this is hindsight, there was clearly a pent-up demand on the consumer side for something a little more authentic in its offering for a wider spectrum of interests.
Skift: How do you continue getting that story out to meeting planners about how Nashville is a platform for all types of creative people and innovative businesses?
Spyridon: It’s like being on a treadmill. We continue to run as fast as hard as we can, but we know we’ll never be done. We have made enormous progress, and at the end of the day, if we can get somebody here, we can sell the city. If they’re going to live with a preconceived image of Nashville, which means a prejudiced notion, it’s a tough sell still. But if we can get them here, we let the city and the city’s offerings speak for themselves.
Skift: Your 1-hour “For The Love of Music” documentary, which cost more than $300,000 to produce, was unprecedented in its scope. What was the catalyst that inspired its development?
Spyridon: We were working on our website with the intent of showing what we have to offer in terms of the depth and breadth of our music. We’ve been doing this a long time, and we have a lot of stories to tell. A gentleman with the company that was helping us with the website literally turned around in a meeting one day and said, “Y’all should do a documentary.” As the words came out of his mouth, it was like a light bulb literally went off.
It was a good idea, but we knew it was going to take a lot of favors and cost money that wasn’t in the budget. It was such a captivating concept to tell our story that way, and not have it coming from the paid talking heads to advocate for Nashville. We went way outside of our comfort zone, our wheelhouse, and took it on as a true documentary, not a travel blog or a paid endorsement. We did the storyline in-house. We lined up the artists. We didn’t pay anybody to be in it. We didn’t script anybody and we got all the music gratis. That’ll tell you the kind of town that this is.
Skift: How was the film distributed beyond your website and other marketing channels, and how was it received?
Spyridon: We absolutely admit that it was better than we thought or hoped. We pitched it to ABC. They loved it and aired it. We pitched to Foxtel in Australia. They aired it for us. We pitched it to Channel Four in the UK. They loved it. And kind of unintentionally, we started to enter it against some significant competition nationally and internationally. It won a Gold Pencil award in New York. It won a Gold LIA award in London, and it won silver and bronze Cannes Lions awards. It’s still airing in Europe. British Airways also added it to their in-flight entertainment across their entire network.
The scariest piece of all of it, it worked so well. It was a departure and a risk to take our brand and put it out there in a different light. Most people would say, “It doesn’t tell people to come visit.” I would argue that it does, but it just doesn’t do it directly. Part of our marketing strategy for using that film is we want people to explore and discover the mystery or the creativity or the culture here. We want them to be inspired to come, not convinced to come, if that makes sense.
Skift: And now you have a second documentary gearing up to launch in May. How will it expand on the first?
Spyridon: One of the things we try not to do is gamble too hard and rely on lightning striking twice, but the second film is going to tell the songwriter story. The first one was more of a historic look at how Nashville evolved into Music City, going back to the 1800s. It covered the diversity, the history, and the lineage of our musical roots up to where the pop and rock side has evolved here. This new documentary focuses on the story behind the songwriters, who are the story behind the songs. Nobody ever gets to meet them. Nobody ever gets to hear their stories or even know the names of the people writing these hits. Typically, people think the artists wrote them.
To bring that to the forefront is really the differentiation in Nashville and other music destinations. We think there’s only one Music City, but there are certainly other cities that do a lot in the music field. This just gives us a chance to shine a light on the true heart and soul of that creative culture.
Skift: This film is also longer and it’s more expensive than the first.
Spyridon: It’ll be close to an hour and a half. Yeah, I don’t have the final price tag, but it’s probably in the $400,000 to $500,000 range, which is still a bargain. This time around, I was able to budget for it a little bit.
Skift: How or why is this impacting the convention segment? How does music and the local vibe and the songwriters’ stories influence meeting planners to look more closely at Nashville?
Spyridon: At the end of the day, and particularly on the association side, meetings are a revenue generator, and attendance drives the revenue. We have built what I hope is a compelling story about Nashville as a city and a destination, and we know that groups often achieve record attendance when they come here, so we know we’re a good draw. That makes us desirable in the association market.
Second, we believe we’ve created a pretty unique experience, which again is what meeting planners, both corporate and association, are looking for. They want to know, “What can we do different this year? How can we draw more interest? How can we present the meeting’s story, our content, in a different light?”
They’re accomplishing that by embracing the music brand. They use it in their marketing. They use the talent as part of their entertainment. And they’ve even used songwriters in particular to help talk about collaboration, cooperation, creativity, and how that fits into the meetings world and in the everyday world for both corporate organizations and associations. It’s all about being different and being accessible.
Skift: There’s a Tennessean story where you ask what would happen if your live music venues were suddenly inundated with chain stores. You said, “If our neighborhoods lose their character, what are we standing on?” Just to sum up, what are you standing on?
Spyridon: Our brand promise. It’s an authentic and creative offering revolving around music that’s delivered in an unpretentious and hospitable manner. That word “authentic” is at the epicenter of everything we’re doing. We have to make sure we don’t lose our authenticity, and that could happen during our growth as our population increases, by people moving here that don’t get it or accept it or won’t embrace it. As we grow development-wise, the price of real estate grows, so someone might say, “Okay, I’ve owned this land and I have this honky tonk, but I can sell it to Walgreens and make a ton of money.” That one person will make money and this city will lose. We are fighting to keep our soul. It’s a tough battle every day. Success breeds opportunity, which breeds greed, which breeds shortsightedness. We fight that every day.
Skift: Do you think there’s more demand for authenticity today in what Skift calls our “Age of Permanxiety?”
Spyridon: Without question. I can’t tell you we knew that from the consumer side. It’s just what we’ve always had to work with, but as we really dug in, we saw how the homogenization of America’s cities is really spreading globally. We all look more and more alike. So when that happens, what’s the compelling reason to come here instead of somewhere else? Cities that let it happen are going to be on the short end of the stick because absolutely the consumer wants a unique, authentic, different experience. We work every day to preserve that and serve that.
The above content was produced by the SkiftX team for the upcoming Skift Cities platform, defining how cities are connecting visitors and locals to co-create the future of urban industry and livability.
Tags: meetings and events, nashville, skift cities