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April Largent had been front desk agent at the Moxy Nashville Downtown for about two months when she relieved the night auditor just before dawn on Christmas Day.
She was expecting the building engineer and a couple other staff members to join her later in the morning to serve the hotel’s 25 guests. Also planning to come in later was Assistant General Manager Brendan Klemensic, who also started his job in October.
The day turned out to be anything but normal as catastrophe struck, forcing April to shelter in place with guests as Brendan tried to figure out a way to get through police barricades to reach the hotel.
The 168-room Moxy Nashville Downtown opened in mid-2019 in The District, a neighborhood known for its museums, honky-tonks, restaurants and retail stores that cater to tourists. The hotel is across the street from the Johnny Cash Museum and Café and next to Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk Rock N’ Roll Steakhouse.
April was tending to paperwork when the six large windows at the front of the hotel began to vibrate. Suddenly, she felt the blast and the sliding glass entrance door was knocked off its track.
“I heard a bang that kind of went window by window and then it swung open our front doors. Our side doors, it swung them open. And then once that happened, it was a big bang, really. And it echoed throughout the streets.”
At first, she thought someone was banging on the windows as they walked past. Then she thought it was a tornado, remembering the news of the funnel that damaged Nashville in March.
She stepped outside and saw police cars parked a little more than a block away. (Police had responded earlier to reports of gunfire in the area and were on the scene when the bomb exploded.) Minutes later, April watched fire trucks and an ambulance arrive.
The Moxy Nashville Downtown is a little more than one block west of where a bomb exploded on Christmas Day, shutting down the area and stranding guests and employees for more than a day. Daniel Hospitality Group in Eddyville, Kentucky, owns the hotel. (Photo: Marriott International)
Occupancy at the hotel was sparse given the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that it was Christmas Day. One guest called down to the front desk to ask about the bang, but April had no information to share.
Two couples who were guests had just come in a side door which was forced open by the blast. One of the women was “frantic,” April said. All she could do at the moment was ask if guests were unharmed and assure them they were safe.
Soon after, guests began to come to the lobby. One man said he was at the window of his room taking a photo of the sun coming up over Nashville when the explosion knocked him to the floor. “He’s a big guy,” April said.
Several guests were ready to check out.
But one thing was becoming clear, no one was going anywhere.
Most of the guests had parked their cars in the garage next to the hotel. It was now considered part of the crime scene so they could not enter the garage or move their vehicles.
Meantime, in the back of April’s mind was the realization that this might not be over; that there might be another explosion somewhere else.
She kept that thought to herself.
April, 23, had worked for two other hotels as a front desk agent and a concierge before coming to Nashville.
“You always have to keep your cool because if I’m the only person in the hotel, I can’t be the one freaking out. I have to make sure to keep my calm. I can’t show that I was scared or anything.”
The Moxy Nashville Downtown opened in August 2019 in The District, a neighborhood with museums, restaurants, honky-tonks and retail stores that cater to tourists. The front desk doubles as a bar. In downtown Nashville, most establishments can serve alcoholic beverages starting at 8 a.m. (Photo: Marriott International)
Moxy is a select-service brand by Marriott International and, given the low occupancy, there wasn’t much food on hand to feed guests. But drinks were in good supply.
In Nashville, establishments can begin to serve alcohol at 8 a.m. At the hotel, the bar doubles as a front desk. So April helped guests make the best of it, serving coffee, soda and cocktails as they waited for more information and to find out when they could leave the premises.
She also continued to try to reach the hotel’s managers.
The bomb went off in front of an AT&T transmission station and knocked out cell phone and internet services. Electrical grid and natural gas lines also were damaged.
Before she lost cell service completely, April was able to reach Brendan Klemensic, the assistant general manager who lives about 10 miles from the hotel.
Brendan, also 23, said the sound of the explosion woke him. Minutes later he answered April’s call. He told her that maybe it was thunder, considering they both heard the bang. When the call ended, he began to search online for information.
“So now I’m fully awake. I’m like searching stuff, trying to figure it out. I’m like, ‘Wait, this is like actually for real. This is not just thunder. Everything’s not fine right now.’”
Though he wasn’t scheduled to start until later in that afternoon, Brendan did not want to leave April on her own during the crisis.
But his decision to go to the hotel was not easy to execute.
“That was a whole ordeal because by the time I got [to the hotel] they had every single street blocked off.”
Brendan parked his car away from the scene and began to walk to the hotel. “As soon as I got close, the cops were like, ‘Whoa, what are you doing?’”
Brendan put his hands in the air and began to explain that he worked at a hotel nearby. He said April, the one and only person on staff, had been there for nearly 12 hours and he needed to relieve her. “I said, ‘I’m a manager here. You got to let me in.’ But they said, ‘No, no one’s allowed past here.’
At around that same time, a special law-enforcement agent was walking past the hotel and April stopped her and explained that Brendan was trying to get through the barricade. The agent told the officers to check Brendan’s car and credentials and allow him through.
“This was now like two hours after I tried the first time for them to let me in,” he said. So I went in and was able to get April out.”
“Then, basically I was like, ‘Well, since I’m in, I’m not coming out until they finally opened things up.”
Brendan stayed through the night and spent his time getting to know his guests a lot better than he would during a normal workday.
“I enjoyed it in a way,” he said. “I try to put it in the point of view as if I was the guest, how would I want to be treated?”
After some time, the guests began to joke that they were part of a reality TV show. They named it “Stuck at the Moxy.” Brendan was working when they went to bed and he was there the next morning as police were still not allowing any staff to come to work or the guests to leave in their cars out of concern the tires would destroy evidence.
April did not have a problem getting home, and she found a special agent who allowed her back in the next day to relieve Brendan and to continue to serve the stranded guests.
She said the experience reminded her that practicing the fundamentals of hospitality is what matters in times of crisis.
“Anything can happen at any moment,” she said. “I just need to make sure I’m always giving my best to my guests and I’m always there for them. I’m glad I was able to treat everyone like a friend and assist them in any way that I could.”
April’s dedication has been recognized. Phil Elton, general manager, posted on LinkedIn praise for his newest employee. “April single-handedly took care of all of the guests during this incredibly trying situation,” he wrote. “The guests have sung April’s praise since and I feel she really deserves some appreciation from the hospitality community. She could have just ran away crying but instead showed the true heart of hospitality.”
Resources and Links
More than 1,700 hotels in the U.S. closed in spring 2020 at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. At the end of August, 1,200 were closed, reported Kalibri Labs. Meantime, 840 new hotels opened last year and 900 are on track to open this year, according to Lodging Econometrics. Episode 337 of Lodging Leaders explores the challenges owners faced in reopening closed hotels as well as what owners and operators did to ramp up business at hotels that were at such low levels of occupancy, they might as well have been closed. We also feature owners who opened new properties during the pandemic. One owner we interviewed opened two new hotels while doing what it took to keep his existing properties in business. This report is part of our ongoing coverage of the coronavirus crisis and its impact on the hospitality industry.
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