Nashville’s Convention & Visitors Corporation President and CEO Butch Spyridon shares how he has led through opportunity and adversity during past recessions and disasters and how those lessons can be applied today.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Nashville, Tennessee, has been top of the leaderboard for the past 10 years for leisure and corporate travel, but the city’s success didn’t happen overnight and required planning and leadership.
Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of Nashville’s Convention & Visitors Corporation since 1991, said the city was probably “as low as you could go between ’98 and 2003.”
He shared his insights into the market’s rise, and how it might apply today, during a one-one-one session with STR’s Chief Strategy Officer Elizabeth Winkle titled “Building resilience in your business: An interview with Butch Spyridon” at the recent online Hotel Data Conference.
(STR is the parent company of Hotel News Now.)
Challenges during that period included Nashville’s Opryland theme park closing and a devastating tornado. “We really didn’t even know if we were going to be around,” he said.
The key to rebuilding was pulling together more than 100 community leaders from all sectors and asking, “does Nashville want to be in the hospitality industry? If it does, what’s it going to take and what’s it going to cost?”
Industry leaders everywhere must ask themselves the same questions in the context of the current crisis, he said.
“This is hard,” he said about the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects.
Spyridon, who is also part of the Meetings Mean Business Coalition, said group business is one of the biggest challenges. Everyone is anxious to get back to meetings.
“While I agree completely, the timing of that is probably more important than anything. … We can’t act immune to the super-spreader environment,” he said.
To be able to have large gatherings, it’s got to be done right, he said.
“I apologize … if anybody doesn’t like the conversation, but masks are our only antidote right now and we need to become huge champions of masks and social distancing. Then, we need to become the model using all of the vast, unused meeting space … to show how to do it right,” he said.
Spyridon said the Nashville CVC is working to demonstrate to both the city and the industry that it has all the tools, partners and protocols to do it right. However, talking about it before it’s safe could be detrimental from a public relations standpoint, he added.
Spyridon said Nashville’s revival plan was a year and half in planning and took another 10 years to put into place and see results. The three key pillars that came out of that plan were: Build a brand; position the city by using big events; and create a permanent demand generator, which today is the Music City Center.
When the Great Recession hit in 2007, the Nashville CVC made all the necessary financial cuts but did not eliminate employees, he said.
“We knew there would be an end, and I think it always starts with believing there’s an end. Even if you can’t see it, you know it’s coming,” he said. “We actually hired people while most of our competition was laying staff off. We kept selling, we changed the selling tactics, but we stayed after it.”
Then, the 2010 Tennessee floods swept through the area.
“it was eye-opening to say the least,” he said.
Tens of thousands of people were out of work in Tennessee. The first step was to come up with a plan to instill confidence back in those people.
Spyridon recounted an internal meeting in which everyone was “tired, everybody was pissed off and nobody felt like they could do it anymore.”
“I don’t know where the thought came in my head, but I looked at our team and just said ‘in the end of the day, we’re not going to be judged by what we do, we’re going to be judged by what we don’t do,’” he said.
“That attitude led us out,” he added.
Applying those lessons today
After the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic became known, the Nashville CVC made financial cuts and put some employees on furlough, though no salespeople were laid off, Spyridon said.
He said he learned during the floods that it’s imperative to have money on hand.
“We had a decent-sized reserve, not great. That gave us some confidence,” he said.
As groups began to cancel events, Spyridon said it was important to maintain relationships and get in front of the clients. To do so, his team began to send around gifts to say, “we’re sorry you had to cancel.”
He said the Nashville CVC will continue to find ways through confidence, strategy, caution and optimism to be ready for when the light at the end of the tunnel appears.
The CVC’s robust social media presence will be key to ensure the Nashville message continues, he said, noting those channels are the most economical and efficient path forward from a marketing standpoint.
However, as he took a deeper look, he “didn’t like what (he) saw,” he said.
“I realized I had not been paying enough attention. We needed a better voice, we needed a more creative voice, we needed better content, better images,” he said.
Spyridon said his team spent the last month retooling everything in preparation to come back stronger and more efficient.
“It’s one of those things where sometimes it takes a disaster or a catastrophe, a pandemic, to make you look internally at all the little things you’re doing that you could be doing better,” he said.
Though the Nashville CVC has done “zero marketing” since the middle of March, leisure visitors have shown up every weekend, showing an interest and a desire to travel, Spyridon said.
“That is the first sign that I can be encouraged about our future recovery,” he said. “Second sign is as we began to open back up, Southwest Airlines already has more flights from Nashville than it had pre-COVID, so they’re bullish on us. If a company like Southwest Airlines can be bullish, I can certainly follow suit and have the same level of confidence.”
He’s also had conversations with British Airways, which is in the process of evaluating reopening flights to gateway cities.
“Cities like us could be on the cutting block,” he said.
“We’ve been in regular conversations. I’ve told them I will find some dollars to help with that start-up if that’s what it takes. But we see (British Airways) as a big part of our recovery. International is going to take a little longer, but we’re going to need every market segment—meetings, leisure, international, business travel—we’re going to need it all to get back to some level of profitability.”