Memphis & Nashville take center stage for more than music
The birthplace of blues and rock ‘n’ roll, Tennessee has churned out plenty of country crooners and legendary music greats over the years. But these days, there is much more to this Southern state than the honky-tonk blues.
There’s a dynamic food scene that draws world-famous chefs to riff off crispy fried chicken and Memphis barbecue. There’s Nashville’s booming tech hub, home to a growing number of startups and the Google for Entrepreneurs network. And there’s an ever-increasing volume of stylish hotels and meeting venues situated right in the middle of all the action.
While meeting planners can rejoice in the premium facilities and affordable location, attendees also have much to be excited about. “We work closely with meeting planners to incorporate music elements throughout a group visit and strive to provide them with the best entertainment at the best possible value,” says Kay Witt, chief sales officer of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.
The cities of Memphis and Nashville are investing in attractions, venues and entertainment like never before. That means there are plenty of downtime options for those who want to kick back and enjoy, preferably in their cowboy boots.
Memphis was once an old, crumbling city where musical legends such as B.B. King and Elvis Presley found their paths to stardom. It still carries traces of its legendary past, and just like the music, the city is a vibrant mix of old and new. Now in the midst of a rapid revitalization, Memphis has invested more than $2 billion in downtown development.
Hailed as a future game-changer in the Beale Street entertainment district is a 30-story skyscraper with hotel and condominium space. One Beale, a $150 million complex by the Mississippi River, will include a Forbes Four Star hotel with 300 guest rooms and 40,000 sq. ft. of retail and meeting space. The new property is expected to open in the next few years, and will help bridge the gap between the bright lights of the entertainment hub and Beale Street Landing, a six-acre civic area and riverboat dock that opened last summer.
Farther down Beale Street, construction is underway at the $15 million Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education. Expected to serve as many as 60,000 community members, the center will provide more than 39,000 sq. ft. and a 356-seat theater. Next door, the historic 2,400-seat Orpheum Theatre offers space for company rentals.
Memphis Cook Convention Center is receiving some updates of its own. The 350,000-square-foot building is benefiting from a $1.5 million energy conservation project, to be completed by the end of the year. Located within a block of 1,300 hotel rooms, the convention center boasts a column-free exhibit hall with more than 125,000 sq. ft. of space, 31 meeting rooms and the 2,100-seat Cannon Center for the Performing Arts.
But if planners are looking for an over-the-top space unlike anywhere else on the planet, then Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid is the best choice. Shaped like an Egyptian wonder, the immersive mega retail store opened this spring across 535,000 sq. ft. of space. Groups might opt to stay at Big Cypress Lodge, which is surrounded by 100-foot-tall cypress trees—all indoors. It offers 103 guest rooms and banquet spaces for up to 800. There’s also a waterfowl heritage center, a giant cypress swamp with alligator pools, nautical-themed restaurants, a 13-lane bowling alley, a 28-story freestanding elevator and 10 aquariums with a total of 600,000 gallons of water and more than 1,800 fish.
Many more projects are in the pipeline for the Memphis cityscape. In the next couple of years, visitors can look forward to a renovated Harahan Bridge, which opened in 1916. The 10-mile bridge, which crosses into West Memphis, Arkansas, is receiving more than $17.5 million in upgrades. Improvements will include bicycle and pedestrian pathways across the Mississippi River.
Primed for convention attendees who want to have some after-work fun, Beale Street is right at the doorstep of surrounding meeting venues. Start the afternoon with a close-up look at binding and tuning Gibson Guitars at the factory headquarters, where hourly tours are offered for groups of up to 100.
Next, roll up your sleeves for some finger-lickin’ good Memphis barbecue. Try the hickory-flavored chopped sandwich combo at Tops Bar-B-Q, a local chain that has been around since 1952. For traditional succulent ribs, head to A&R Bar-B-Que, which makes them dry-rubbed or basted. By evening, it’s time for some dancing at B.B. King’s Blues Club, a live music supper-club venue that pays tribute to the blues boy of Beale Street, who passed away this year.
National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis
If there’s room on the itinerary, a visit to the newly renovated National Civil Rights Museum is a must. Located at the site of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the museum presents interactive exhibits of the Brown v. Board of Education case and the Montgomery bus boycott. The property is available for group rentals.
Caroline Stanfield, public relations specialist at Memphis Travel, gives visitors this advice: “Memphis offers an experience you can’t get anywhere else in the world. Where else can you stand at the exact location where a major player in the civil rights movement was assassinated? Where else can you visit the home of the king of rock ‘n’ roll? Where else can you stand in the recording studio that the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ [Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins] made famous? Only in Memphis.”
What is it about Nashville that makes it a top performer among meeting destinations? Is it the world-class music? Is it the stellar culinary scene? Or is it the selection of venues? It is all this and much more. “The minute you tune into Music City as your meeting site, you know it will be a hit with delegates,” Witt says. “It is that creative vitality and Southern hospitality, paired with accessibility and affordability, that has made Nashville a popular meeting destination.”
Nashville is ‘happening’ in more ways than one, and the rest of the country is taking notice. Music City has lent itself to the prime-time ABC television series Nashville, which chronicles the lives of various fictitious country singers. Enjoying the spotlight, Nashville has experienced an upsurge in tourists in the past few years. Last year, the city saw 13.1 million visitors—an increase of nearly 1 million from the year before.
As a result, Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. says the city is one of the top 10 destinations in the country for meetings and leisure travel. “We have enjoyed 53 months in a row of record tourism growth. So I’d say Nashville’s change has been pretty dramatic,” he says.
To keep up with the demand, the city has been adding to its already large inventory of hotels and venues. The 11-story Hilton Garden Inn Nashville Downtown made its debut last month with 214 guest rooms. Another downtown addition, the 126-room Fairfield Inn & Suites Nashville Downtown/The Gulch, takes on the industrial feel of its neighborhood. It offers rooftop meeting space and a lounge with panoramic views.
The $120 million The Westin Nashville Hotel in South Broadway is expected to be complete by December 2016. The massive 27-story property will offer 454 guest rooms, a 6,000-square-foot spa and an 8,000-square-foot restaurant. In Midtown, Kimpton Hotel, situated next to a mixed-use development, will include 180 guest rooms and 6,500 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Lifestyle brand Thompson Hotels will add a 12-story hotel with 224 guest rooms, a ground-floor restaurant and retail space next year. And Virgin Hotels plans to join the crowd with 240 guest rooms in two adjoining buildings. Opening in September 2016, the 15- and 16-story towers will include for-sale penthouse units, a recording studio, an entertainment venue and a restaurant.
Of course, Nashville’s ultimate venue is Music City Center, the state’s largest convention space, and site of most meetings. The curvy-shaped, LEED Gold building provides 1.2 million sq. ft. of flexible space. But if planners want to combine business and leisure under one roof, there are plenty of options sure to strike a chord.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum holds more than 2 million artifacts and offers around 40,000 sq. ft. of event space, including a 10,000-square-foot event hall. Check out the new exhibit, Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City, which looks at the Nashville music scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Another musical stronghold, Ryman Auditorium (known as the “Mother Church of Country Music”), is fresh off a $14 million expansion and renovation. The historic landmark has new, state-of-the-art event space and can accommodate groups of up to 2,000. Once home to the Grand Ole Opry, the auditorium offers daytime tours and features top performing musicians.
For sustenance, one need not venture far for exemplary grub. From international culinary talents to hipster joints, Nashville’s renowned food scene cannot be defined in one category. However, there is one trademark meal that has remained true to its roots: the meat-and-three lunch, in which a customer picks one meat from a daily selection of three to six choices. For more than 30 years, Arnold’s Country Kitchen has served up plates of fried chicken livers, well-seasoned roast beef and braised turnip greens. For an upscale indulgence, head to Olive & Sinclair, a local chocolate purveyor that grinds its own cacao and adds brown sugar for a Southern flavor.
Even if honky-tonk is not your thing, a visit to Music City would not be complete without the flashy neon lights and rows of bars in the South Broadway (SoBro) entertainment district. “With live music playing 24/7, 365 days a week, it would be impractical for a meeting planner not to take advantage of the entertainment available,” Witt says. Nashville has more than 150 live music venues, including country music fixtures such as Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Robert’s Western World, which play free live music until early morning hours.
Whether it is musical flair, satisfying food or plentiful venues, planners have an ample number of options at their fingertips to hit the right note with their attendees. Memphis and Nashville take center stage to keep meeting attendees returning year after year.
-Knoxville Convention & Visitors Bureau
-Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau
-Nashville Convention &Visitors Corporation
-Tennessee Department of Tourist Development
Since Nashville Entrepreneur Center opened its doors five years ago, technology has become one of the fastest growing sectors—so much so that Music City could find a new moniker as Tech City. According to Forbes, Nashville’s technology industry has grown by 43 percent in the last 10 years, making it the second hottest technology job market in the United States.
Several initiatives, including WorkIT Nashville, are spearheading growth in information technology. In 2014, the city’s technology sector grew by more than 2,200 workers, and the number of open tech-related positions doubled. Not only is Nashville is proving to be a more attractive, affordable alternative for tech workers, but even Silicon Valley companies are following suit. Online ticketing company Eventbrite and venture firm Crestlight Venture Productions opened partner offices in the Southern tech hub last year.
Google also has a growing interest in Nashville, which serves as one of nine Google for Entrepreneurs networks in North America. The city was also recently named one of 40 cities to join a Google program aimed at fostering female entrepreneurship. However, the cherry on top is super-fast gigabit Internet Google Fiber, which has plans to stream throughout the city within the next year.
Nestled in the foothills of Tennessee, Knoxville is a meeting destination on the rise. With the Great Smoky Mountains in its backyard, Tennessee’s third largest city has big-city appeal with an outdoor vibe.
The LEED Silver Knoxville Convention Center offers a natural design within World’s Fair Park, which was the site of the 1982 World’s Fair. Meetings can be held outdoors amid cascading waterfalls and long stretches of lawn. Indoors, the center provides 500,000 sq. ft. of event space, including a 27,000-square-foot ballroom—the largest in the state.
Tennessee’s new conference center, LeConte Center at Pigeon Forge, is also making a big impact. Just 45 minutes from Knoxville, the $50 million venue features 232,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The center’s mountain lodge ambiance includes breathtaking views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In its first year of operation last year, the center hosted more than 250,000 people and brought $24.4 million to the state.
Major Meeting Venues
New downtown property; 128 guest rooms; 5,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 2,000-square-foot ballroom; located on trolley line and within walking distance of Memphis Cook Convention Center, Cannon Performing Arts and FedEx Forum.
Located near Memphis International Airport (MEM) and Cook Convention Center; 230 guest rooms; 6,300 sq. ft. of meeting space; public areas renovated last year.
ACC-acredited, full-service conference center; 133-room property on University of Memphis campus; 30,500 sq. ft. of meeting space.
In the heart of East Memphis business district; 405 guest rooms; 30,000 sq. ft. of event space; close to Beale Street, FedEx Forum, Memphis Zoo and Memphis International Airport (MEM).
AAA Four Diamond luxury boutique hotel; 110 contemporary guest rooms; 4,833 sq. ft. of meeting space; dining spaces include Eighty3 restaurant and Twilight Sky rooftop terrace.
Memphis Cook Convention Center
Features 350,000 sq. ft. of space, 31 meeting rooms; column-free exhibit hall has more than 125,000 sq. ft. of space, 28,000-square-foot ballroom; 2,100-seat Cannon Center for the Performing Arts.
Sheraton Memphis Downtown Hotel
Connected to Memphis Cook Convention Center; dining includes Magnolia Grille; on Main Street trolley line; 600 guest rooms and 16,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Historic Forbes Four Star, AAA Four Diamond property; 464 guest rooms; more than 80,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; Peabody Duck March has occurred daily since 1933.
Situated in center of Beale Street Entertainment District; 203 guest rooms; nine meeting rooms, 9,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; steps away from FedEx Forum, Gibson Museum and several pubs and restaurants.
Whispering Woods Hotel & Conference Center
Situated just outside Memphis on 175 wooded acres; lakeside retreat setting; paved walking trails and a championship golf course; 181 guest rooms and 47,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
One of the largest meeting destination hotels in the world; 600,000 sq. ft. of space; exhibit hall offers more than 260,000 sq. ft. within 152 meeting rooms; 2,882 guest rooms, including 171 suites, on six floors; 9-acre indoor garden.
Newly renovated AAA Four Diamond hotel; 330 guest rooms; 17,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; near Music City Center, Country Music Hall of Fame and entertainment district attractions.
High-tech, eco-friendly luxury boutique hotel in West End; 247 guest rooms; 13,600 sq. ft. of meeting space, with state-of-the-art technology; Forbes Four Star 1808 Grille blends Southern cuisine with global flavor.
Hyatt Place Nashville Downtown
Located downtown in SoBro District; 13-story hotel; 255 guest rooms; 3,400 sq. ft. of meeting space; 175-space parking garage; 24-hour full-service bar, The Gallery, in lobby; one block from Music City Center and near Bridgestone Arena.
Adjacent to Vanderbilt University in Midtown; 340 renovated guest rooms; 24,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; near Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and Parthenon replica.
Located in the West End, next to Vanderbilt University campus and Centennial Park; 307 guest rooms; 11,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, with 12 conference rooms and two ballrooms; close to trendy shops and restaurants.
Located across from Music City Center and connected to Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum; 800 guest rooms; more than 80,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; Mokara spa and state-of-the-art fitness center; new meeting space is LEED Silver certified.
Situated in the heart of downtown Nashville; 673 newly renovated guest rooms; more than 70,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 25 meeting rooms and grand ballroom that accommodates 2,500; connected to Nashville Convention Center; live music at Bridge Lounge.
Sheraton Nashville Downtown Hotel
Renovated in 2014; 19 meeting rooms; 482 guest rooms with city views; 24-hour fitness facility; Adagio Spa and Speaker’s Bistro; 25-story chandelier; 25,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Forbes Five Star, AAA Five Diamond property housed in 1910 Beaux-Arts building; 122 guest rooms; 5,427 sq. ft. of meeting space, including ballroom with nearly 5,000 sq. ft.; across the street from Legislative Plaza and Tennessee State Museum.
Historic 1900s railway station-turned-boutique hotel, now part of Marriott Autograph collection; 125 guest rooms; 12,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space; fine dining at Prime 108 Restaurant and Lounge; adjacent to Frist Center for the Visual Arts.
The 2nd annual Smart Meetings Catalyst Awards celebrates the agents of change who propel the meetings industry forward. Take a look at this year’s winners!