Two years ago, when the owner of the Opryland Hotel in Nashville decided to expand operations outside its country-music home, company employees ran an office pool to bet on what the new resorts would be named. The odds were overwhelmingly against "Opryland."
But after months of internal debate and discussions with convention planners, officials at Gaylord Entertainment Co. decided that, yes, they would use the Opryland name on a chain of hotel and conference centers planned for the rest of the country.
Some folks might identify the Opryland name with Hank Williams and with Tennessee. But company officials said their target audience--the national conference center and meetings crowd--associated the name with the accommodations at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville and not with guitar-picking country crooners.
"We have a brand that is recognized by a tremendous amount of people," said Terry E. London, Gaylord's chief executive.
Still, Gaylord's announcement last week that its third hotel and conference center outside Nashville would be called the Opryland Hotel Potomac has raised questions about how well the Opryland name carries outside the region that made it famous.
Company officials have said the resort in Prince George's County would have an Americana theme. But the Prince George's Journal newspaper, like many other media outlets, declared that the county "was goin' country" the day after Gaylord announced plans for the Potomac River complex.
Ronald Rust, a marketing professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said the misunderstanding is exactly the trouble he expected Gaylord would encounter when it decided to market itself nationally with the Opryland name.
"What does it mean but there's a hotel name from somewhere else dropped on?" Rust said. The Opryland Hotel in Nashville, the largest hotel-conference complex in the world, "is very, very popular and a very interesting property," he said. "But I don't know how meaningful that is to most people."
John Lechner, senior account manager for Conference and Logistics Consultants Inc. in Annapolis, which organizes meetings for groups, said he is not convinced the Opryland concept works in the Washington area.
"As a meeting planner, I know the product," Lechner said. "Opryland in Nashville is an attraction by itself. But this is a different sell. People come to Washington to see the Smithsonian. Washington is the destination."
Indeed, it's hard to avoid the Gaylord and Opryland names in Nashville, where the company is headquartered. The Nashville Arena was rechristened the Gaylord Entertainment Center last year after the company paid $80 million for the naming rights. The company also owns a golf course, a river showboat, a fleet of water taxis, a saloon, a campground and the historic Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry.
Gaylord Entertainment is a public company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. But it is still largely controlled by the Gaylord family of Oklahoma City, which owns half of the 33 million outstanding shares.
E.K. Gaylord II is chairman of the company his grandfather Edward Gaylord started in Oklahoma City in the early 1920s, when he became publisher of the Daily Oklahoman. The company expanded over the decades, building a media and entertainment dynasty with a hodgepodge of diverse holdings, including a rodeo arena, horse stables, television stations and a Christian music-publishing company.
The Gaylords purchased the Opryland complex in 1983 for $240 million. Gaylord was largely interested in Opryland because of its upstart Nashville Network cable TV operation, which it sold three years ago.
Since then the company has poured millions into expanding the Opryland resort, adding sections to the hotel and building a $200 million entertainment and retail center where a popular theme park once stood. The Opry Mills shopping mall--a joint venture with Arlington-based Mills Corp.--will feature 200 stores, restaurants, an Imax theater and a 24-screen cinema when it opens this spring.
Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, who represented the Opryland resort area in the state legislature for 10 years, said Gaylord has been a good corporate citizen, for the most part.
The company's decision to shut the Opryland USA theme park in 1997 was a blow to the community and drew criticism from civic and political leaders. They blamed a loss of tourism dollars in the area on the closing of the park.
But Purcell said Gaylord learned a valuable lesson about "the need to communicate early and often" about its plans.
Gaylord has been able to expand its conference-center operations by freeing up capital from the sale of some of its TV holdings. The company sold the Nashville Network and Country Music Television cable channels to CBS in 1997 for $1.5 billion. And last year the company sold its CBS affiliate KTVT-TV in Dallas-Fort Worth for $485 million.
Gaylord is developing the Washington area hotel and conference center with Fairfax-based Peterson Cos., which owns 534 acres in Oxon Hill, just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Opryland will be the anchor for the National Harbor resort that developer Milton V. Peterson has planned at the site.
Company officials expect to break ground sometime in 2002 and open the Opryland Hotel Potomac in 2004. Adkinson said the company will spend a year researching the Washington region for ideas to incorporate into two themed atriums.
It expects to hire a design team after the research is completed. Once the company breaks ground, it can begin booking conferences for the center.
Some Prince George's supporters of the project, mindful that past grand plans for the Oxon Hill site never materialized, will be uneasy about the prospects for Opryland until construction actually begins. But hotel officials said the company is fully committed because this is a good time to be in the convention business--convention space at the Opryland Hotel Florida in Orlando, which is scheduled to open in 2002, already has bookings through 2014, for example.
Seventy percent of those bookings are groups that have previously stayed at Gaylord's Nashville hotel. The hotel will be the prototype for all three new properties, which also include the Opryland Hotel Texas outside of Dallas.
The Nashville hotel has 2,884 rooms and 600,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space. The entire nine-acre complex is enclosed under glass and divided into three themed areas: the Cascades, the Magnolia and the Delta. Hotel rooms look out onto the 15-story-high atriums, which are stocked with plants and other landscaping to give the feel of being outdoors. The temperature stays fixed at 71 degrees, and the humidity level remains constant at 55 percent.
Looking out from the second-story porch of Beauregard's, an antebellum-style mansion in the Delta section, David Jones, president of Gaylord's hospitality group, pointed out a nightly laser light and water show at a nearby fountain.
"Where has Washington ever seen anything like this?" he asked.
The Opryland Hotel Potomac will have 2,000 rooms and 400,000 square feet of exhibition space, including two 50,000-square-foot ballrooms. The ballrooms will be large enough to hold, say, a presidential inauguration event, Jones said. "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States," Jones boomed in practice one afternoon in one of the Nashville Opryland ballrooms, visibly enjoying the sound of his voice.
The Nashville complex has 30 specialty retail shops located throughout the three themed areas. They include a Coca-Cola merchandise store and a golf apparel shop. A food court offers pizza slices and hamburgers. The resort also offers a fine Italian restaurant with entrees that cost between $15 and $25, a steakhouse that serves expensive cuts of meat, an upscale diner and a sports bar with stadium seating.
Ed Griffin, president and chief executive for Meeting Planners International, which represents more than 800,000 organizers, said the appeal of a place like the Opryland Hotel is its ability to provide everything in a single location, which saves organizers on transportation costs.
"Time is so valuable," he said. "If everyone is under one roof, you can control the environment and the security and control the costs."
When he thinks of Opryland, he thinks of a hotel with a reputation for "quality service and atmosphere," Griffin said. "It's the kind of reputation that can easily be adapted to other parts of the United States."
CAPTION: Gaylord Entertainment's stern-wheeler the General Jackson launches from the Opryland Hotel in Nashville and offers dinner cruises on the Cumberland River. It also acts as a ferry to get fans to football games across the river.
CAPTION: IN PROFILE: GAYLORD ENTERTAINMENT (This chart was not available)