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Gaylord Opryland: Comeback of the year

Keith Urban at the Gaylord Opryland grand reopening

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — On the first weekend in May, while their neighbors to the north in Louisville, Ky., were celebrating the Kentucky Derby, residents of Nashville saw epic rainstorms flood the Cumberland River and fill the city with water, severely damaging homes, businesses and a number of tourist attractions. Pete Weien, general manager of the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, had a front-row seat to the disaster.

“When I walked into the hotel, I was completely taken aback,” he said. “It ripped my heart out to see nine to 10 feet of water, with chairs floating everywhere.”

It must have been a devastating sight, but it’s nothing like what you’ll see at the hotel today. In mid-November, just under six months after the flood, the Opryland reopened with massive fanfare, unveiling more than $200 million of repairs and renovations to the iconic resort.

A quick reaction

The day before the waters breached the hotel, Weien oversaw a full-scale evacuation of the property, housing and feeding hundreds of guests in a nearby school gymnasium. Although government officials had not called for evacuation, Weien and company decided to move their guests as a precautionary reaction to all of the rain.

The quick move left the resort’s employees — known internally as “Stars” — to improvise parts of a large-scale disaster response unlike anything they had ever rehearsed.

“Our Stars did a phenomenal job,” Weien said. “It was calm, orderly and organized. Not one guest got their feet wet. No one was injured.”

When they were able to re-enter the property after the rain stopped, Weien and his engineering staff were floored by what they saw. Guiding a group of journalists through the hotel during the November reopening, Weien pointed out the high-water marks in various areas of the hotel: eight feet high in the Delta atrium, up to the bottoms of the awnings above store windows; three and a half feet in the Garden Conservatory, wiping out thousands of square feet of indoor landscaping and two restaurants.

In the three days that followed, work crews pumped more than 71 million gallons of water out of the hotel, then began the seven-week process of remediating the damage.

“Anything that was a porous material had to be removed,” Weien said. “Close to 1,700 roll-off dumpsters were removed from the hotel.”

In addition to the landscaping, the flooding destroyed carpets and other flooring in many parts of the resort, as well as drywall, soft goods and engineering systems. Out of the property’s 2,881 hotel rooms, 117 were extensively damaged.

Once the cleanup was done, the staff undertook a massive rebuilding effort. Several areas, including the Cascades lobby and atrium, were completely redesigned, with new architectural and decorative features. Over the course of the summer, an average of 500 to 800 people worked at the site each day; during the peak of activity, some 1,500 builders were busy inside the hotel.

“We rebuilt this hotel in 195 days,” Weien said. “Today, there are no vestiges of water damage. The hotel doesn’t feel musty, and there’s no construction going on here.”

A grand reopening

Gaylord Opryland reopened the week of Nov. 15 with two new restaurants, extensively reimagined landscaping and renovations to hundreds of hotel rooms, including a wing that was not damaged by flooding.

The staff and local dignitaries marked the occasion with a grand reopening celebration over three days that weekend, wowing those in attendance. The resort invited more than 1,000 meeting planners, journalists, tour operators, travel agents and other VIPs to attend a glamorous event that included the kickoff of the annual “A Country Christmas” celebration and a high-flying opening ceremony.

The grand reopening ceremony featured a full orchestra in white coattails, a gospel choir, cirque-style aerial acrobatics, a parade of employees and an indoor fireworks display, all of which took place in the center of the hotel’s Delta atrium.

After the ceremony, guests proceeded to a gala dinner in the convention center. The evening ended with a 90-minute concert by Keith Urban, a country music superstar who played to a private crowd to celebrate the resort’s reopening. The weekend continued with a guest appearance by celebrity chef Guy Fieri and another private concert with Sheryl Crow.

In addition to the resort, a number of other Gaylord-owned attractions in the area reopened this fall after being extensively damaged in the flood.

The Grand Ole Opry House opened its doors with a star-studded concert in late September after several months of repairs. The renovated building included the signature six-foot section of wood floor that was part of the original stage at Ryman Auditorium, the Opry’s first home in downtown Nashville.

The General Jackson Showboat and Wildhorse Saloon also reopened this fall after being closed for repairs.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.