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Niche Nuptials

The Central Station Hotel in Memphis, and the Harpeth Hotel in Franklin, Tenn., are more than 200 miles apart, but they share common strategies when it comes to making a splash in their respective cities for weddings. Both boutique properties opened in late 2019, and debuted in highly competitive wedding markets. 

(BELOW) One of the tabletop trends observed by Kimberly Elder at the Harpeth Hotel prior to the coronavirus shutdown was the use of thinner velvet table linen (pictured), adding a textured touch to traditional wedding setups. Photo courtesy Harpeth Hotel

Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily shut down their wedding, catering, events and F&B operations, but both hotels remain open for overnight guests. Here, catering professionals at each property offer tips for making an impact through well-defined points of difference that worked before the coronavirus shutdown; and should continue to be successful once weddings return.

Food flexibility

The Harpeth can host weddings up to 225 people and offers an extensive catering menu for clients, but they also go one step further by recreating a couple’s favorite childhood foods using original recipes if available. 

“Couples today want something special from their past, such as family recipes and/or favorite local dishes, which is why we create custom menus featuring foods closer to home, which, here in Tennessee, can be items like shrimp and grits, biscuits, jam, marmalades, and country and smoked meats,” says Kimberly Elder, director of sales at the Harpeth.

Custom cocktails are another differentiator defining the Harpeth’s wedding identity—particularly in spirits-heavy Tennessee—since “couples here want two separate cocktails passed at the beginning of the reception and on display at the bar that distinguish each of them. One of our first weddings had a bride requesting a Blackberry Smash signature drink, which had bourbon, lemon, simple syrup, mint and blackberry. The groom countered with a signature Old Fashioned, made with bourbon, orange and Demerara sugar,” notes Will Friedrichs, director of F&B at the Harpeth.   

Couples today also want to know the origin of ingredients on their wedding menu. While farm-to-table is nothing new, the Harpeth further refines that factor by highlighting every farm, ranch, and artisan providing ingredients for menus, many of which are familiar names to local couples. For example, the Harpeth lists 13 nearby farms, coffee roasters, dairies, bakeries, and more on the back of its catering menu for reference, then communicates those sources verbally to couples during tastings, which can help reinforce their choices and build trust in the hotel.

One way to build wedding business from scratch, according to Helen Nelson at Central Station Hotel in Memphis, is to offer locations with a backstory, like Central Station’s Grand Hall, which is a renovated train station built in 1914, and includes the original arrivals/departures board overlooking the room. Photo courtesy Central Station Hotel.

Unique spaces

Central Station was originally built in 1914 as the main train station in Memphis, where it was the city’s rail travel hub for decades. During its recent transformation into a hotel, every historic element of the building was preserved, including what used to be the main waiting area for train passengers, now called the Grand Hall. The 6,000-square-foot event space is highlighted by the original, fully restored arrivals/departures board as the centerpiece of the room, giving it a historic point of reference, and appealing to couples looking for a story to tell about their wedding venue.

“We also have several unique spaces in and around the hotel that serve as a great backdrop for wedding pictures,” says Helen Nelson, director of sales and marketing at Central Station. “One favorite is our lobby speaker wall. It is a collection of antique speakers pieced together like Tetris or a puzzle, that cover the entire wall. Nobody else in Memphis has it.”

At the Harpeth, niche spaces for wedding photos are also a differentiator when competing for wedding business. 

“We have a vast number of locations for wedding photographs, including our outdoor courtyard with Juliet balconies, our library, or our private lounge Willow Plunge within the lobby,” says Elder, adding that micro-niche elements within the hotel, “like our boxwood bistro walls have also been popular, with champagne glasses on display for guests to take off the wall upon arrival at a reception.”

Niche spaces like this Juliet balcony overlooking the Harpeth Hotel’s interior courtyard help attract couples looking for unique wedding photo locations. Photo courtesy Harpeth Hotel.

Those without an abundance of unique onsite spaces for wedding photos should look outside their venues for inspiration from nearby nature or landmarks, according to Elder, and incorporate those locations into their wedding program story.  

Wishes granted

While Central Station offers the Grand Hall as its one-of-a-kind wedding space in Memphis for receptions up to 500 people, Nelson says any idea couples have to customize their wedding should be assessed to encourage new business and build positive word-of-mouth among clientele. For example, the first wedding held at Central Station was “Game of Thrones” themed—a long way from the hotel’s historic train station story.

“Make it known you are not confined to tradition,” says Nelson. “We always try to customize and cater to each couple’s needs, so they don’t feel confined to a specific box. We encourage creativity and flair. This is their dream event, so we should be able to bring it to life.”

Those at both hotels say traditional weddings and receptions are well within their capabilities, but to build wedding business from scratch, every couple’s wishes should be considered, and perhaps just as important, that wedding and catering staffs are skilled, flexible and nimble enough to make those wishes a reality. While the COVID-19 pandemic keeps weddings at bay, now is a good time to expand wedding program strategies to include non-traditional wedding requests for when business reopens.

“Make it known you are not confined to tradition,” says Central Station’s Helen Nelson. “We always try to customize and cater to each couple’s needs, so they don’t feel confined to a specific box.” Photo courtesy Central Station Hotel.


Michael Costa


Michael Costa is the former editorial director of Hotel F&B magazine, covering the business of catering, restaurants, and bars for 12 years. During his time at Hotel F&B, he guided the publication to six FOLIO: magazine Eddie awards. Before joining Hotel F&B in 2007, Michael attended culinary school at the Illinois Institute of Art while working in the kitchen and in F&B purchasing at the 1,218-room Sheraton Grand Chicago. Prior to that, he worked for six years in TV news as a reporter at network affiliates around the country. Michael is a journalism graduate of Columbia College in Chicago.