By BROOKE WANSER
On Monday morning, a panel of Williamson County hospitality leaders spoke to an audience at Lipscomb University’s Spark idea center in Cool Springs about tourism numbers and offering visitors and locals authentic service.
Visit Franklin President and CEO Ellie Westman Chin led the panel, which included Thompson’s Station distiller Heath Clark and restaurateurs Andy Marshall and Joni Cole.
The panel was part of the monthly FrankTalks series, sponsored by nonprofit community group Franklin Tomorrow.
In 2017, Williamson County saw 1.51 million visitors, a six percent increase over the previous year. Chin noted that the national change was an increase of 2.6 percent.
The county also felt tourism spending through $452.59 million in impact dollars, a 5.9 percent increase over 2016.
The tourism industry employs 3,630 employees, and the county ranked sixth in visitor spending, with Davidson County coming in first.
Each year, citizens save $516 in taxes because of the economic impact tourism dollars have.
Panelist talks building successful brands
A. Marshall Foods founder Andy Marshall spoke about the expansion of his restaurants, which include Puckett’s Gro. and Boat House, Scout’s Pub, Homestead Manor and Deacon’s New South.
After starting with less than a dozen employees, Marshall’s restaurants now employ over 800 people, serving concessions at Nissan Stadium and other venues across the state.
Attorney Heath Clark, the founder of H. Clark Distillery, began distilling after writing legislation to allow alcohol production in the county four years ago.
“It really comes down to hospitality,” Clark said. “What we’ve had to do is figure out why we’re there and express it.”
Joni Cole, the owner of Grays on Main and O’ Be Joyful, also oversees the economic vitality committee of the Downtown Franklin Association.
“We want to raise the level of hospitality,” she said, noting a previous program through Mars Petcare to welcome furry friends on the streets downtown. The Franklin Locals program serves as a concierge service to visitors, to “make them feel like a local,” said Cole.
Beginning with the Leiper’s Fork Puckett’s, which he later sold, Marshall said his original audience has shifted from a majority of locals to more tourists.
His strategy? “Please the locals to get the attention of the tourists,” Marshall said.
Chin asked the panel how they maintain an authentic experience for both residents and visitors.
“It doesn’t matter how many restaurants that we have, if we can’t maintain a culture, what’s the purpose?” Marshall said.
“You want to hire folks that have a spirit of hospitality, that are team players, that really know what it’s like to be a servant,” Cole agreed. “You train, and you mentor that way, so that when you’re not there, they’re representing you.”
In the past decade, Marshall said a shift had occurred as the Nashville area has begun to be known as a “food town.”
Marshall said he takes his chefs on trends tours in different cities each year to learn from other successful restaurateurs; most recently, they traveled to New Orleans.
“I believe if you don’t stay on trend, you hit a peak and you start dying,” he said.
As a small distiller on the 28-location Tennessee Whiskey Trail, Clark said his location in Thompson’s Station is “in the way” for those who might want to visit other distilleries like Jack Daniels.
Clark said they built their experience to be consistent with the “mythology” of whiskey: in a barn, in a small town, “rooted in a place that felt like a place you ought to make whiskey.”
Of course, everything starts with a good product, he added.
Clark was essential in convincing the Tennessee Whiskey Trail to put their headquarters in Franklin, Chin said, which was a top 20 attraction in the state last year.
Marshall said patrons’ good experiences can lead to unintended positive outcomes, like national media exposure.
“All these things become bigger than who you are,” he said, and the locals appreciate the business even more.
“It’s about relationship,” said Cole, who also noted how connections are made with the media. “All of this raises our level of hospitality,” she said.
On the Table
Franklin Tomorrow leader Mary Lee Bennett also reminded the group about On the Table, a community-wide initiative to spur conversation, which will kick off on Tuesday, October 30 at the Breakfast with the Mayors event.
To learn more about that event, visit www.franklintomorrow.org/onthetable.