Last Thursday, officials representing the Omni Hotels chain and Metro government gathered to break ground for the 21-story, 800-room hotel that will be the anchor for the Music City Center. Attendees held forth about the significance of the $250 million project, and about Nashville welcoming for the first time a hotel run by the high-profile Dallas-based operator. A big tent was erected, though it was lost in the shadows of the adjacent convention center site, which Omni will primarily serve. Movers and shakers were in full force. More than 300 attended. A rock band blasted standard fare. All seemed happy.
As expected, Omni officials focus on the positives, noting the building’s expected “silver” status for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the use of primarily local contractors and workers, and the enlisting of nationally known architect HKS Hill Glazier Studio, among other high notes.
“Silver sets a very high standard, and we are excited to work to reach this level,” Caryn Kboudi, Omni Hotels’ vice president of corporate communications, told The City Paper. “It will be one of the largest Silver LEED-certified projects in the hospitality industry.”
Lost in the hoopla of the groundbreaking last week, and to date, is the spotty history of the hospitality industry giant during the past 10 years. Much like any high-profile entity that has thousands of employees and caters to tens of thousands more, Omni has coped with its share of difficulties.
In 2007, several then-current and former employees sued Omni in Louisiana state court seeking damages for exposure to toxic mold. A $4.25 million settlement was reached.
In 2004, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Omni, alleging that it fired hotel manager Mohamed Elmougy because he was Arabic and Muslim, and he had opposed job practices he considered illegal. U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Stickney later ruled that Omni’s actions had nothing to do with the man’s religion but, instead, with his management style. Though Omni was vindicated, the bad press stung the company.
And earlier this year, a woman filed suit against the hotel operator, claiming a bartender at an Omni Hotel in Charlotte, N.C., served her a drink that left her woozy and then raped her.
Kboudi would not discuss the lawsuits, simply noting the company has a strong track record with employee satisfaction.
Although most Omni hotels tend to be financially stable and often highly successful, there have been exceptions. In October 2010, the Omni Hotel Detroit at River Place closed. Michael O’Callaghan, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, said Omni was a victim of bad economic circumstances.
“I don’t think the blame can be placed on Omni,” O’Callaghan said. “Frankly, it was a terrible location. The building is located about three miles east of downtown Detroit, so it’s isolated to begin with.”
During the past three years, downtown Detroit has doubled its hotel inventory, adding three 400-room casino hotels, a Westin and a Doubletree.
When asked if Omni officials could be blamed somewhat for selecting a less-than-ideal location and failing to foresee what became a hotel boom within the city’s central core, O’Callaghan said officials at the hotel operator couldn’t have anticipated both the hotel number increases and the auto industry’s spectacular demise.
The Omni in Norfolk, Va., closed about 11 years ago. During a few years before its demise, the Omni operated as a secondary hotel to a Marriott that anchors Norfolk’s convention center. The former Omni is now a Sheraton.
Some Nashvillians wonder if Omni is prepared to operate in a midsized city as a convention center anchor hotel. The company has numerous hotels located close to convention centers — think of it as a secondary anchor — but its modest number of true anchors are in major U.S. cities.
Originally, Metro officials envisioned a Marriott Marquis for the site. Marriott is well-known for its multiple brands and convention center anchor hotels — more so than Omni.
Michael McCall, chair of the Marketing Department at Ithaca (N.Y.) College and a research fellow with Cornell University’s Center for Hospitality Research, said Omni might face a challenge working as an anchor hotel in Nashville but called the city “a good convention draw.”
“If you have a convention center in a nice area, the probability of success for the anchor hotel rises considerably,” he said
McCall considers Omni a premium hotel brand that will nonetheless face competition from downtown’s Nashville’s numerous well-established hotels.
“The key to success is how they differentiate themselves,” he said.
Kboudi said Omni would do so with its LEED certification, its architecture team and plan to eventually create 300 new full-time jobs, 200 of which the company has guaranteed would be filled by Davidson County residents. Another distinguishing element will be the hotel’s interaction with an expanded Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Hatch Showprint, a Broadway destination for tourists in particular, could have a presence in the development, for example.
“We will work with a number of community organizations to ensure our outreach is extremely strong, letting everyone in the Nashville-Davidson County area know to participate in job fairs and other avenues to be considered for employment,” she said.
In general, Omni earns high marks from both customers and the travel industry entities that rank hotels. The company has reinvented numerous historic properties, drawing praise from preservationists. In 2003, Omni became the first luxury hotel brand to offer complimentary WiFi access. In addition, J.D. Power consistently gives Omni the highest of marks.
Omni bases its optimism on the Nashville project, in part, on its design firm for the project, HKS. Started in 1939 and named for founder Harwood K. Smith, the Dallas-based firm brings an impressive resume to Nashville (where it also has an office). HKS designed the instantly iconic Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, Texas. In addition, the company has designed the The W Hollywood Hotel and Residences in the Los Angeles market.
Many HKS hotels — particularly those in Fort Worth and San Diego — offer exteriors that are cutting edge, while others assume a more understated exterior aesthetic. The Nashville Omni exterior, based on renderings, leans toward the latter, as there is a limited degree of unusual shapes, colors or embellishments — except at street level, where there will be bold forms and materials, as well as multiple spaces for retail shops and restaurants or bars.
When asked her take on the contrasts between exterior designs of various Omnis, Kboudi simply said, “We’ve had some very positive feedback to the design of the Omni Nashville Hotel and believe it will be a great fit for the overall area and also in keeping with the destination.”
With far more accomplishments than problems, Omni seemingly is poised to succeed in Nashville. At Thursday’s groundbreaking, Omni Hotels President Mike Deitemeyer said the company already has about 15,000 bookings (the hotel is slated to open in mid-2013) and commitments for 100,000 more. The company operates hotels in far less sexy locales, and does so effectively, said Ithaca College’s McCall.