For Marriott’s Gaylord brand, bigger really is better

Capacious is a good if not a completely representative way to describe a Gaylord hotel. There are five of them currently operating across the U.S., one in Nashville (Gaylord Opryland), one just on the perimeter of Washington, D.C. (Gaylord National), one in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area (Gaylord Texan), one just south of Orlando (Gaylord Palms) and one just east of Denver (Gaylord Rockies). One will open in Chula Vista (Gaylord Pacific), seven miles from downtown San Diego, in 2025. 

These are spacious hotels, convention hotels, ones that host association events, like the Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC, which was held at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in March of this year. Other events that have been held at Gaylord National include the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, staged there since 2011, and MLB’s Winter Meetings.  

Consider Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center. Beyond its almost 3,000 guestrooms, it has 86 event rooms with total event space of more than 750,000 square feet, which, for perspective, is around 13 football fields or 160 basketball courts. That’s a lot of Hail Mary passes and half-court shots. (Navigating a Gaylord property is, understandably, not easy. At the beginning of this year, Gaylord introduced a wayfinding app that offers step-by-step directions to rooms, meeting areas, restrooms, fitness center, pools and other areas of the hotel.)  

The Delta Atrium at Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville.


It’s a lot of space to fill and the COVID-19 pandemic did it no service, but it also presented opportunity. Looking after these five properties with one on the way is John Adams, who, while sharing a name with a Founding Father, is VP and managing director of Gaylord Hotels at Marriott International, which acquired the brand and management contracts in 2012 for roughly $210 million in cash. The five properties are owned by Ryman Hospitality Properties, a real estate investment trust based in Nashville. (Gaylord Pacific is being developed and owned by Houston-based RIDA Development Corporation.) 

“The pandemic presented an opportunity for us as much as it was a tremendous challenge,” said Adams, who at one point in his career was GM of the Opryland property. “We saw the opportunity to dive in headfirst on some things that were planned, but not yet executed relative to expansion.” 

By the second quarter of 2020, four of five Gaylord properties were completely shut down, but it gave Marriott and Ryman the opportunity to execute renovations and other CapEx expenditures. They pressed forward completing a $158-million expansion of Gaylord Palms, adding 302 new guestrooms and 96,000 square feet of new meeting space to complement the existing 400,000-square-foot convention center.  

It wasn’t all just business; introduced was the Crystal River Rapids water attraction, part of the Cypress Springs Water Park. “It brought added incentive for group and leisure guests to the hotel during what was a very difficult time,” Adams said. (The Gaylord brand’s assortment of outdoor water experiences allowed them to reopen hotels to leisure guests fairly quickly amid the pandemic. “If you think back to the onset of the pandemic and the first summer, people were ready to get outside and have some fun,” Adams said.) 

Up north, outside D.C., Gaylord National pressed on with a $64-million redesign of all 1.996 guestrooms, which now sport a new look more respective of the capital region, Adams said. This is in addition to a major exterior enhancement done to Gaylord Rockies.  

Work performed on these hotels is the amuse-gueule to what will be the 2025 opening of Gaylord Pacific, in Chula Vista, Calif., a $1.3-billion project that Adams said is around 30% complete and called a “game-changer.” One distinction it will have from its sibling properties will be the amount of activated outdoor space to take advantage of the pleasant weather and water views. 

The Sequoia Presidential Suite at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.


That’ll be six Gaylord properties once Pacific is complete, totaling more than 11,000 guestrooms. The bulk of those rooms are typically occupied by convention-goers or groups, two traveling cohorts that were down and out during the onset of the pandemic but are now making their way back. The business, Adams said, is coming back, but it has a different look. “Short-term demand is a real change in the industry as companies come back and begin to plan meetings,” he said, “and we’ve had to respond to that.” 

Consider the usual time frame for a large meeting or conference. A group might plan the details of the program six months or a year out—all movements, content, menus and more. Now, that timeframe is compressed. “We have to address that with our team and shift our processes,” Adams said.  

To help deal with the change, Gaylord has done things like adding more sales resources. 

During Ryman’s first-quarter earnings call, the company laid out numbers that spoke to both the fragile operating environment, but also the strong comeback and bright future, especially on the group business side.  

For the quarter, Ryman’s hospitality portfolio, which beyond the Gaylord properties includes the AC Hotel National Harbor and a small overflow hotel in Nashville called the Inn at Opryland, achieved 72.3% occupancy and first-quarter records for group transient and total ADR, as well. ADR and RevPAR posted over 18% growth compared to the first quarter of 2019 and total RevPAR grew 24.5%. By segment, group ADR was up 12.7% and transient ADR was up 39.3%, both compared to the first quarter of 2019. These were new all-time first-quarter records for ADR. 

Ancillary revenue helped boost the bottom line, as “group outside-the-room spend truly shined,” said Mark Fioravanti, president, CEO and director of Ryman Hospitality Properties. In total, food and beverage revenue grew over $44 million or 26% compared to the first quarter of 2019. 

Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center, in Aurora, Colo., features an outdoor water park with a winding lazy river.

In the quarter, more than 348,000 gross group room nights were booked. “We continue to prioritize ADR in our sales production to capitalize on the favorable supply-demand backdrop in our space,” Fioravanti said. First-quarter ADR across all new group bookings was an all-time high of $252 and up 9% to the first quarter of 2022 and 23% to the first quarter of 2019.  

The future looks sunny, according to executives. “If you look at our mix for the remainder of this year, it’s pretty similar to what we saw in 2022, a little bit heavier mix of corporate versus association. If you look at what’s on the books for 2024, there is a pretty material increase in the amount of corporate on the books, which we see as a very good sign, because of the opportunities that creates for us on the banquet side of the house,” said Patrick Chaffin, EVP and COO of Ryman Hospitality Properties.  

And it literally takes a village to make these substantial boxes run. Gaylord employees, known internally as “stars,” number 9,000 across the five properties. Adams calls them “difference makers.”  

In January 2021, when occupancy was at a low, instead of cutting stars, Gaylord started hiring. “We went on the offense and started rebuilding our teams because we knew that when things came back, especially groups, we had to have people there to rebook meetings and plan them,” Adams said. “Just because you’re in a pandemic, it doesn’t mean you’re not planning.”