Nashville tourism exec reflects on Music City's 'explosion' during 47-year career - Southern Business Review

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Thursday, June 27, 2019

Nashville tourism exec reflects on Music City's 'explosion' during 47-year career


Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp.'s Terry Clements is retiring this month after 47 years of promoting tourism in Music City.


Clements' first tourism job was as general manager for Gray Line Tours in 1972. In 1976, he became director of tourism for the Nashville Chamber of Commerce. For the last 14 years, he has served as vice president of government and community relations for the visitors corporation.


Clements, 70, is credited with being a driving force behind the explosive growth Nashville tourism has experienced during his career. 


"Without question, Terry has played a key role in Nashville’s rise as a destination," Butch Spyridon, CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp, said. 




Tennessean columnist Mary Hance interviewed Clements about the changes Nashville has gone through during his watch and what he sees as future opportunities and challenges for the city. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.


Hance: Compare the Nashville tourism/convention environment of the mid-1970s with our current tourism picture. As I remember, there was virtually no convention business until Opryland Hotel opened, right?


Clements: In those early days, the only tourism coming in was state association meetings and leisure travel, which was primarily people coming for the Grand Ole Opry and sightseeing tours of stars' homes. When the Opryland Hotel opened, it changed the equation dramatically. Jack Vaughn (hotel CEO) and Mike Dimond (sales and marketing manager) did a great job of breaking the ice with skeptical meeting planners who perceived Nashville as a third-rate city.


In 1978, an estimated 7.7 million people visited Nashville, compared with 15.2 million last year. Those 1978 visitors spent $218 million, compared with the $6.5 billion spent in 2017 (the most recent spending data).


To go from $200 million to $6.5 billion in spending is an explosion no matter how you look at it. It has expanded way beyond our hopes and dreams.    


Hance: Was the big catalyst for Nashville’s tourism development the passage of liquor by the drink?


Clements: If you had not had liquor by the drink passed in 1967, you would not have had the Opryland Hotel. ... The passage of the liquor by the drink law not only served as a draw for convention and meeting planners, but it also generated significant revenues for restaurants and bars and for the city's tax base. 


Hance: What role did the Opryland USA theme park and Opryland Hotel play in developing tourism? 


Clements: The Opryland USA theme park opened in 1972, and the original plan was to open a small motel next door, so park guests and Grand Ole Opry fans could stay overnight. The decision to change the plan from a 200-room family motor inn to a 600-room high-amenity convention hotel set the stage for Nashville's emergence as a convention destination. 


The Opryland family theme park was a significant destination for out-of-towners.  It appealed to young people, and half of Nashville dropped their kids off in the morning and picked them up at the end of the day. Seniors on bus tours loved it, too. It was a real asset.


Hance: I hated to see the theme park close in 1997. Do you think keeping it open would have boosted tourism even more? 


Clements: Absolutely. It was the family destination attraction that today we wish we had.


Hance: Early on, there was a gap between the Belle Meade crowd and country music. What changed that?


Clements: The Belle Meade business leaders, who were not particular partial to country music, realized their clients and associates were eager to meet and see some of these country music celebrities. They took notice.


And secondly, Garth. Garth Brooks kicked the door down on the stereotypes that had kept country music on a low rung for the upper-crust local set. Garth was a worldwide phenomenon.  


Hance: How much did the TV show "Nashville" influence tourism growth for the city?


Clements: To have had that show was huge. At one time, it was seen in 80 countries. It took our message far and wide. It showed what is behind the music, the songwriters, the producers, behind the scenes, and it put it all in a pretty positive light.


Hance: Where are the biggest opportunities for tourism growth? Is it with big events like New Years Eve, the NFL Draft, CMA Fest and Fourth of July? Or is it the everyday scene for visitors? 


Clements: I think it is going to be both. Nashville has proven that we can pull off the biggest events, so some of the growth will be event driven. But the day-to-day growth keeps coming. 


Hance: What are the biggest challenges for future tourism growth? 


Clements: The city is going to have to control the growth and not let it control us. The scooters are a great example. They are a desirable thing to have, but they need to be controlled.


► Scooters in Nashville: What do mayoral candidates have to say in the heated transportation debate?


Hance: It seems like I read about a new hotel every week. How has that growth and occupancy been?


Clements: In 1987, there were 118 hotels with 16,463 rooms. Now there are 389 hotels with 40,769 rooms. The Davidson County hotel occupancy January through May this year is 74.3 percent, compared with 64.4 percent for the U.S. 


Hance: How do you see the future of Lower Broadway? Do you foresee permanent street closures down there?


Clements: The current operators down there will all fight closing the street. As far back as I can remember, they do not want that. The Lower Broadway businesses believe having the traffic driving through Broadway gives them additional exposure and helps build business. 


Hance: If asked what visitors must see or do in Nashville, what would you say?


Clements: If you like music, you must go to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Grand Ole Opry and the Musicians Hall of Fame. 


 If you don't like music, I would say go to the Andrew Jackson Home, The Hermitage and the Parthenon.


And either way, you have to go to the honky tonks. There is nowhere else anywhere that you can go and hear all of that great music, and there is no cover charge. It is a unique musical experience. 


Reach Ms. Cheap at 615-259-8282 or mscheap@tennessean.com. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/mscheap, and at Tennessean.com/mscheap, and on Twitter @Ms_Cheap, and catch her every Thursday at 11 a.m. on WTVF-Channel 5’s “Talk of the Town.”