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Putting out the welcome mat Featured

6:36am EDT November 30, 2004
"Y'all come back."

Those are three words you will never hear from New York City, and they are the reason Atlanta has become one of the top destinations for conventioneers.

"As we like to say, 'We're Atlanta, and you're invited,'" says Spurgeon Richardson, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, the agency which, according to its Web site, "serves as the liaison between meeting planners, tour operators and individuals and its 1,167 member organizations that provide necessary ingredients for a successful vacation, meeting or convention."

"This is my 13th year at the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau," Richardson says. "We still need to educate people on the importance of tourism and the fact that tourism is economic development.

"I spent 25 years at Six Flags. Half of that was running the marketing department and the other half of it was being general manager and president over Six Flags Over Georgia. That did several things. I learned how to market, I learned how to sell, I learned how to manage and I learned how to communicate.

"When you learn those skills, I think you can transform those skills into just about any organization that comes to mind."

Smart Business spoke with Richardson about how he brought those leadership skills to his role as president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.

How does the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau enhance Atlanta and the surrounding region?

My mission is to bring business, tourists, meetings and conventions to the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia. Our job is to work with the state, to work with the city, to work with the metro area to bring in as many meetings as we can and to bring in as many tourists as we can.

I really believe working regionally is important and is going to continue to be important. We work, for example, with New Orleans and Nashville on a big tradeshow that we will do in December, where we will bring meeting professionals and travel planners from Europe and Latin America to the South. What we do is try to sell them on the entire region, which I think is real, real important.

Why is that so important to the region?

On a state tourism level, for example, we've seen numbers that say for every dollar that the state of Georgia invests in tourism, we get a $7.63 return, and they get that in a 90-day period of time. I think that proves the point that tourism is economic development, and for every dollar you spend on tourist development, you are going to get a really good return on your investment.

As I like to say, we are the economic driver in our community. I think that was really brought home after 9/11. After 9/11, when you went to the airport, there was nobody in the airport, there's nobody riding in the cabs and there wasn't anything for the baggage people to do, and people really began to understand our industry, more so than they ever had so before.

When you see a conventioneer come into town, that conventioneer normally is going to spend approximately two-and-a-half to three days and will spend more than $1,000. It adds up real quickly; it's a tremendous economic impact on our community, on our state and, really, on our region.

Last year (the 20-county) Atlanta (area) had almost 19 million visitors. Tourism expenditures in 2003 were something like $8.75 billion.

What can Atlanta do to make sure it keeps getting its fair share of conventions?

When I took this job in 1991, there were six or seven cities in the country that could accommodate big, citywide meetings, where you need to use two or three hotels and a convention center. Today, there are more than 25.

What you're seeing is a tremendous increase in the supply of convention centers, and demand has been rather flat. That has led to really tough, tough competition. We have to compete, more so today than we've ever had to compete before. The No. 1 thing meetings and convention (planners) want us to do is help them grow attendance to their meetings and conventions.

It's competitive not only for meetings and conventions but also it's very competitive to get special events here. We've hosted practically every major special event that I can think of -- two Super Bowls, men's Final Four, women's Final Four, All-Star baseball games, NHL hockey games and the NBA All-Star game. There are a lot of cities out there that would like to host these events.

We had the greatest meeting of all time in Atlanta, Georgia, called the 1996 Olympics, where people from around the world came to our city. The Olympics, by the way, were very, very special because they really put Atlanta on the international map. No longer did we have to worry about people around the world (not) knowing about Atlanta, Georgia.

They knew about Atlanta, Georgia. Before the Olympics, when I traveled to London or Paris or a place like that, I would say I'm from Atlanta, Georgia. They would say, gambling, gambling. I'd say, no that's Atlantic City. Atlanta, Georgia: the home of Coca-Cola, the home of Delta Airlines, the home of CNN, the home of Home Depot, the home of UPS.

Now they know. Now we're on the map, and we have an opportunity to take an advantage of that.

How has that changed the country's view of Atlanta?

When you look at Atlanta as a meeting and convention city, we're one of the four or five top meeting and convention cities in the country. We've got a great package, and that package starts with the airport. We're blessed to have the Atlanta International Airport. Eighty percent of the people in this country can get to Atlanta in less than two hours.

If you want to conduct business in the city, you won't find a better package than you find in Atlanta, Georgia. The thing that we need to work on is our leisure business. We're not known as a leisure vacation destination, like an Orlando or San Diego, for example.

We feel like, in the next three to five years, that that is really going to change, because with the exception of Las Vegas, we've got more construction going on in Atlanta, Georgia, than any other city in the country. We've got a fifth runway that's going in at the airport; we've got a new international terminal that will be part of the Jackson Hartsfield airport.

We've got the new Georgia Aquarium, which is a $200 million aquarium, given to the state of Georgia as a gift by Bernie Marcus, one of the founders of Home Depot. It should bring in an additional 2 million visitors to Atlanta. That opens next year.

What does the business community need to know about your organization?

The economic impact that we have, the number of people that we bring in, the number of dollars that they spend when they come in, the fact that meetings and conventions are becoming much more competitive, the fact that we're growing as a leisure destination. We've got an opportunity. The bottom line is, Atlanta really is emerging as a young, vibrant, dynamic city, and in order to do that, we've got to continue to work together as a team.

How have the airline industry's problems -- particularly those of Delta Airlines -- affected your industry?

We're proud of Delta Airlines. They're going through difficult times now. Atlanta is actually getting more flights right now than ever before on Delta because of how they're reorganizing.

It really hasn't impacted the ability to bring people into Atlanta. We've gotten no calls (from potential visitors) saying, 'I'm concerned about coming to Atlanta because of Delta Airlines.' That's not a factor right now.

Long-term, it could be a factor, but right now, knock on wood, things are going really well. Delta is key and critical to our city, and they are one of our big partners at the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Does the AC&VB involve itself in political issues?

We spend a lot of time working on what I call advocacy issues. Our interest is in supporting the sewer program that went through because we felt that was key and critical to our city. We meet very often with the chamber and Central Atlan ta Progress to talk about projects for Atlanta.

Obviously, police visibility, (being) safe and secure -- a lot of issues that come up -- we're very much involved in an advocacy position, and we will continue to do that. In all the years that I've been at the convention and visitors bureau, every year I'm spending more and more time on those advocacy issues.

Shirley Franklin has been a wonderful, wonderful mayor for the city of Atlanta. She understands tourism. She was on my executive committee; she was on my board. She travels with us. She gets it; she understands the economic impact.

One of my favorite sayings is, 'The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack.' Shirley really has made tourism as part of economic development a major thrust since she's been mayor of Atlanta.

What does Atlanta need to work on?

We spend a lot time looking at brands. When you think of Orlando, you think of Mickey Mouse; when you think of Nashville, you think of country music. What do you think of when you look at Atlanta? There's not one thing.

We tout ourselves as the sports capital of the world. We tout ourselves as the cultural capital of the South. We're a shopping mecca. We've got great theater; we've got good history, good culture. We're working hard to get the message out about all of the things to see and do when you come to Atlanta, Georgia.

We've got our problems that we need to work on. Transportation is an area that we need to continue to work on. Education is another area that we need to work on. Clean air, clean water, environmental issues -- we need to do that.

And on the corporate side, we need to make sure we keep the Fortune 500 companies located in Atlanta in good shape. We're concerned about Delta, but Delta's working hard to pull through this.

The city and the community are really behind Delta; we need Delta to be strong in our city. We'll make that happen. HOW TO REACH: Atlanta Convention & Visitor's Bureau, www.atlanta.net/acvb or (404) 521-6600