Former ACVB President and CEO Spurgeon Richardson, seen here with former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, shepherded the city’s tourism through many great moments, including the 1996 Summer Olympics and the opening of the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s biggest fish tank.

Family of Spurgeon Richardson, longtime ACVB leader, to receive visitors Wednesday 

UPDATE: The family of Spurgeon Richardson will receive visitors from 4:30 p.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday at H.M. Patterson & Son-Oglethorpe Hill Chapel in Brookhaven. A celebration of life service is planned for 10:30 a.m. Oct. 24 in the Peachtree Presbyterian Church sanctuary, with a reception to follow in the Williams Center. 

In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to Rotary Club of Atlanta’s initiative to end polio, American Society of Hematology’s Greatest Needs Fund to help cure blood-related cancers or The Salvation Army. 

ORIGINAL STORY: There were several times in the last 30 or so years when Atlanta, struggling a bit with its direction as a tourism and business destination, needed a leader.

While the capital of Georgia has had great successes with the 1996 Summer Olympics, the opening of the world’s largest aquarium and an international exhibit that brought pieces from the Louvre to the High Museum, it also has faced problems with downtown panhandling and attractions that weren’t maximizing tourist foot traffic.

Spurgeon Richardson

Enter Spurgeon Richardson. While president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau for almost two decades, Richardson chased away doubts that Atlanta was anything less than one of the nation’s shiniest destination jewels. 

He knew that if the city was not living up to its potential on Monday, that would change on Tuesday because of its rich cultural assets and the people who make Atlanta great.

“We’re sitting on a ham sandwich starving to death,” he was fond of saying.

Richardson died Friday after a battle with mantle cell lymphoma. He was 78. Arrangements have not been finalized, including a funeral home.

“Spurgeon was a servant leader who embodied hospitality,” said William Pate, who succeeded Richardson after he retired from the ACVB in 2008. “He loved our city, and it’s not an exaggeration to say he built the hospitality industry in Atlanta. Spurge was a very dear friend and colleague, and we are going to miss his wit and wisdom.”

A graduate of the University of Georgia with a degree in marketing, Richardson, who was raised in Edison, Ga., initially made his mark on Atlanta as the longtime president and CEO of Six Flags Over Georgia. But after turning 50 in 1991, he was convinced that if he was ever going to do something different, he had to do it then, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview at the time of his retirement.

He jumped ship to the ACVB and led the group for the next 17 years. For his efforts, he has been inducted into the Atlanta Hospitality Hall of Fame, Destinations International’s Hall of Fame and in 2018 the U.S. Travel Association’s Hall of Leaders.

In announcing Richardson’s induction to the Travel Association’s Hall, the group’s president and CEO Roger Dow called Richardson a visionary who recognized travel’s ability to bring people together.

“He pioneered the promotion of travel via the then-new internet, and also the marketing of his destination to a broad array of demographic groups — which served to elevate both the cultural and business environment of Atlanta,” Dow said. “Either of those achievements is remarkable on its own, with those practices having become standard across the industry — and the fact that Spurge can lay claim to both is extraordinary.”

Erica Qualls-Battey, general manager of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, said she was devastated to hear of Richardson’s passing. He was a giant in the industry who took her under his wing when she came to Atlanta and helped her achieve goals many thought would were not possible.

“What I loved about his leadership was that Spurge made everyone feel welcome,” she said. “He made people feel like they could do anything. He was a champion of diversity and inclusion. He was also a champion of growing people to reach their full potential.”

Steve Robinson, the former chief marketing officer of Chick-fil-A, echoed Battey’s assessment. Richardson hired Robinson during his tenure at Six Flags, eventually naming him director of marketing at age 28.

“He was a tremendous coach and mentor to me,” Robinson said. “He was great empowerer of talent. If he trusted you, he’d let you go and give you tremendous freedom.”

In 1980, Robinson made the decision to leave Six Flags for Chick-fil-A, a decision he worried about telling Richardson because of all he had done for him. But Richardson cheered him on, telling Robinson that his talent was bigger than one organization.

“He said, ‘I’ll miss ya and we’ll miss ya, but you need to go do it,’ ” Robinson recalled. “I wouldn’t have had the chance to hone my marketing skills if it weren’t for Spurge.”

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