Music City has made itself one of the hottest tourist destinations in the country.
They come for the music, of course. But they also come for the food, the friendliness and the fun that have made Nashville one of the hottest tourist destinations in the country.
More than 13 million people visited Music City in 2014, leaving the city $5.43 billion richer and generating vigorous growth in the hospitality industry, attractions, festivals and conventions. Nashville tourism blew the top off projections for hotel occupancy as well as business at Music City Center, and supported more than 57,400 jobs.
“I pinch myself every day,” says Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., a major player in a monumental initiative to develop the city’s unique brand and the nation’s top destination marketing organization for 2015. “We’ve done four five-year strategic plans in the past 12 years because the dynamics have changed so quickly. We’d hoped to be generating $2 billion by 2015, but we hit that in 2013 – we were there two years early.”
Spyridon traces the city’s current status as the New York Times-designated “It City” to a synergy between the creative community, the hospitality industry, and a widespread effort to broaden the Music City image and public awareness.
“I believe it started with really focusing on building the brand and the awareness of the diversity of music and the creative community – that lit it, then people finally started to go ‘Whoa, there’s something special there,’” Spyridon says. “Then we had the opening of the new convention center, which pushed the dining scene, which in turn, gathered more media attention.”
Celebrating Music and More
Music – from country to rock to Americana – is still front and center for visitors, who pack the city’s clubs and concert venues year-round. Nashville is also increasingly known as a great place for festivals, chief among them the CMA Fest, which broke attendance and revenue records in 2015, as well as the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in nearby Manchester, and smaller gatherings such as the Live on the Green series.
But festivals in the area go beyond music and celebrate almost anything, from the humble tomato at the Tomato Arts Festival and local delicacies like hot chicken at the Music City Food + Wine Festival, to the acclaimed Nashville Film Festival, spectacular downtown celebrations on New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July, and national events like the NHL All-Star Game. Convention-goers have been a big part of the tourism boom, setting records at Music City Center.
“To say we had a phenomenally fantastic 2015 is not overstating things – it was beyond our wildest dreams,” says Charles Starks, Music City Center president and CEO. “Attendance grew to 676,000 unique attendees, a 37.5 percent increase over fiscal 2014. Convention attendees spent more than 389,000 room nights – a 42.5 percent increase. And Music City Center had $392 million of direct economic impact in fiscal year 2015, up 61.2 percent over 2014.”
The state-of-the-art convention center and Nashville have received favorable reviews, Starks says, “We hear a lot about how clean the city is, how safe, how friendly,” Starks says. “Another area that gets rave reviews is our airport – phenomenal reviews. They are a big player, the way they make people welcome. And then, of course, it’s music – all kinds of music.”
The Ascend Amphitheater, which opened at Riverfront Park in 2015, brought a major concert venue downtown, with a star-studded lineup and a capacity to seat 6,800 people. Eateries that double as live music venues, such as City Winery, Acme Feed & Seed, and the Listening Room Café, draw crowds for all kinds of music. A major attraction, the Ryman Auditorium, completed a $14.5 million expansion in 2015. Without disturbing the original historic auditorium, Ryman Hospitality Properties added a 100-seat theater, a new restaurant, several new exhibits, and a multimedia presentation on the history of the building and its music.
The hospitality industry, from locally owned specialty restaurants to huge luxury hotels, has boomed too. The list of James Beard-nominated chefs like Tandy Wilson of City House, Deb Paquette of Etch and Sean Brock of Husk continues to grow. Hotels by Westin, Thompson and Starwood are under construction, and a handful more have been announced, including the first boutique hotel in East Nashville. Spyridon estimates that in the next three years as many as 3,000 to 4,000 new hotel rooms could be announced.
“We’re the hottest hotel market in the country right now, but we’re also the most announced-but- unbuilt-hotel market in the country,” Spyridon says.