May was not a kind month to the city of Nashville—or to its iconic meeting venue, the Gaylord Opryland. The storms that flooded the downtown area and caused an estimated $1 billion in damage left 800,000 square feet of the hotel and conference center under water. Six months, 300,000 lost room nights, and $225 million in renovations later, the Gaylord Opryland finally reopened November 15. We asked David Kloeppel, president and chief operating officer for Opryland’s parent company, Gaylord Entertainment, about the process of getting the company’s 2,881-room star back in business.

CMI: When did you realize that the flooding would put Opryland out of commission?

Kloeppel: For a few days we didn’t know how significant the impact would be because we couldn’t get access to the hotel. When we did, seeing 10 feet of water inside the hotel was quite a surreal experience.

There was a great deal of uncertainty about how long we might be closed at first. We gave all the employees full pay and full benefits for about six weeks, by which time we thought we’d know how long we’d be closed.

We hired a nationally recognized remediation firm to help us get the water out and stabilize the hotel’s air quality. We were able to pull in a general contractor who knows the hotel well, and electrical and HVAC contractors who were part of the hotel’s original build, so we were able to diagnose what might be wrong before we had access to the hotel based on their knowledge. Once we got the water out of the hotel, we got into repair mode.

We had to lay off about 1,700 people who weren’t in critical roles for recovering the hotel. We paid them another two weeks, so they were paid for eight weeks after the flood, and we carried their medical benefits through the end of September, which was our anticipated rehiring date. We kept about 900 employees in critical areas, such as reservations, security, horticulture, and engineering. We have now rehired about 80 percent of the 1,700 we laid off.

CMI: How bad was the damage?

Kloeppel: The good news is that only about 100 hotel rooms were damaged. The bad new is that the power plant and much of the infrastructure was under water. The exhibition halls also were flooded, as was a small set of meeting rooms. The rest of the damage was in the public spaces, including several restaurants.

Once we knew we were going to be closed for six months, we also took the opportunity to renovate another 600 rooms, upgrade our lobby to a new look and feel, and upgrade our infrastructure to drive down our overall power use. The total cost for repairs and renovations, including the Grand Ole Opry House, was about $225 million.

CMI: How did you handle group cancellations?

Kloeppel: We immediately called every customer with a meeting planned within 90 days of the flood to cancel and relocate them. A few weeks later, once we understood how long we’d be closed, we extended that to six months. Our position was that, since we couldn’t assure them that we’d be open, we’d relieve them of any contractual agreement they had with us. Our team worked incredibly hard to relocate those meetings into other facilities in Nashville, or into our other three hotels, if possible. While we haven’t disclosed the dollar value of the meeting business we lost, it was 300,000 room nights—so it was significant.

CMI: How is future group business?

Kloeppel: Group bookings are coming along quite well—we have our first group booked for the same week as the reopening. 2011 is shaping up to be a good year, and 2012 an even better year. As we’re taking meeting planners through the hotel now, their reaction has been tremendously positive. It’s a new Opryland and a new Nashville.

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