Center has already hooked long list of new visitors
by Duane Marsteller
In the 79 years it has held an annual convention, the American Animal Hospital Association has met in such varied locales as Long Beach, Calif., St. Louis and Toronto — but never in Nashville.
That will change in 2014, when the trade group expects 3,500 people to attend its annual confab in the newly finished Music City Center.
“Until the convention center and the (Omni) Hotel became available, Nashville just wasn’t an option for us,” said Jason Merrihew, the group’s spokesman. “It was just too small for our convention.”
That sentiment is fueling early bookings for the $585 million Music City Center, which will reach a milestone today when the final piece of structural steel is installed during a “topping out” ceremony.
Groups that had never gathered in Nashville before, or ones that previously met here but outgrew the Music City’s existing venues, account for at least 41 of the 63 events that have been booked for the venue now under construction.
Those events are projected to generate 424,000-plus room reservations in local hotels — the lion’s share of the more than 582,000 expected from all events currently booked at the convention hall. Tourism officials hope to book 1 million room reservations before it opens next year.
“We are doing better than I thought we would be at this point in time, so I’m optimistic that we can make that goal,” said Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau. That’s despite the loss of two, possibly three, events that were scheduled for Music City Center in 2013.
The Southern Baptist Convention moved its annual June meeting to Houston because Nashville’s Omni Hotel won’t be open until early 2014. The Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association relocated its March 2013 expo to Orlando, Fla., because Music City Center might not be ready ahead of its April 30, 2013, completion deadline.
And the American Trucking Associations’ Technology and Maintenance Council also might bolt, although tourism officials hope to move its March 2013 meeting elsewhere in Nashville.
But Music City Center will have plenty of other business nonetheless, including 16 events by groups new to Nashville.
Among them are the National Association for Healthcare Quality, the National Rifle Association, the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association of School Administrators. The NRA’s 2015 convention could draw 48,000 people, which would make it the largest in the city’s history.
“The new business represents a significant percent of the room nights, which tends to support the contention that Nashville has lost business because of the size and age of the (Nashville) Convention Center,” said Douglas Ducate, president and chief executive of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research in Dallas.
An additional 25 events at Music City Center are returnees, such as the Association of Water Technologies. It met in Nashville in 1992 and 2004 but wasn’t planning a return visit because of too little space, said Grace Jan, its vice president of meetings.
“The new venue prompted us to come back to Nashville” in 2015, she said. “We would not have returned if it wasn’t for the new Omni and the Music (City) Center package.”
Another group, LeadingAge, last met in Nashville at Gaylord Opryland in 2004, when it was known as the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.
“We had a fabulous convention,” said Sharon Sullivan, the association’s vice president of conferences and sales. “Our members loved it. But we outgrew Gaylord. We actually signed to come back (in 2014) to Gaylord, but when they decided not to expand, we were going to pull from the city because there really was nothing suitable for us.”
Not all of Music City Center’s meetings are new or returning business. In 11 cases, it is taking events from other local venues.
Among them is the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which has met twice at Bridgestone Arena in the past decade. The group decided to book its 2014, 2018 and 2022 events at Music City Center because it can handle meetings and a large trade show in one location, spokesman Patrick Lavigne said.
The American Heart Association initially considered holding a stroke conference at Gaylord but opted for Music City Center instead.
But Spyridon downplayed the competition for events, saying Music City Center needs Opryland to be successful because it is a major generator of bed taxes — a key source of funding for the convention hall’s construction.
“Gaylord’s part of our product,” he said. “We’re selling them at the same time. There’s minimal competition between Music City Center and Gaylord. There is zero cannibalization or competition between Bridgestone and the center.”
Another 11 Music City Center events have been scheduled by groups that either did not respond to queries or did not want their names released by the convention bureau.