Nashville, the state capital of Tennessee, wears its musical heart on its sleeve. It’s long been heralded as the home of country music, with a raft of live-music venues – including the renowned Grand Ole Opry – the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Johnny Cash Museum. With so much to offer, we chatted with Butch Spyridon, President and CEO of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation, to find out how the city was experiencing coronavirus and – looking ahead – what its plans were for bringing travellers back.
In conversation with Butch Spyridon
Butch Spyridon, president and CEO, Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation © private archive
Q: What has Nashville’s experience of coronavirus been like? Have there been some positive stories emerging during this time?
A: Nashvillians’ renowned southern hospitality and historic community spirit in challenging times has always been at the heart of our city, and as we face our biggest challenge yet this has really shone through in the banding together of artists to the hospitality sector to the healthcare industry.
From the beginning of the outbreak, we worked closely with city and public health officials to launch Community Assessment Centers throughout the city, that are free to anyone who wanted to be tested. Mayor John Cooper also introduced a COVID-19 Response Fund where individuals could receive help with mortgage payments, food, household items, utility payments and direct financial assistance.
Meanwhile, the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville launched the Greater Nashville Artist Relief Fund, designed to help sustain local artists with $500 grants, while Governor Lee launched the Tennessee Talent Exchange to provide employment opportunities to those seeking temporary work during this time.
In true Nashville fashion our artists and songwriters have been online keeping the music playing with virtual concerts, which helped to keep spirits up. Local chefs also gave their time through a partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee to fund hourly workers at our restaurants and in return also feed those in our community who were struggling.
As we begin to look forward, as the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp (NCVC) we have collaborated with the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Ryman Hospitality group to introduce the Good to Go educational programme, giving businesses across the city ongoing access to key resources as well as one-on-one advice from leading infectious disease experts to guide them through the reopening process.
Listening Room Cafe © Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation
Q: During lockdown, a series of virtual experiences enabled people to “visit Nashville from home”. Can you tell us a bit more about this campaign: what were your aims and can you give us some colourful examples of virtual content?
A: Visit Nashville From Home is a series of virtual experiences we released at the start of lockdown to allow people across the globe to get a taste of Music City from their homes. The series is comprised of virtual museum tours, a virtual mural tour, a local cookbook, shared playlists and special podcasts as well as links to tune in to the historic Grand Ole Opry, which has never missed a show in its 94-year history, via Facebook and YouTube. It also included a programme of virtual gigs and concerts by Nashville artists as part of our “Music City Bandwidth” series, to support local artists and musicians and, most importantly, to keep the music playing. The Country Music Hall of Fame museum also hosted weekly live songwriting sessions on Instagram during lockdown with the talents behind some of music’s biggest hits.
With the Visit Nashville From Home virtual series, we felt it was important to remind people of what Music City has to offer and to celebrate our collective talents, and so we also created our own Recipe Notes: A Taste of Music City online cookbook (which is free to download) with local restaurants and attractions, as well as our own Tennessee Titans NFL team, contributing their favourite Nashville recipes for people to recreate at home. At the same time, we released our latest documentary film, “It All Begins with a Song: The Story of the Nashville Songwriter”, which received three Silver Lions at the Cannes Lions International Festival and is available to download via iTunes and Google Play.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum © Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation
Q: What do coronavirus restrictions and safety precautions currently look like in Nashville? Are you working towards a “new normal”?
A: Nashville joins dozens of cities and states across the country in closing bars and scaling restaurants back to 50% capacity as part of efforts to control the spread of the virus. Museums and attractions also continue to open at 50% capacity, while transportainment offerings, sports arenas and large entertainment venues are closed. All the latest information on the city’s roadmap for reopening can be found at: www.asafenashville.org/.
Q: The city has launched the “Good to Go” programme, which provides resources, information and support from leading disease experts to help businesses reopen safely. Can you tell us a bit more about this? Will these guidelines be reassuring for returning visitors?
A: Good to Go is a free citywide educational programme, which was the first of its kind in the US, that sets Nashville apart as both a destination and a leading centre for medical research as the city navigates the reopening process. The programme was developed as part of a collaboration between the NCVC, Ryman Hospitality and Vanderbilt University Medical Center, one of the leading research hospitals in the US. So far, over seven hundred area businesses have signed up to Good to Go which continues to provide direct access to vital resources, educational information and one-to-one support from leading infectious-disease experts to help the city's businesses reopen confidently and safely. With this programme, our aim is for Nashville’s businesses to be fully informed and educated on the latest developments and advice in real-time, in order to implement the necessary measures quickly and efficiently to ultimately protect and reassure both our citizens and visitors.
National Museum African American Music (visualisation) © Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation
Q: Have visitors started to return to your city?
A: Yes, but slowly. Nashville is open to US domestic visitors at this stage but visitors need to know what to expect before they arrive. Masks are required both indoors and outdoors and some attractions and restaurants remain closed. Those that are open are running at limited capacity and have limited opening hours, while bars across Nashville are currently closed. The situation is being closely monitored and, as is the case across the US and the world, it is a continuously evolving situation, which we are reacting to and planning for as it develops.
Q: What are your predictions for the tourist industry, for the rest of the year and into 2021? When do you expect to see domestic and then international tourism bounce back?
A: If the virus is under control, we anticipate a gradual rebound. Conventions in 2021 are still holding so we think (barring a setback) that next year could prove to be relatively strong for tourism to our city.
RCA Studio B © Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation
Q: The brand-new Nashville Museum of African American Music is due to open this year. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
A: The National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) is due to open its doors in late Autumn, followed by the official opening of the new Fifth & Broadway complex, a 200,000-square-foot development comprised of shops, bars and restaurants as well as the new museum, in Spring 2021. NMAAM will be the first and only museum dedicated to promoting the legacy of African American Music in the US, exploring its contribution and innovation across more than fifty different music genres. The museum will narrate a story that has never been told before and will explore how African American artists changed the course of musical history through interactive exhibits which are dedicated to preserving their legacy.
Q: What other stellar attractions and things to do will be bringing travellers back?
A: Many of our most iconic attractions have reopened to visitors, including the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, the Tennessee State Museum and the Frist Art Museum, with RCA Studio B due to reopen on 1 September. Both the Grand Ole Opry and Ryman auditorium are open for tours while our attractions that offer large outdoor parks and spaces such as Belle Meade Plantation, the Cheekwood Estate & Gardens and The Parthenon are also open to visitors. There are also a number of special exhibitions taking place including Chihuly at Cheekwood, featuring a series of large-scale installations in the historic estate’s gardens and galleries by glass artist, Dale Chihuly, which is running from now until January.
The Parthenon at Centennial Park, Nashville © Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation
As Nashville’s tourism offering continues to grow and evolve, we are delighted to welcome a number of new additions to Music City, including the recently opened Virgin Hotel and Hampton Inn & Suites Downtown Capitol View in July. We are also looking forward to the opening of new hotels, The Joseph Luxury Collection and the Grand Hyatt in September 2020. Furthermore, 21 new restaurants have opened since the start of the pandemic in March – including Brooklyn Bowl in Germantown (June 2020), Ruby Sunshine in Hillsboro Village (June 2020), Little Gourmand in Melrose (June 2020) and the Dolly Parton-inspired White Limozeen Rooftop Bar at The Graduate Hotel in Midtown (July 2020).
It is music that runs through the veins of our city and, as I mentioned, we are so excited for the opening of America’s first National Museum of African American Music in late Autumn, which will be a celebration of the music genres African American artists and musicians have created, influenced and inspired. In addition, we are also proud to be hosting the Academy of Country Music Awards show in September and the annual CMA Awards in November, which continues to be a significant event in Nashville’s music calendar. Looking ahead to next year, we will also be marking 150 years of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who are famously behind the legend of how Nashville got the name “Music City” as given by your very own Queen Victoria, with celebrations kicking off in the Spring. So 2021 will certainly be an important year for commemorating Nashville’s musical roots.
Top image: Nashville, Tennessee downtown skyline with Cumberland River in USA © f11photo/Shutterstock