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A Discussion with Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau’s William Pate

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Boyden’s Leadership Series presents discussions with business and thought leaders from organizations across the globe. The series focuses on topical issues that offer executives, political leaders and the media insight into current trends in business and talent management in the global marketplace.

This issue features William Pate, President & CEO of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, a nonprofit organization, engaged in promoting metro Atlanta and Georgia globally as the conventions, meetings, and tourism destination. He discusses the economic impact that the tourism and hospitality industry has on a region.

As President & CEO of Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau (ACVB), William Pate is in charge of maintaining tourism as one of the city’s top economic drivers. Prior to joining ACVB, Pate served as chief marketing officer for BellSouth, one of the world’s largest communications companies. Pate spearheaded the development and marketing of the BellSouth brand both nationally and internationally.

Pate also held positions at MCI, where he supervised domestic and international advertising and public relations and at Knapp Inc., an Atlanta-based marketing services firm specializing in solutions for large corporations. He also spent six years at the Southeast Dairy Association, producing advertising and marketing programs.

He began his career in non-profit, working in public relations positions with Goodwill Industries and the American Red Cross. Pate has received many awards and honors for his work from both Advertising Age and the American Marketing Association. In 2009, Pate was named to the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 100 Most Influential Atlantans.

Pate is a past chairman of the board of the Atlanta Sports Council, the Chick-fil-A Bowl and ACVB. He serves on the board of Destination Marketing Association International, the Board of Councilors of the Carter Presidential Center, the Emory University Board of Visitors, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the Commerce Club and the Foundation Board of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Discussion with William Pate

Boyden: Is your role as CEO of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau the perfect position for you, given all your experience?

Pate: I think it’s a very good use of the talents I’ve acquired during my career. I’m a native Atlantan so it’s gratifying to be able give back to the city by sharing my expertise in a way that really benefits the entire hospitality industry here. The job also blends my functional expertise, marketing, with my operations, corporate, and sports experience.

Boyden: What are the unique leadership skills necessary to do well in this role, compared to previous roles you’ve held?

Pate: Much like any other business, you have to focus on revenue generation while managing expenses. We’re bringing major national meetings to Atlanta so we’re dealing with meeting planners from the corporate and association segments. We also interface with state and city government officials, to assure them we are generating tax revenues. So, it’s important to be able to speak to a variety of audiences. In my CMO jobs, I’ve had the event function in my purview, so I understand the challenges of making a meeting successful. Similar to my marketing roles, it is all about identifying the opportunity, developing the right strategy, and executing to get the results.

Boyden: What is most important for people to understand about the conventions and tourism industry?

Pate: People need to understand is this is very, very big business. In Atlanta alone, the conventions and tourism industry generates about $10 billion worth in economic impact for the city annually. One in every seven people in the city of Atlanta is employed in the hospitality industry. So it’s a large business that has huge impacts on a region.

Boyden: So in some ways it’s a bigger responsibility than having the same position within a corporation and every success or mistake has a huge multiplier effect?

Pate: Well, that’s absolutely true. And if you’re as successful as our city has been, the halo effect is quite substantial. For example, the last few years, Atlanta has seen the construction of the Georgia Aquarium, the largest in the world, four major hotels, 48 restaurants and the World of Coca-Cola. We’re now in the middle of building the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and we will begin construction on the new College Football Hall of Fame later this year. All this development puts people to work, and jobs are critical right now. These developments also generate economic impact which, of course, creates more taxes and more jobs.

Boyden: Despite the economy’s unpredictability over the last seven to 10 years, travel is again up for business and tourism. What’s your outlook?

Pate: We are coming off of one of the best years in our history in 2010. So we had a very nice rebound and we see that continuing. Our business comes in three segments – the convention business, transient travel and tourism. Atlanta is one of the top five convention cities in the country. Over the next decade, we expect to see healthy growth from conventions and corporations who want to meet in our city. From a facilities standpoint, we’re virtually unmatched in the country with the fourth largest convention center in the United States and the world’s largest airport.

The transient travel side is driven by the executive who comes from out of town to Atlanta for three days and two nights, has a series of meetings, takes clients to dinner, conducts business and goes back home.

Transient travel is an area where Atlanta does very well. We are in the top three U.S. cities in terms of Fortune 500 headquarters, so we get a lot of business travel through Atlanta. When corporations stopped travelling in ’08 and ’09, Atlanta took a substantial hit. But business travel is coming back. Corporations are getting a lot of pressure to drive top line revenue, which means they’ve got their sales teams back out on the road talking to customers and prospects, trying to make sales.

Tourism business is at its peak in Atlanta from Memorial Day to Labor Day. We have seen families hunkering down for the last couple years while the economy was tight. Now, gasoline prices notwithstanding, families are feeling a little better about their situations and they are beginning to travel more.

Boyden: Many companies today lean toward video conferencing to save on travel costs. How are in-person meetings worth the time and money?

Pate: Yes, I’d say that videoconferencing definitely has a place. For small teams collaborating on a project, videoconferencing can be very effective. But I believe most companies would agree that when you’re trying to make a sale or close a business deal, you want that face-to-face contact. You want to be able to read the person’s body language, look them in the eye and get a sense of how the negotiations going. For corporate sales meetings, new product introductions and association meetings, there’s nothing like the adrenalin rush that you can instill during a face-to-face meeting where you’ve got the power of the crowd working in your favor and people up on stage pumping up the team. From that standpoint, there’s nothing like personal interaction, which you can only get from meetings.

Boyden: How much has business improved in the area of business travel or business meetings from the low point of the low point of the Great Recession?

Pate: As I said, 2010 was the best year in the city’s history, where we witnessed a strong rebound which we see continuing. Hotel occupancy in the tax district had grown 19 percent year over year. So far this year, we’ve enjoyed a successful first quarter that included nine of our largest shows exceeding their attendance goals. Occupancy continues to increase and we are now seeing some upward pressure on average daily rate.

Boyden: As the former Chairman of the Atlanta Sports Council, how would you say the sports business and the convention business are intertwined and how they differ in approach?

Pate: Sports is very big business in Atlanta, both on the professional as well as the collegiate side. When you host a Final Four, a World Series, Super Bowl, or college bowl game, that adds up to big money. We end up hosting roughly 50,000 out of town visitors for each of those events. So you’re filling up hotel rooms, attractions, retail outlets and restaurants, which generates significant economic impact.

The other interesting thing about sports is, by and large, sporting events are played during downtimes in our business. For instance, the Chick-fil-A Bowl happens the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, a time we don’t get business travel or convention traffic. The Final Four usually occurs right around Easter. The great value in sports is that it fills up hotel rooms at a time when we wouldn’t otherwise be getting business.

Boyden: So the sports business complements the convention business but it doesn’t overlap much?

Pate: I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head there. They are very complementary. Sports events, especially big championships, often play on the weekends or during holiday periods. And of course, conventions are a part of the business calendar so by and large they’re happening during the week.

Boyden: When considering public investments, what’s your view on the economic benefits of convention centers and sports teams?

Pate: First, convention centers and sports teams create a lot of jobs. Secondly, they generate state and local tax. They drive significant tax revenue from merchandising, food and beverage and parking sales in addition to ticket sales. So constructing and operating convention facilities can be very beneficial to the local economy. To keep these facilities viable, you have to bring more events to town which means more visitation and tax revenue. So by and large, most cities find convention centers and sports teams to be very good investments. Cities obviously need to be disciplined about what they can afford and understand the business model.

Boyden: Where do you think it can cross the line too far into vanity for public officials or too much subsidy for developers?

Pate: Well, I think as with any business decision, there’s always going to be a set of financial metrics. How much business do you think you can do in the facility? What revenue will be generated? You then balance that out with the cost. For example, if you’re building an attraction and all the research tells you that you’re going to draw a half million visitors and you build the facility for a million then you’re not listening to your research and you’re going to get in trouble. The great thing about math is that it doesn’t lie.

Boyden: Speaking of truth, what do you look for when hiring managers?

Pate: You’ve got to hire great people with leadership skills because they are going to have to make decisions, sometimes quickly, in order to get things done. I’m very much an empowering manager myself so I’m looking for the most talented people who aren’t afraid to make decisions.

Boyden: Are there any other skills that are important?

Pate: I look for people who will fit in well with the culture and who are leaders and listeners. I’m not one who’s too focused on functional expertise. One of the execs who ran my PR department at a Fortune 500 corporation started in sales. He had some journalism knowledge but he was in sales when I hired him. So I tend to look for people who are smart, self-starters and have good leadership and decision making skills. I find that by and large those skills are transferrable to most jobs.

Boyden: So you’re really looking for good athletes, aren’t you?

Pate: Absolutely.

Boyden: When do you believe it is right to take a chance on an executive who has strengths in one area, though weakness in other areas? What is the “tipping point”?

Pate: Well, there are certain factors that work for me. I look for potential employees who have a history of success. I’ll invest in the good athletes who have people skills, even if they don’t have the industry experience.

I’m a good example of that strategy. Almost my entire career has been in the technology space. One of the things I found interesting about this job was the opportunity to take my skill set and see if it would transfer into an entirely different industry. So far, I think it’s worked well.

On the other hand, toxic managers can’t work for me, No matter how successful or smart they are, they almost always cost you more time and productivity than what they’re able to bring to the table.

Boyden: What has been your best decision you’ve made in your career?

Pate: Well, probably the most daring one I made was when I was working for MCI and we were introducing a brand new product called Network MCI It was the first integrated package of email, phone and fax.

We put together a very compelling advertising campaign, but for some reason, the president of the company just wasn’t feeling it. I was convinced it would be successful. He finally said, “If you believe in it that much, I’ll give you the money to try it. But if it fails, you’ll have to accept the consequences.” So we did and it turned out to be a fabulous success. The advertising campaign was called Gramercy Press, which has since been written up in a lot of graduate textbooks. It was one of the first serial advertising campaigns and had substantial product integration, which back then was not something you saw a lot of. It was groundbreaking in a lot of ways and most importantly, it sold a lot of product. And I got to keep my job!

Boyden: So you kind of knew you were on the line if it didn’t work and that you may have to find another position?

Pate: Oh, I didn’t kind of know – I did know. It was pretty clear.

Boyden: And what was the result?

Pate: We exceeded our sales goals in every one of our channels.

Boyden: So if you had just a few minutes to offer career advice to an up and coming executive, what would be most important suggestion?

Pate: My most important suggestion would be to constantly build your network because by and large everything is about relationships. You get deals closed and hear about business opportunities from the people that you know. I always find it disheartening when someone comes to me having just l lost their job of 10 years and that they haven’t been doing any networking during that time. So now they’re back to square one, looking for a job, with no network of professionals to lean on for leads or suggestions.

Secondly, stay interested in business and use your expertise to help others grow their business I serve on several boards and I am always interested in doing more board work because I really enjoy helping companies grow. I have a lot of expertise, in growing customers and revenue, which translates effectively across a lot of industries. It’s stimulating to use your knowledge to help a company grow. You will meet some very talented executives and learn about new industries. You never know where that might ultimately take you.

Boyden: It sounds like you’ve made a career of investing in yourself?

Pate: Absolutely. I mean it’s a journey and I’m intellectually curious so I’m always interested in learning about new businesses and industries and seeing if I can apply my expertise in those areas. I think it’s the responsibility of leaders to help other people trying to break into business. One thing I always do as often as I can is meet with people who want to talk about their career. I make time for them because so many people made time for me when I was getting started. I think that’s important. Whether it’s mentoring or just being able to sit down with somebody who’s struggling to find a job and giving them a little boost to help keep them going. I always try and return as much as I can.

We would like to thank Daniel Grassi of Boyden Atlanta for making this edition of Boyden’s Leadership Series possible.

The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of Boyden; only those of Mr. Pate.