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VOL. 38 | NO. 31 | Friday, August 01, 2014

Convention business vital to downtown businesses

By Brad Schmitt

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“More than likely, we’re a break out from normal convention activities, an off-site visit to have fun. Food and entertainment, we’re the fun part of the convention,” says Jennifer McKell, marketing and PR manager for the Wildhorse.

The Wildhorse Saloon rode onto Second Avenue in 1994 on a wave of Garth Brooks’ music and country line dancing, the start of a 20-year roller coaster ride for the gigantic downtown Nashville venue.

But all waves crash at some point, and not even free line dancing lessons could keep the 66,000-square-foot venue full.

Now, the Wildhorse is hoping an upswing in downtown conventions – fueled by the new Music City Center – will help keep the saloon doors swingin’.

So why all the hoopla over whether conventions come to Nashville?

In short, conventions bring out-of-town visitors who spend big bucks, an average of $280 a day, according to the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., the main booker of conventions here.

The money is spent on hotels, food, attractions, transportation and other goods and services, which generate revenue for local businesses and tax money for local and state governments.

And the number of conventions continues to grow.

Gaylord Opryland Resort, the Music City Center and other entities also book conventions, but the NCVC has gotten the lion’s share of bookings.

Here are the last three years of only the NCVC bookings of convention room night sales:

2011 – 675,600


2013 – 890,921

“Conventions are a big part of the revenue stream here,” says Jennifer McKell, marketing and PR manager for the Wildhorse Saloon.

“Since Music City Center has opened, it has brought an influx of positive revenue to most the businesses,” she adds. “This August is one of our busiest in several years as far as convention business.”

That increased business from conventions usually comes in the form of a total venue buyout.

Convention planners are looking for a way to get attendees out of the Music City Center for a night of food and music. And the 2,000-capacity Wildhorse Saloon is a popular choice.

The Wildhorse has nine buyouts for August, three times the number of buyouts for August 2013, McKell says. And the venue needs that revenue.

About 10 or 12 years ago, the Wildhorse positioned itself as a popular venue to hear ’80s and ’90s pop and rock acts like Rick Springfield, Toto, Queensryche, the B-52s, Hanson, Sister Hazel and others.

The venue scored dozens of acts each year, but, like country line dancing, that too faded as some concert tour routing for those types of acts changed.

Yes, Rick Springfield still comes back every year. And Darius Rucker has made the Wildhorse the home for his annual summer fundraiser.

But the Wildhorse has only about a dozen or so national acts come through a year, McKell says, meaning the venue’s managers keep tabs on what’s happening downtown, conventions and otherwise.

“We track everything that goes on there, goes on at the arena, the Music City Triathlon, Country Music Marathon, anything,” McKell explains.

And they try to partner with them all, especially conventions.

“More than likely, we’re a break out from normal convention activities, an off-site visit to have fun. Food and entertainment, we’re the fun part of the convention.”

And if convention planners have the budget, they can bring their own national acts in for private events. Phil Vassar will play one of those buyout dates next month.

McKell says convention traffic – at 2,000 to 6,000 attendees per event – helps all her neighbors and helps them generate new ambassadors for Nashville.

“It’s brought an abundance through all the businesses downtown,” she said. “Then people go back home and say ‘Hey, I went to so and so down there.’ And we have repeat businesses.”