Music City Tourism Faces Catch-22 With COVID-19

By Clint Confehr

NASHVILLE, TN — Potential guests and returning fans of our city’s distinctive spirit are being told “When you’re ready, we’re ready.”

Emphasizing public health, Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. (NCVC) CEO Butch

Butch Spyridon, Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. (NCVC) CEO

Spyridon predicts slow, responsible hospitality re-openings here.

“Significant … activity will be closer to August, rather than June or July,” said Spyridon, offering his “best educated guess” on our economy’s future.

Cancellations from the quarantine through last month bumped 853 meetings of various sizes representing nearly 600,000 hotel-nights, and more than 400,000 attendees, Spyridon said. “We lost about a third of our business.”

Travel sentiment studies, he said, reflect the public’s pent-up appetite for travel that’s tempered by fear and caution.

The Catch-22:  “Because we’ve been so successful, we’ve not had a lot of available space to book anybody within the next 12 months, so we’ve looked further out,” Spyridon said. Even a “three-year window” reflects only so many openings. Nashville’s hospitality industry has a “solid base of bookings already established, so — as long as they don’t start canceling starting in the fall — that strengthens and quickens our recovery…

“The first thing we try to do is re-book cancellations,” he said. Scrambling, NCVC booked 55,000 room-nights. “In a normal year, that might get somebody fired. In this environment, we’re celebrating.”

Nashville has averaged “a high-70s percent occupancy; weekends over 80 percent. We believe we can build that to around 50 percent by [2021.] I would consider that a pretty-good win and a faster than expected recovery.”

Nashville has an advantage over seaport cities. “Few destination-markets can market 360 degrees around them,” said Spyridon. His NCVC leadership started in 1991. After 9-11, the May 2010 flood, and during the 2008 recession, he used a “proven” strategy: Marketing to residents in a 200-mile radius of Nashville.

“It’s a reason we think we can have a quicker leisure recovery than experts predict,” he said. “We think the music brand will play even better … Music has a comforting element.”

NCVC and city leaders are asking: “How do we keep Lower Broadway safe?” Spyridon said. “That’s where the larger crowds will eventually gather” and defeat social distancing.

Without good answers, he understands quarantine protests. He’s “a little disappointed” in recent “knee-jerk” reactions and when businesses were first closed, “but everybody’s anxious, dealing with the unknown, and bleeding red ink.” He puts safety first. NCVC serves “the economic well-being of members,” Spyridon said, but employee well-being “is almost equally important.”

NCVC has 1,200 business members. “The bulk are hotels, restaurants and attractions,” Spyridon said. Others include tour companies and suppliers. NCVC brands, sells and markets Nashville internationally.

U.S. labor statistics show joblessness at rates not seen since the Great Depression during 1929-’39. In April, it was: 15 percent nationally; 16 percent for blacks, although Black Enterprise Daily reports 16.7 percent; and 18 percent for Hispanics. It exceeded 20 percent in some parts of Tennessee during the 2008 recession. Now, 25 percent of new unemployment claims are from bar and restaurant employees.

NCVC staffers: accepted pay cuts of 15-20 percent; are working from home; go to the office for a few hours once a week; and anticipate staggered office shifts. Spyridon’s compensation may drop 45 percent.

Before vacationing anywhere, he said, “People want to know what your status is, what you’ve done and what your healthcare capacity is.” All the hospitals here are “an underlying theme” for NCVC’s appeal to prospective visitors. “The next step is having some protocols for larger meetings by fall. The city is pretty-well loaded for fall business if we can avoid cancellations. It’s too early to know about that.”

Music City is “about two weeks behind” most Tennessee county openings, he said. “It allows us to ride their tail-winds a little bit.”

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Clint Confehr
About Clint Confehr 219 Articles
Clint Confehr — an American journalist since 1972 — first wrote for The Tennessee Tribune in 1999. His news writing and photography in South Central Tennessee and the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical Area began in the summer of 1980. Clint's covered news in several Southern states at newspapers, radio stations and one TV station. Married since 1982, he's a grandfather and is semi-retired from daily news work.