Friday, April 06, 2012

Recalling Mentors Like Charlie and Bob

Next month will mark the 38th year since I first met two of my early and most influential mentors in community-destination marketing as they stepped down from Great Northern Railway’s historic Empire Builder which had become part of the newly-established Amtrak three years earlier.

They arrived to help celebrate the May opening of the 6-month Expo 74 in Spokane, Washington, the smallest city ever to be awarded a World’s Fair.

Charlie Gillette and Bob Sullivan were part of a contingent of national tourism leaders arriving that day and and they immediately took me under their tutelage. They also kiddingly defended my “Welcome Back Kotter” hair length from one or two local people who mentioned that they felt it was disrespectful to Republican-President Richard Nixon who was also flying in for the event which was held just 40 months after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established.

Ten years into his 24-year stint as head of the community-destination marketing organization (DMO) for New York City, Charlie had just re-launched “The Big Apple” nickname, taken from a reference by Damon Runyon and others including many Jazz musicians in the 1920s.

Charlie knew a thing or two about turning community image around and passed it along to me.  When he was 44 he had gone to work in destination marketing from the earned media or “publicity” side becoming DMO president just as New York was hosting its 1964 World’s Fair.

Bob was head of the DMO in San Francisco and had famously just opened the first official visitor information center there. Even that city had to be weaned from over-reliance on just the 10% of visitors who travel for conventions and meetings.

At the time Charlie was just a few years younger than I am now. Bob looked much older than his 46 years at the time having come of age as a Marine while fighting during WWII on Tarawa, Guam and Iwo Jima and then escaping imprisonment during the Korean War after first enlisting at age 13.

Bob had cut his teeth running the DMO in Reno in the ‘50s before returning to his native San Francisco in 1964 to run their marketing organization. He understood community sense-of-place and loved what Spokane had done as a prelude to hosting the “environmentally-themed World’s Fair.”

Mining interests and others had been persuaded to stop discharging pollutants upstream in the Spokane River and the community had worked hand-in-hand with industry to restore two blighted downtown islands dividing the dramatic falls of that river so they could be used to stage Expo ‘74 and then be transformed into a legacy Riverfront Park.

Both men had just led the charge to have the word “visitor” incorporated into the mission and name of DMOs and welcomed me into the newly renamed International Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus (now Destination Marketing Association International) less than 20 months after we met and the year before Bob would serve as chairman.

While many DMO execs seem even today still stuck in 1950s and 1960s sales-dominated-marketing, Charlie and Bob were already leading the way back in the 1970s to customer-driven Marketing 1.0 and were they alive today, they would be fully embracing values-based Marketing 3.0.

What set them apart from so many DMO execs even today is that they put the community in destination marketing rather than just fronting for facilities such as hotels, meeting, sports or theatrical facilities or even dining and shopping outlets which even then harvested a greater share of visitor activity than any of these facilities.

Charlie and Bob were passionate about their destination communities and tapped into the passion of residents in their communities because they understood that the overall destination community is the context that draws visitors and they realized even then that destination marketing is in essence “movement marketing” with a community as the “cause.”

They were always accessible by phone as my career took me from Spokane to Anchorage, and both retired just before I came to Durham in 1989 to jump-start the DMO here and from which I retired a few years ago. Charlie passed away in Great Neck in 1995 and Bob in Australia in 2008, both age 80.

Charlie and Bob are each proof that the impact some people have on our lives greatly transcends how often we see them or how much or often we talk. They are also the reason I caught the eye of peers from whom I would learn so much and share about community image-turn-arounds and sense of place.

One such individual is the late George Kirkland.

George had cut his destination marketing teeth for a few months at the chamber of commerce in Oakland, two years before I would do the same at the chamber in Spokane before being tapped to help that DMO fully evolve by achieving the independence that nearly all but a very few have today.

He moved on to Anaheim and honed his skills on the group sales side, as I did when I first began in Spokane and back then we would visit while waiting our turns to make competing presentations to host large conventions choosing between our respective communities. George did a brief stint in Hawaii before we reconnected as CEOs when he became the exec in Kansas City in 1977.

I went on to head the DMO in Anchorage, but George and I stayed in touch as he replaced Bob Sullivan in San Francisco. He then laid the extremely difficult groundwork to form a DMO in Miami just as I came to Durham and he moved on to Los Angeles where we would both face and overcome challenging community image turn-arounds.

Charlie learned from the World’s Fair in NYC as George did from LA’s hosting of the Olympics what I would learn in all three cities in which I served, especially Durham.  Turning community image around takes a much deeper, sustained and more systemic approach than mega-facilities or events can affect.

George was only three years younger than I am now when he passed away in 2003 just months after learning of a terminal disease.

I am well aware of the fact that much of any success with which I have ever been credited is the result of my having met and connected with people like these three gentlemen from whom I gleaned advance understanding of challenges I would face.

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