by Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
“And you shall know them by their airports …”
Airports are usually your first point of physical contact with a destination but Destination Marketing Organisations (DMOs) frequently miss a golden opportunity to turn these crucial first impressions into memorable destination experiences. Nashville is an exception in this regard. No sooner do you deplane in the music city than the euphonic feel of live music settles around your ears and you know you’re in a special place.
A week in 24 hours
But today I’m not arriving. I’m leaving. Today I’m sitting in Tootsies at the airport eating a cheese burger served by charming, chatty and genuinely friendly staff. Beside me, on a small riser, is Jeff Ivy, in blue jeans and cowboy boots, interspersing original tracks from his album This is me with crowd pleasing country standards by Waylon Jennings, The Eagles and Tim McGraw. He provides the perfect backdrop for these reflections on 24 hours in the Music City.
I packed as much into the last 24 hours as I usually do in a week: I discovered a wonderful new hotel, recorded the backing track to an original song, got hopelessly lost in the suburban darkness of Brentwood and Franklin, enjoyed a truly magical dinner, discovered Dion and the Nat Sinatra Band, browsed at Hatch Show Print and attended 2 intensive board meetings.
Omni Nashville Hotel
Our meeting was hosted at the spanking new Omni Nashville hotel, an impressive 800 room big box property with spectacular meeting facilities that manages to combine scale and intimacy. Located at the edge of the downtown area adjacent to the city’s new convention centre, the Omni presents itself as a world class property firmly fastened to its Nashville roots. There’s nothing homey or honkytonk about the restrained contemporary design of the property yet the genuine warmth and friendliness that accompanies all your interactions with the people there leaves you with the impression that you’re in a small, boutique hotel. Is this Omni or Nashville or the pleasant union of the two?
My colleagues excused me early from our meeting so that I could oversee the recording of a song at a studio in Nashville. I’d arranged to record “I will remember”, a ballad I wrote for my Mom with Fett at Azalea Studio. Fett assembled a 4 piece comprising Gary Talley (Guitar), Dane Bryant (KeyBoards), Dave Webb (Bass) and Ron Krasinski (Drums) and we spent a couple of hours creating an amazing backing track which vocalist Michael Mason will add lead and harmony vocals to next week. These guys are all top drawer session musicians who have played with The Box Tops, Clint Black, The Everly Brothers and Jools Holland etc It was a humbling, privileged experience to create a track with such musical luminaries and, I guess, this has to be the quintessential Nashville destination experience. [If you’d like to hear the finished product e mail me on firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll share the MP3 file]
My journey back to dinner at Kitchen Notes in the Omni involved an unscheduled diversion through the winter darkness of Tennessee suburbia where I encountered, at no cost other than time, astonishing displays of Christmas lights to rival the Disney theme parks. These were the kind of extreme kitsch displays that you’d load the kids in the car and travel distances to see. Sacred and profane were joyously joined as winter wonderlands of snowmen, elves, Santas, reindeer and Christmas trees mixed happily with nativity scenes of wise men, shepherds, sheep, cows and donkeys.
Dinner back at the Omni, meanwhile, created by Executive Chef David Harker and hosted by my FICP buddy Silvia San Martin, was a riotous affair as the FICP board and HPAC celebrated a year of great growth. Our appetizers (called “Beginnings” on the menu) included biscuits (we call them scones in Ireland) and particularly spectacular fried green tomatoes. For my entree I enjoyed a Wagyu Flat Iron steak with mushrooms and hand-cut fries. To one side of me Chris ate Shrimp and Grits while on the other Isabel ate Joyce Farm Chicken Pot Pie. This was gourmet comfort food like they serve at the Michelin starred gastro-pub, The Breslin, in New York City. Simultaneously simple and sophisticated and served with a smile. Our exuberance and high jinks were partially contained by being seated in a private room off the main restaurant – but only partially!
Cheerleaders take over Barlines
En route to my room I de-toured by the bar and got sucked into another riotous affair of live music and the after-party of the Cheerleaders conference hosted at the Omni during our time there. Dion and the Nat Sinitra Band played highly original covers along with some great originals creating quite a unique sound with their combination of double base, guitar, saxes and cajon. If you thought Nashville was only country tunes and twangs then think again – this band was disruptive, re-interpreting country standards with a jazz / fusion filter.
Hatch Show Print, one of the oldest working letterpress print shops in America, has re-located to the Omni Nashville maintaining its 100 year old design and print traditions. You can buy original prints but, importantly, get up close and personal with print techniques that have all but died. You’ll find gig posters for all the Nashville greats but also for newer artists like Mumford & Sons
So Jeff strums and sings as I head to Gate C24 for my flight to Boston and onward to Dublin. I’m left with one over-riding thought: I haven’t yet visited any town in Tennessee that I don’t intend to return to soon and often!
Padraic Gilligan and Patrick Delaney run SoolNua, a boutique destination on and off line marketing agency working with places and enterprises seeking new ways to position themselves for the meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE) sectors.