Monday, April 15, 2013

Having to Sell Your Convention Center to Your Own City is Not a Good Place to Be In

Posted By on Mon, Apr 15, 2013 at 5:06 AM

Over at The Tennessean, Joey Garrison has the latest story on the soon-to-be-opening Music City Center. It is the same story that is always written about the Music City Center, in one form or another, in which someone says, "Woo hoo! This convention center is totally awesome and is going to make Nashville so happy!" and someone else says, "Are you sure? Because convention business is down all over the country." And the first person says, "We're already doing better than we expected." And someone else says, "But the last time you told us what you expected, it was more conventions and more hotel rooms filled than you're saying we can expect this time." And the first person says, "Yep, much better than expected." And the second person looks around confused and asks, "Did the meaning of 'better' switch recently? Like how 'bad' sometimes means 'good,' does 'better' sometimes mean 'worse?'" And then the story ends with something like, "Well, the convention center is opening no matter what, so we'll just have to wait and see what happens."

Garrison reports:

According to [the HVS Convention, Sports & Entertainment] study — updated in September 2010 to take into account the addition of the Omni headquarters hotel — Music City Center during the 2013-14 fiscal year would generate 49 convention and trade shows, a category distinguished by producing considerably more overnight hotel stays than consumer shows, conferences, banquets and other smaller events. Conventions and trade shows would account for 418,950 hotel room nights, the study found.

But current CVB numbers for this stretch — July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2014 — are 22 conventions and trade shows that would produce 134,921 hotel room nights. Tourism and city officials point out the center’s adjoining hotel won’t open until three months into this period, and thus they discount the projections as no longer applicable.

They also argue numbers are actually higher. Charles Starks, president and CEO of the new center, said his team tracks some events that the CVB doesn’t. He provided The Tennessean a list of 36 events for 2013-14 he has labeled as conventions and trade shows. These total 241,761 hotel room nights, still shy of forecasts.

But don't just read this excerpt. Go read the whole thing. It's just one quote after another of "it's raining" when someone from the tourism industry is really pissing on Nashville's leg.

And I get it. If the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau came out and just point-blank said, "The numbers aren't where we thought they'd be," they would have to endure a resounding "I told you so" so loud that their ears would burn for days. The central question at the heart of the project, from the moment it was proposed, is whether there was enough convention business left to justify the money and space we were giving a convention center. If they admit now that it's going to be more difficult to fill the space than they promised, that is going to be very uncomfortable for them.

But I think it's imperative that they should. I don't know how we could rig it with the Internet working as it does, but it'd be nice if there were some way that we could have an internal discussion as a city in which we're honest about the real prospects and what needs to be done to make sure that the MCC is successful — while projecting to the nation an aura of, "Duh, of course people are going to come to our convention center. You'd be fools not to. Look how awesome it is."

Because, at this point, the thing is built. It's going to open. And we need it to work. Which means that we need everyone in the city to work together to make it work. You belong to any national organization? You need to be selling that national organization on how awesome having a convention in Nashville would be. When you're visiting another city and you're in the elevator with some business folks talking about where they can have their next trade show, you need to slip in a plug for Nashville. And not just because Nashville is awesome, but because we've got to make that boondoggle work, for all our sakes.

Right now what's happening is that we are like the crew of a ship. And some of us, for a long time, have been pointing out that the ship hit an iceberg and is taking on water ... or, I guess, technically, that the ship paid to build an iceberg and then ran into it and is now taking on water. And others of us are busy telling the rest of the crew that there's nothing to worry about. Dudes, no! Tell the passengers there's nothing to worry about, if you want. But you need to be honest with all the crew that they need to get some buckets. Even if it means hearing a rousing rendition of, "I told you building an iceberg was stupid."

It's the only way to keep the ship from sinking — everyone working together to keep it afloat.

And I guess I'm also confused as to why it would be so bad for the Tourism people to admit that things aren't going well. It's not like anything bad is going to happen to them if they do. We, as a city, have very short memories. I mean, you'd think, for instance, that after the May Town fiasco, Tony Giarratana would be laughed out of every respectable joint in this town. But he's still an incredibly successful developer, who is, for instance, has convinced the Baptists to sell him land for a convention center hotel.

So it's not like their professional reputations are really going to suffer any long-term damage. And like I said, the thing is built. It's about to open. We can't just undo that. So even if they admit everything isn't going swimmingly at this point, it's in the city's best interest to make it work.

Is there a point when we can just be honest with each other about that? I'm not optimistic.

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