City destination firms to deliver true Nashville experience
By JOE MORRIS
Jan. 21, 2018
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Organizing a big meeting or convention in Nashville used to be as simple as contacting Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center personnel and finding open dates. Now, Nashville has the Music City Center, a growing selection of luxury hotels to choose from and a vibrant downtown entertainment district.
Carefree convention-goers? Yep. Enthusiastic executives? Absolutely. Boisterous bachelorettes? Yes, (sometimes) even them.
Name a group that is going to spend some time in Nashville and you'll likely find a destination management company working to make sure their stay is entertaining and trouble-free from the minute they hit the Davidson County line until the moment their planes, trains or Ubers head back home.
Nashville's growth and tourism boom has brought great opportunities to many, and the destination management business has taken full advantage.
But as with so many other aspects of being in a boomtown, if a business is doing well, it's going to draw competition. Nashville's destination management firms are seeing many new players on the scene.
And, whether old or new, local experts in the field have concerns, especially the sky-high prices of downtown hotels. The hope is that more rooms may mean more affordable prices as Nashville adds hotel after hotel — a record 16 are scheduled to open this year — to its core.
The other bright spot for future business is in attracting even larger convention groups than Nashville currently handles.
Being a destination management company, or DMC, means being a combination of many things, first and foremost being walking, talking experts on every aspect of a city.
Think of that friend of a friend, the one who knows all the great, new restaurants, the funky clubs, the best bars. Those are the kinds of people who can be found in the employ of a DMC, which makes knowing everything about anything going on its business.
"We are essentially experts on the city of Nashville from a hospitality perspective," says Jacqueline Marko, associate director of sales for Destination Nashville. "We work with corporations and associations coming into Nashville from other towns, states and countries. We help them manage their time and resources here, so instead of them going to Google to look up restaurants, venues, music acts or attractions, we do it all for them.
"We have to have a lot of local knowledge, but also logistical knowledge," she adds. "It's different than just planning one event. We are an extension of a business' own event team, and we're on the ground to handle services from when they arrive to when they leave."
"We're a one-stop shop," continues Robyn Bass, president and CEO of Maple Ridge Events.
"We're like general contractors on a building project: we find all the people to do different jobs, then bring them together. Transportation, logistics, off-property events, on-site theme parties, tours, team-building exercises, we do it all. And the client has one point of contact instead of having to make what can be hundreds of calls. We simplify the process dramatically."
A DMC team swings into action long before a group hits the airport tarmac or rolls up to a hotel. They discuss goals and objectives around the client's main function and satellite events: Is it just for fun, with people mixing and mingling? Or is it an awards program with speeches and presentations?
"That tells us whether we want a venue for jeans and cowboy boots, or something totally different," Marko says. "It's the same thing if we're looking at a group of mostly women between the ages of 20 and 40 or a group of mostly men between 50 and 60 years old."
In looking at what a DMC does, it's key to know that no two bookings are exactly alike. Much as one set of tourists might never leave Tootsie's and another may not stray beyond the grounds of Belle Meade plantation, corporate, association and large group events are equally fixated on what they want their Nashville experience to be.
"We have made arrangements for 20 people up to 10,000 or more," Bass says. "Associations tend to take over a whole city with events, while smaller groups may be incentive visitors, those who have won a trip for being a top performer at their company or something like that. And international visitors bring a whole different set of logistics, which can be both challenging and fun to work through."
Acting as the gatekeepers of all things Nashville means that DMC operators in town spend a lot of time working with the key players in tourism, hospitality, restaurant and retail in Nashville and the surrounding areas.
That's because while much DMC business comes through the requests for proposals that companies planning a convention, show or other large event send out, in the tourism and hospitality business, the in-person avenue reigns supreme. It's all about partnerships and creating business opportunities, and DMCs see themselves as contributing to the city's economic engine.
"We are a longtime member of the Convention & Visitors Corp.," Marko points out. "So, we know what they are working on, and when an organization they are speaking with needs the services we offer, we can get those referrals. We also align with DMC partners everywhere through professional organizations.
"If someone works with a partner in New Orleans for their convention this year and they are coming to Nashville next time, that DMC will give us a heads-up. And we return the favor."
At that point, the DMC becomes a front-runner not only for city tourism officials, but also hotels, restaurants, live-music venues, historical attractions and anything else Nashville has to offer. They are not only selling Nashville, they are representing the city — something they take very seriously.
"When we first meet a client, when they are looking at five or six cities for that 2019 conference, they often are having a hard time narrowing down their focus," Marko explains.
"Larger corporate groups and associations are coming to Nashville, and we're all thinking outside the box on how to handle them," says Robyn Bass of Maple Ridge Events.
"We meet them in those very early stages, and we can really help sell Nashville as that destination by painting a picture of all the fabulous things they can do when they get here — and then we help them do it. We get them to town, show them around and show them all that Nashville has to offer."
There is growing competition in the DMC business, both in Nashville and any other major tourist and business destination.
True to their Nashville-friendly nature, however, old-guard DMCs here are welcoming newcomers to town, saying that there's plenty of business for everyone.
"It's not a bad thing to have other companies doing what we do in town," Marko acknowledges. "We have been open since 1994, and for a long time there weren't a lot of competitors in town.
"But the big boom has come, and it's not surprising that DMCs, like many other kinds of businesses, are finding Nashville attractive."
The newer DMCs in Nashville say that the city's growth was indeed a lure, and that they have found plenty of opportunity to establish a viable business even with many other players already well embedded into the scene.
"Our company began in Orlando by a transportation operator that was looking for a way to get more people to use their services," says Mitch Jordan, general manager of Hello! Nashville, part of the Hello! Destination Management network, which opened its Nashville location in October 2016.
"The company's strategic growth plan has meant that every three years or so, we expand into a destination that we feel would be a sound market for us. We came to Nashville for many reasons, one of which is that Hello! is the in-house DMC for all the Gaylord Hotels outside of Nashville.
"A lot of our business is rotational, and Gaylord has made a name for itself by getting large corporations to sign multiple-year contracts that move their events between its destinations. We follow the same model, believing that if someone works for us in three cities, they'll want to work for us in a fourth, so coming to Nashville just made sense."
Jordan is also a Nashville native who spent some time with the Disney empire as a director of sales, and so when Hello! opened here, he "came along for the ride" and generally has been pleased with what he's found. "I have Orlando in my background, which is a much bigger market with a lot more parties involved," Jordan continues. "We may not have gotten the most loving embrace from everyone in town when we arrived, but we fully believe that there's enough business in town for everybody right now.
"You can sell to your strengths instead of selling to other people's weaknesses. Nashville, from a group-market standpoint, hasn't hit its peak yet so we can all stay pretty busy."
The new players aren't seen as threatening, in large part, because every DMC has its own carefully cultivated network of vendors, Bass says.
"Nashville is growing and it makes sense that people would want a piece of that market," she adds.
"A lot of DMCs are descending on our city to see how possible that could be. It can be hard for us who've been here a while to see someone just come in and open up, but that's what it takes if you are going to come into a new market and create your own relationships.
"We are experts on our city, but we had to start out at some point as well."
"You do have to know venues, and capacities, and you learn that over time," she explains. "When a venue says it can hold 1,000 people you know that may be true, but it's pretty small and you'll be having a meat-market event where people can't breathe. That's not what most corporate planners want. We know who can deliver on promises, and who still need to be vetted. That's what makes an experienced DMC so valued."
Their growing numbers aside, DMCs are spoiled for choice in Nashville these days, no small part due to stepped-up marketing and outreach from dozens of new, renovated and expanded venues. But there could always be more to offer, especially when it comes to central-city hotels rooms, for example.
"We have a gorgeous new convention center, which is paying all kinds of dividends for the meeting and event industry," Jordan explains.
"It's transformed the downtown area; SoBro wasn't really a thing until the Music City Center came up. If we had the hotel rooms to support it, it could be even more successful.
"Right now, meeting planners want to be here, their clients want to be here, but they are blowing through their whole budget on lodging because downtown room rates are so high.
"DMCs tend to thrive when there's healthy competition within the lodging industry, which allows for there to be more of the budget for additional things like events and activities."
He says that with many new hotels set to come online in 2018 and 2019, that issue with room rates and competition is likely to ease up, which will allow not only more groups to come and find better pricing, but also for larger groups to come in — a win for DMCs either way.
His counterparts enthusiastically agree.
"Bigger things are definitely coming here," Bass predicts. "Larger corporate groups and associations are coming to Nashville, and we're all thinking outside the box on how to handle them. The norm is changing in terms of group size, which is great for our company."
And the roving bands of bachelorettes?
"It's odd to be known for those and for the pedal taverns," she says. "But you know what? It's fun for them, and I love that we are a city that's known to be safe enough for these kinds of groups to go out and have a good time like that.
"They are coming here, they are booking venues and hotels, and they are spending money. That's what we want to see."
Information from: The Nashville Ledger, http://www.nashvilleledger.com