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VOL. 44 | NO. 13 | Friday, March 27, 2020

Spyridon planning ahead for post-virus recovery

By Joe Morris

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Twenty years ago, Butch Spyridon was aggressively beating the drum for a new convention center in downtown Nashville. The need was there, he said, and during the next few years he and the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau (now the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.) would work to pull together a growing coalition of business, community and elected leaders that resulted in the new Music City Center’s construction and eventual 2013 opening.

That big win has come alongside many smaller ones for Spyridon, who has been president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. since 1991. As the CVB’s face, he’s often credited for Nashville’s “it city” reputation – both the positives (revenue growth from new hotels, bars and restaurants) and the negatives (the oft-vilified pedal taverns lumbering along under the weight of bachelorette parties).

His longtime work in, and on behalf of, the city along with previous large-scale economic threats gives him perspective as Nashville hunkers down to face a pandemic barely two weeks after a tornado blew through neighborhoods just across the river from his office. Can the city come back? He’s betting on it.

How are you communicating with your staff?

“We’re doing what everybody else is, from conference calls to Zoom meetings. We’re also putting out e-blasts to members and visitors and have really cranked up our social media and our website to be reflective of what’s going on, and what information we can pass along.

“Sometimes that’s hourly. We noticed a void in a lot of people’s updates because they are busy doing other things, so we wanted to pick up the pace and share information.’’

Does the CVB have an emergency plan in place? And even so, how flexible was it in terms of something like a pandemic versus a flood or similar event?

“This is new territory. We were in tornado-relief mode, and now we’ve had to shift to virus-relief mode.

“We’re all about flattening the curve as far as the virus’ spread and propping people up to the best of our ability. We did have a plan that was updated after the 2010 floods, and so we did have a lot of things in place in terms of serving as a conduit for government-service information, and for updating information on cancellations and other business impacts.

“We also have a plan in place to work on our recovery. For all the people that work in tourism and hospitality, and for the city, it’s important that we be ready to move as swiftly as possible when we think it’s safe to push that out.

“We won’t move until we know it’s safe, certainly, but we care about getting people back to work.’’

What are you hearing from members and community leaders?

“There are so many different facets and so many different needs, but the word that comes to mind is hemorrhage. There’s just not a better word.

“The layoffs began in earnest a few days ago, and have come in really big numbers, huge numbers. You have hotels, big hospitality companies, all letting people go. I can’t even put into words how overwhelming that is.

“And we don’t know how long this may go. A lot of companies are trying to look at mid-April to bring people back, and as many of them as can are trying to pay their staff, to help them as much as possible.’’

Nashville had a very low unemployment rate going into this event. When those businesses do come back online, how hard will it be for them to staff back up?

“Those who are able to pay their staff should be able to keep them around, but others are going to have to do some outreach. Some people will have gone to where the jobs are, such as grocery stores and logistics operations. They may decide to stay there, those places keep the new hires.

“There will be some job-changing, for sure, and getting fully staffed will be the hospitality industry’s fastest route back to recovery. A lot of people think of their staff as family, and they don’t want to just turn them out because they’ve had to close operations.

“I think that’s why you’re seeing a lot of operators continue to pay their staff – those people are valuable to them, and they want to support them and keep them.’’

What resources are you and your team monitoring? What’s your “don’t-miss” daily update?

“We have been really active on plugging into places where we can get accurate information for things like utilities. Our members’ staff need to know if their power is going to be cut off. Their staff wants to know that, and they also want to know things like whether or not the sheriff’s office will be serving eviction notices if they’re unable to make rent. Getting out information like that has been our goal, alongside any notices around public safety.

“Now, as we stop and take a breath and focus outside those channels, we are going to watch what else we can do to put some calm back in place. That means continuing to share information from the city and state, and also to try to find some messages that will give people some hope. We’re all going to get through this.’’

What are you hearing from other tourism and hospitality agencies in the state and around the country?

“It’s all the same. East, west, north south, there is uncertainty, and that is an understatement, really.

“But I will say this of my peers, and all the people who work with us and for us: There is no panic. There is thoughtful deliberation, and there is as much action being taken as can be taken.

“We are working with the White House and Congress to make sure that while they are looking at helping the airlines and cruise lines, they also are paying attention to small business. The hospitality industry is made up of so many small businesses, and we are making sure our leaders at every level don’t forget them.’’

Other than that ramped-up lobbying push, what do you see as the CVB’s role right now?

“We are advocates. Usually we are advocating for the city of Nashville, and we still are, and we are now advocating to make sure that nobody is forgotten.

“First and foremost, I couldn’t be prouder of our team. They have been working nonstop since the tornado to get information out and to help people. They were doing tornado relief in the midst of regular sales and marketing, and even during all that we got engaged early with the United Way of Greater Nashville’s COVID-19 Response Fund on virus relief efforts.

“We made a donation of $500,000 from our reserve fund that will go to front-line hospitality employees and other workers who have been displaced. It’s so important to keep those people and those businesses in our minds.’’

You also have had to wade into fights you might not wish to engage in. For instance, as when some Lower Broadway venues were quite vocal about remaining open, even as officials were strongly suggesting avoiding groups. How’d your team react to that?

“We had already been reporting out what the Metro Health Department was saying about large gatherings and the ‘flatten the curve’ philosophy. We were pretty vocal, and we knew not everybody would like it.

“We saw social media posts about Nashville not paying attention, and we jumped into the middle of it.

“That wasn’t a good look, or a smart look, for our city. We have to be in the middle sometimes, trying to support all sides, and it can be hard.’’

Nashville’s economy is very diverse. How do you think that positions us now, and eventually when things get back to (sort of) normal, compared to other cities?

“That diversity is going to help. We are blessed with a great geographic location, and we firmly believe that we’re going to come back faster than some fly-only destinations in terms of tourism. We can get our drive-market visitors coming back here while we work on the fly market side.

“And we’re used to this. In 1998, we had a tornado. We lost Opryland. Then came 9/11, the 2008 recession and the 2010 flood.

“We are prepared when it comes to how to respond and how to recover. We learned the hard way, because of those other occurrences, to build a reserve. We are prepared. We’re certainly not experts in coming back from a virus, and this is beyond anything we could have prepared for, but our geographic location and our experiences in recovery before have us as well prepared as we could possibly be for when that time comes.’’

If you had 30 seconds to talk to everyone, from the president and other governmental and civic leaders to the rank and file workers in a small restaurant or bar, what would you say?

“Stay calm. Panic and stupidity are not going to help. Do what the health officials are saying. Wash your hands, keep your distance.

“Let’s take these dramatic measures in the short term so we can get to our recovery quicker. We are going to get through this, and we are going to be OK in the long term.

“And did I say wash your hands?

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