Atlanta works on its sales pitch

As head of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, one of William Pate’s jobs is to market the city to tourists, business travelers and conventioneers.

His steps in doing so, however, don’t include relying on a catchy slogan, a slick advertising video or gimmicky promotions.

One year after the end of Brand Atlanta, former Mayor Shirley Franklin’s ambitious push to market the city to a regional and national audience, Pate has picked up the mantle with a more focused, studied approach.

To market Atlanta, he’s gone back to the basics: the marketing 101 pyramid.

First, he said, you start with promotional offers (stay one night in Atlanta, get a free Georgia Aquarium visit). That is followed by messaging about the product (Atlanta has more than 500 Zagat-rated restaurants, for instance).

The final piece is a marketing campaign that puts everything together by describing that Atlanta is, say, a great place for the arts, and then combining that with messages about what arts are offered here followed by promotional discounts.

If the process seems time intensive, it is, he said.

“Branding is a very long-term and expensive proposition,” he said.

Since coining the tag “The City Too Busy To Hate” in the 1970s, Atlanta has been trying to define itself in simple terms. Much like the Big Apple has been able to do with the “I Love New York” campaign or Las Vegas’ “What Happens Here, Stays Here” initiative, Georgia’s capital has been searching for the right words and images to differentiate the city from its peers.

And like many cities, marketing was one of the first things dropped during the recession, said Tim Calkins, a branding expert at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. While leaders know the value of marketing, it is trumped by short-term and immediate needs like paying for police or meeting debt obligations.

“Which is a shame,” he said, “because it’s a missed opportunity. Cities that can brand now will stand out. But cutting branding is a function of the economic reality.”

The effort is crucial to keeping the metro area’s $11 billion hospitality engine running. Cities around the nation are competing harder than ever to attract visitors to pump up revenue.

There are signs that Atlanta has ground to make up. Visitation is down and hotel and motel collections so far this year are off as much as 20 percent. Business travel, which filled rooms during the week, has been curtailed.

Pate has a much smaller marketing bucket to work with. Brand Atlanta eventually raised some $8 million between 2005 and 2006 from corporate and government support, including $1 million from the convention and visitors bureau. The money was used get Atlantans to buy-in, with local advertising, reach out to regional neighbors like Birmingham and Chattanooga and market national cities like Washington. Organizers used radio, the Web, TV and billboards; targeted convention planners; and created awareness with T-shirts, an anthem and new logo.

Pate has $2.9 million for 2010, a pittance by marketing standards. In his former role as an advertising honcho at MCI, he would have spent at least $60 million in the launch of a new product for the telephone giant. For him, a good number for Atlanta would be about $15 million.

A 2006 analysis by Destination Marketing Association International showed Atlanta has had far less direct marketing funding than its rivals: Las Vegas, Orlando and Chicago. Las Vegas had $83 million in 2006; Orlando about $14 million; and Chicago, $7 million. Marketing dollars have fallen in those cities also because of the recession, but observers did not know by how much.

“You do as much marketing as your budget will allow,” he said. “When I was at MCI and I had a half-billion dollar budget, I still didn’t think I had enough money.”

To support the messages to conventioneers, the bureau travels to Washington, Chicago and other major cities several times a year to meet with planners. The “updates,” as the meetings are dubbed, detail what’s new in Atlanta. Metro Atlanta hoteliers, who foot much of the bill, tag along to offer their digs on the spot should the ACVB sway a planner.

“The bureau’s role is critical to the success of a hotel our size,” said Pat Trammell, director of sales and marketing for Hyatt Regency Atlanta, one of the city’s largest convention lodgers. “Although advertising is important, it’s the face-to-face selling opportunities that drives business to Atlanta.”

What Pate feels he does have is a city that continues to improve its destination appeal. New attractions that are expected to open over the next few years include a dolphin exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium, the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the College Football Hall of Fame and a National Health Museum, he said. A pirate museum and Legoland also are being considered for the city.

The city also has its negatives. Convention planners generally praise Atlanta for the Georgia World Congress Center, the ease of getting here via Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and competitive labor costs. But the planners, in a recent Metropoll, gave the city low marks on panhandling, crime and prestige.

Pate said the work ahead includes getting meeting planners who have not been to Atlanta in the past five years to visit. He was encouraged by members of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, who had their annual meeting at the GWCC earlier this month. Those who had not been to the city were wowed, he said, by changes around Centennial Olympic Park, including the aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola and new hotels.

“A lot of marketing is creating momentum,” he said. “People want to go where they feel a lot of things are happening and people are going.”

Tools for branding

There are several routes to branding a city or state, says Tim Calkins, a branding expert from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. The most recognizable are taglines, slogans, nicknames and even songs.

● “Chicago”

● “Georgia on my Mind”

● “New York, New York”

● “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”

● “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”

● “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”

● “I Love L.A.”

● “New York State of Mind”

● “Philadelphia Freedom”

● “Walking in Memphis”

● “Welcome to Atlanta”

● “Sweet Home Alabama”

● “Viva Las Vegas”

● “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”

● “Meet Me in St. Louis”


“Virginia is for Lovers”

“I (heart) New York”

“What Happens in Vegas ...”

“The City Too Busy to Hate”

“Motor City”

“It’s a Capital City, it’s Washington”

“Maryland is for Crabs”


Windy City: Chicago

City by the Bay: San Francisco

The Big Apple: New York City

The Big Easy: New Orleans

The City of Brotherly Love: Philadelphia

City of Angels: Los Angeles

Hotlanta: Atlanta

Beantown: Boston

Motown: Detroit

Tinseltown: Hollywood

Music City USA: Nashville

Sin City: Las Vegas

Mile High City: Denver

Atlanta visitation figures

2005: 36.4 millions

2006: 38 million

2007: 37 million

2008: 35.4 million