Nashville owes its tourism success to a guy from Pascagoula

Nashville was at the level Coast tourism is now, until a guy from Pascagoula helped brand The Music City and put it on the list of top destinations in the world.

Butch Spyridon shared with Coast tourism officials Tuesday how he, his board of directors and staff made it happen during his 25-years as president and CEO of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.

“Be authentic and be unique,” was his advice for South Mississippi.

Nashville has no mountains, no beaches, no casino or theme park. “By all rights we shouldn’t exist in the hospitality industry,” he said.

When he arrived in Nashville, “We had a nickname — The Music City — but we didn’t have a brand,” he said. He set out to gave Nashville its identity.

First notes

“Mississippi obviously gets a bad rap,” he said, with an outdated national perception. He understands. “We dealt with it with country music. We had the same obstacles to overcome,” he said.

Opryland had a “stranglehold” on every aspect of Nashville’s tourism business when he arrived on the job in 1991, he said. He worked to diversify and change the city’s image. In the beginning those who hired him to make a difference wanted to keep things the same, he said. Then in short order, Opryland closed its theme park and sold The Nashville Network.

“Nashville was not the priority anymore, and everybody went into a panic,” he said.

Taking a year and a half to work with 140 community leaders and create a strategic plan for the city’s tourism was “the smartest thing we ever did,” he said. From that came the tourism agency’s brand promise that is all about music. Now 14 million visitors a year come to Nashville spend $6 billion annually, primarily for music.

His childhood friend Richard Chenoweth, owner of Scranton’s Restaurant in Pascagoula, joked with Spyridon that South Mississippi has a position open for a tourism director. Spyridon isn’t changing jobs, but he did return to South Mississippi before heading to Australia to share his story.

His advice

▪  Take the brand seriously. “You don’t have a brand until your customer says you have a brand,” he said. Nashville’s is music, and that’s conveyed in big ways and small. Music greets visitors at the airport and the traffic signal boxes in the city are wrapped with photos of an artist who lives in Nashville and play that person’s music.

▪  Have focus. “You can sell more than one thing but on your brand find your niche,” he advised. The rise of Nashville’s tourism industry came with a surge in popularity of country music. Dining took off in Nashville when the new convention center opened and he said the culinary press took notice, ranking the city among the top dining destinations in the world. Now people drive to Nashville to eat, he said, and Nashville Food and Wine Festival was created, with music a big part of it. Nashville’s fashion stores came along because the music industry wanted a place to shop. He said this all led city and tourism officials to realize they shouldn’t send that business out of town — “let’s deliver it ourselves.”

▪  Take risks. Nashville’s tourism agency took over the July 4 celebration and did it in a big way. “The last 3 years we’ve had the largest fireworks show in the United States,” he said. Hotel owners asked him, “Do for New Year’s what you did for July 4,” and the city’s New Year’s Eve festival was born. Both of these events generate publicity, promote the brand and together create $8-$10 million in revenue, he said. “And they were huge risks,” he said. For the first New Year’s Eve celebration in 2009, he said they couldn’t sign any of the big music artists. “We dropped guitar and the guitar got stuck,” he said. Now they drop a red music note at midnight, Keith Urban and other top artists have performed, and attendance boomed from 15,000 at the first concert to 150,000. “It’s free and it’s cool as hell,” he said.

▪  Deliver a consistent message. It would seem natural that the music and tourism industries would work together, but Spyridon said it didn’t happen until a major flood hit Nashville, causing $2 billion in damage and 11 deaths. It came in 2010 when the national focus was on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The music industry contacted the tourism agency and asked what was the message to get out, he said. “That was huge,” he said, and by supporting each other, everyone has benefited.

▪  Let others tell your story. The tourism agency has a healthy advertising budget, and also uses social media and travel writers to deliver the experience of Nashville. “It’s much more believable,” he said. Your social media better be able to drive visitors to your website, he said, and your website better close the deal.

▪  Stand out. He rallies against the homogenization of American cities. “We all have the same damn stores,” he said. “Remember where you’ve been. Remember how you got here,” he said. The Nashville tourism agency has three customer training programs that even the police and taxi drivers go through, he said, so everyone focuses on a clean and safe city for visitors.

▪  Be innovative. “We truly don’t rest on our laurels,” he said. His staff is focused on developing what’s the next big thing while continuing to do its own promotions and website. “We control it all. It came out of being poor,” he said.

Chords to success

After graduating from Vanderbilt University, Spyridon returned to area of South Mississippi and Mobile along Interstate 10, which also shaped the life of Pascagoula-born musician Jimmy Buffett.

“I-10 has always been home,” he said, and he waited tables and tended bar while he decided what to do next. The strongest influence from growing up in Pascagoula was the Southern hospitality culture, he said.

He took that with him to Nashville and for the city’s tourism, he made music.

Coast tourism by the numbers

Butch Spyridon’s presentation came during Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast’s annual State of Tourism meeting at the Gulf Coast Event Center in Gulfport. Indicators are up for the year, said the organization’s president Bill Holmes and other speakers. The numbers show:

  • 35 percent of visitors came for the casinos, followed by shopping, beach/waterfront, fine dining and swimming.
  • 6.2 million visitors last year, up from 5.8 million in 2015
  • 14,646 hotel rooms are available and 800 more are coming, getting closer to the pre-Hurricane Katrina level of 16,092.
  • 32,400 people worked in tourism last year, up from 30,310 in 2015
  • 85 percent of overnight guests who responded to a survey said they’d visited the Coast at least once and 74 percent visited in the past year
  • 1.45 million visits to the Visit MS Gulf Coast website were recorded last year
  • 600 people have graduated from the Coast Champions customer service program
  • 3,000 articles were written about the Coast in local and national publications last year, a $5 million value
  • 2,640 downloads of the My Gulf Coast app were made since May
  • $43 is generated in tourism spend for every $1 of advertising