Going easy on down-home flavor

Sun Journal

Opryland: The hotel- convention center to be built outside Washington will cater to the Brooks Brothers crowd, not the Garth Brooks crowd.

February 21, 2000|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Grand Ole Opry meets the Grand Old Party. The one name that symbolizes country music past and present -- Opryland -- is joining Washington, the one name that symbolizes politics past and present.

Gaylord Entertainment, the company that owns the Grand Ole Opry and Opryland Hotel in Nashville, plans to open a 2,000-room hotel-convention center in Prince George's County, south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on 40 acres in Oxon Hill. At a cost of $560 million, the new Opryland Hotel is expected to open in 2004.

The original Opryland Hotel in Nashville, with its 2,884 rooms and 600,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space, is considered the world's largest hotel-conference center. With Opryland hotels and convention centers also planned in central Florida and Texas, the Maryland location represents another addition in Gaylord's growing stable of behemoth properties.

Despite its Maryland address, the Opryland Hotel Potomac clearly has its sights on the nation's capital.

"I'll offend someone somewhere. Yes, the hotel is in Prince George's County, but it will be known as Washington's," says Dan Mobley, president of the Washington D.C. Convention and Visitors Association.

On the surface, an Opryland hotel outside the nation's capital seems like a cultural mismatch. "Opryland" conjures up names such as Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn. Coat-and-tie, inside-the-Beltway Washington conjures up names such as Monica Lewinsky and Cokie Roberts. In short, "Opryland" doesn't sound East Coast.

"Unfortunately, there's this connotation of the Deep South," says Emily Vetter of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C. "People were wondering whether the hotel was going to have plantation columns or something."

But throughout the deal, Gaylord Entertainment officials have made it clear that Opryland Hotels are not theme complexes. The hotels exist to serve business groups often requiring considerable meeting space and all the accommodations a convention traveler needs in one location, says company spokesman Tom Adkinson.

"Country music is not something we turn our backs on, but it's not something we use to drive the message of the hotel," he says. The presence of country-music memorabilia and merchandise will be minimal at the new hotel. "It is not a shrine to a particular kind of music."

In other words, guests of Opryland Hotel Potomac won't be able to buy a Minnie Pearl price-tagged hat or a pen-and-ink sketch of Vince Gill or Trisha Yearwood. No tickets to the Grand Ole Opry will be on sale in the lobby. "It will not live down to the stereotype," Adkinson says.

Naming the new hotel did give the company pause. How would the name Opryland play outside Nashville, aka "Music City"? Company employees ran an office pool, Adkinson says, to bet on what the new resorts would be called. Many insiders thought "Opryland" would be dropped from the names of the hotels planned outside Nashville.

But after surveying hundreds of guests, the company decided that although "Opryland" obviously connotes country music, the name also means convention centers. Gaylord Entertainment could be the Walt Disney of convention centers -- makers of enclosed, climate-controlled, self-contained cities, with strong name-brand identity and a worldwide business reputation.

"This is what they sell," Mobley says about Gaylord Entertainment. "Those boys are smart down there."

Down there in Nashville, a visitor to Opryland Hotel is struck less with the limited country music merchandise and exhibits than with the labyrinthine business of finding one's room after check-in.

The complex has undergone three major expansions since its first 600 rooms opened in 1977. The result is enough room for 1,500 trade-show booths, three indoor gardens and a river running through it. The complex is under glass, and the temperature is always 71 degrees with the humidity fixed at 55 percent. Bass, fat catfish and goldfish swagger in the relatively new Delta section, where the river flatboats dock.

The result of the expansions has also created a maze for the just-arrived guest. The gardens are verdant, and the temperature is pleasant, but where's the $215-a-night room? "It's a day-in, day-out operational challenge," Adkinson says.

The hotel provides guests individualized directions to their rooms. Simple enough:

1. Take the path in the center of the Cascades garden (over the water).

2. Turn left at the souvenir cart.

3. Go through the glass doorways and turn right. Take the elevator (E) on your right to level 1.

4. Make a right out of the elevator (go to the end of the hallway) and turn left at the golf shop.

5. Make a right into the Veranda building, just past the ATM machine.

6. Take the elevator (H) to level 3.

It's not surprising then to see the occasional guest wandering the vast Opryland Hotel, muttering, "Where am I?" It's also not a shock to find the occasional guest who escapes the complex to grab a beer across the highway at the Nashville Palace lounge and music hall.

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