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Top-tier convention may leave
Joe Morris

One of Nashville's biggest conventions may be leaving town.

The International Music Products Association says unless Nashville adds more convention space, it will consider another city after its contract with Metro expires in 2002. After a decade in Music City, the association would take away its business, along with 21,000 visitors who spend an estimated $2.5 million during three days.

Tourism officials are listening but may not be able to do much.

"They're one of our best and most loyal customers," says Butch Spyridon, executive vice president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau. "To say that we can't afford to lose them would be an understatement."

The International Music Products Association wants Metro to expand the downtown convention center, but that could be difficult. Metro agreed not to expand the center before 2006 in an agreement hammered out between then-Mayor Phil Bredesen and then-Gaylord Entertainment Co. CEO Bud Wendell in 1996, when the Opryland Hotel began its Delta expansion.

Last year however, Terry London, current Gaylord CEO, approved the Metro Convention Center Commission's move to conduct a feasibility study on convention center expansion/construction. That study indicated a strong need for either or both.

Gaylord is now spending another $70 million to remodel much of the hotel, and officials there say that there is no competition between the two entities for meeting and convention business due to the size and nature of each facility. In addition, any convention center work probably would not begin until the 1996 pact has expired.

The association says without more space, it will have to continue restricting exhibitor attendance at the convention.

"We like being in `Music City USA.' It would be very difficult to leave, but we are obligated to look around and see what the other offers are," says Larry Linkin, president and CEO.

The International Music Products Association has been holding its "Summer Session" in Nashville since 1993. Originally intended to be a small, alternative event to the organization's West Coast conference held every January, the Summer Session has grown significantly every year, and now has completely filled the Nashville Convention Center and spilled into the Gaylord Entertainment Center. Last year it was the city's eighth largest convention, with 15,000 attending, according to the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

NAMM officials, while saying that they love being in Nashville, say at the same time that they're going to have to move the show if the city can't give them more space. Linkin estimates that attendance will reach 21,000 people this year. Of the convention center's 119,000 square feet, it is using 115,000, plus a spillover of 40,000 in the arena.

A study commissioned by the CVB showed a larger convention center would attract more meetings.

"The Opryland Hotel has been a great equalizer to keep us from falling behind, but we are limited in terms of jumping ahead. When Atlanta, San Antonio and Orlando expand their facilities, the market shrinks. It's not that there are bigger shows being done, it's that they can hold two or three at once," Spyridon.

The goal is not to compete with the hotel. In fact, the hotel's success benefits downtown.

"There are conventions that will not or cannot go to the Opryland Hotel for a variety of reasons, just as there are conventions that cannot or will not come downtown due to space limitations.

"It's important for us to look at something that's competitive with the Opryland Hotel, but also enhances Nashville's appeal. We don't need to duplicate ourselves."

Copyright 2000 American City Business Journals Inc

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