Over the past five years, the demand for a place to lay your head in Nashville—which is to say, the number of hotel rooms sold—has grown faster than in any other top 30 U.S. city, according to the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp (NCVC). More than 15.2 million people visited Nashville in 2018, an increase of 4.8 percent over 2017. And a whopping 94 percent of those tourists reported that they plan to return.
The city’s skyline is dotted with construction cranes working to accommodate that demand. As of March this year, 926 new hotel rooms have opened so far (2,304 opened in 2018, 1,219 in 2017). Plus, another 4,517 are already in the construction pipeline.
Because Nashville is so powerfully associated with country and other genres of music, outsiders might assume that the surge in visitation is a result of the city’s pop culture popularity, fueled by a love of music or the ABC television hit Nashville. Businesses in healthcare, hospitality, retail and finance are moving to Nashville because they’re attracted to a community that offers a supportive business climate, a dynamic culture—not just music but art, food and more—and an excellent quality of life.
“Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the general perception of Nashville was very Hee Haw–hillbilly and limiting,” says Butch Spyridon, NCVC’s president and CEO, and one of the people who helped change that stereotype. “We just needed to tell the real story—we did not need to embellish. We are not afraid or embarrassed by who we are; we embrace it. Hopefully that makes people want to visit.”
Spyridon can tick off a seemingly never-ending list of businesses that have heard Nashville’s message. He reports that Loews Hotels, Warner Music and BMI may be headquartered in New York, but they have moved their back-of-house operations to Nashville in recent years.
Financial firm AllianceBernstein is relocating its headquarters from New York, in a $70 million deal expected to bring 1,050. “AB chose Nashville for its new corporate headquarters,” says Adam Sansiveri, “because we believe it is a vibrant and growing city committed to developing its infrastructure, supporting local businesses and attracting new talent.” The managing director and head of Nashville private client office for AllianceBernstein adds, “We were impressed not only with what Nashville is now but also with what we believe it will become.”
Online retailer Amazon selected Nashville for its new Operations Center of Excellence, adding 5,000 local jobs. And professional services giant EY is investing $20 million to build its EY EDGE center—for tax technology operations—in Nashville, creating 600 new jobs in the process. “EY has been a part of the Nashville community for more than 60 years, and we’ve seen the city blossom into an emerging tech hub,” says Doug Rohleder, managing partner at EY Nashville. “The business climate and focus of state and local officials are beneficial to growth in the area.”
Executives like Rohleder also cite the city’s young talent pool, as well as its quality of life and lack of state income tax, as some of the incentives for investing in Nashville’s future.
One of the highest-profile examples that Nashville is no longer viewed as “hillbilly” (Spyridon’s word) was when the National Football League chose it as the site of its April 2019 NFL Draft in what Spyridon calls “the largest event in the city’s history.”
Some of the reasons the NFL chose Nashville are tangible and practical: When the draft started going on the road after 51 years in New York, the league found it was most successful in cities where the festivities could take place in a walkable downtown. “We liked that the downtown shows the heartbeat of the city,” says Peter O’Reilly, executive vice president, Club Business and League Events for the NFL. “Nashville is a place where our fans want to go. It is where players wanting to get drafted want to go.”
Last March, the hometown Tennessee Titans hosted a downtown party to unveil their new uniforms—followed, in true Nashville style, with a free concert by country music stars Florida Georgia Line. The event showed the NFL and the world that fans will indeed turn out in Nashville for some fun.
The NFL isn’t the first company to notice the high-powered vibe that the city emits. “We put down roots in Nashville because its culture reflects our own: vibrant, diverse, educated, innovative and fast-growing,” says Alex Fenkell, the 29-year-old cofounder of SmileDirectClub. The teledentistry firm, which offers kits for lower-cost teeth straightening at home, moved its headquarters here from Detroit in 2016 and has planned a $217 million investment in Nashville, hiring 2,010 people in the city and suburbs through 2024. “SmileDirectClub will continue to grow and benefit from the advantages Nashville has to offer for years to come.”
Jacob Kupin, a residential realtor with the Pargh Team at Compass Real Estate, has seen these recent job creation announcements reinvigorate interest in a hot market that appeared to be in the process of normalizing. “We have a diversity of industries here like healthcare, music, automotive and finance,” Kupin says. “Nashville is still growing and is low-cost, at least low compared to major markets like New York and California. I think we’re going to continue to see the flow of people move here and continue to buy and build homes.”
When any city experiences a boom, there’s always talk of a bubble. But those in the know say that Nashville’s diverse economy offers some protection. “When the healthcare sector went through changes, the city was able to come out the other side because it has so many sectors in the economy,” explains R. Wade Peery, chief administrative officer at First Bank, a Tennessee community bank with $4.53 billion in assets.
Indeed, Nashville is emerging as a top-tier American city by staying true to its traditions of hospitality and culture while evolving into an economic powerhouse with global connections. Those international connections became evident when in March 2018, British Airways announced new nonstop service from Nashville to London and subsequently expanded the service from five to seven days a week: it proved to be the airline’s most successful route launch in a decade.
“That’s only a small snippet of what’s store for Nashville,” Chef Maneet Chauhan, a former star on Chopped, who now owns four restaurants in the city. “It is tough to get tickets on that route!”
Nashville International Airport is growing rapidly to keep pace. The BNA Vision plan includes additional parking, a new concourse, more security screening lanes, additional gates and concessions, among them restaurants and retail pulling from some of the city’s most beloved local businesses. “We understand that BNA is often the first and last impression visitors get of our city, and we take that responsibility seriously,” says Shannon Sumrall, a spokesperson for BNA. “BNA Vision will ensure that we can accommodate our growing passenger numbers, all while delivering the same ease and efficiency Nashvillians have come to expect when visiting our airport.”
“We were very fortunate to arrive on the cusp of the growth expansion,” Chauhan says of her 2014 opening of Chauhan Ale & Masala House. “The country and world is taking notice of the growth here. When we first opened Chauhan, we were not sure Indian food was going to work in Nashville.” In 2018, her team opened its fourth Nashville restaurant, Chaatable, which specializes in Indian street food.
Such changes and acceptance are coming as Nashville makes progress in preparing its workforce for the new economy. Two local universities, Fisk and Lipscomb, are launching hospitality studies programs to train workers for careers in lodging, food and beverage, tourism and entertainment. (The multidisciplinary Lipscomb program is scheduled to begin this year.) And it doesn’t hurt that nearly 90 percent of students graduate from high school statewide.
The NCVC’s Spyridon sees three main factors that have contributed to Nashville’s most recent growth spurt and why he, like others, believes that growth is sustainable.
First is the collaborative environment between the local, state and business community which, like the collaborative environment among musicians, raises the quality of projects citywide. Second, Spyridon points out, is the way in which the perception of the Music City brand has broadened over the past 15 years. Nashville has embraced the creative culture, he says, and that is the top of the city’s the newfound success. For example, the much-anticipated National Museum of African American Music is scheduled to open in 2020. “We are focused on protecting creative culture,” he says. “That is not going anywhere.”
Third, while he admits it might sound hokey, Spyridon stresses that Nashville is a warm, inviting city. “Southern hospitality sounds mythical,” he adds. “But it is real, and it has helped us sustain the run.”