The Chief Administrative Officer of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority discusses the “premiumization” of the venue marketplace and the public-private partnership that built Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
For any municipalities or organizations who are beginning to consider a public-private partnership, can you give them any tips or best practices on how to best manage that relationship?
The big lesson learned for us in Atlanta was that it’s important to always keep in mind that all deals are local. You have to be very aware of what the community needs as you’re developing the venue.
For us, the guiding principle was transparency. We felt as a state entity working with a private entity that there was a level of transparency that would be required of us to represent to the public that they’re getting a great deal.
“It’s important to always keep in mind that all deals are local… For us, the guiding principle was transparency.” – Jennifer LeMaster, GWCCA
From the very beginning, we built a microsite hosted on our website that tracked everything that was happening related to the stadium negotiation. We posted all of our documents there, and in doing so, we set a benchmark with the press and with the community at large that this deal is not going to be done in secret. The community knew they were going to have full access to everything we were working on.
We thought that the legacy of the venue long-term, both the Georgia Dome and the successor facility Mercedes-Benz Stadium, deserved that level of transparency. I don’t know that I’ll ever have the opportunity to do another stadium deal again, but if I do, I’ll take this idea around transparency and how you engage all stakeholders and embrace the press in the process not as the opposition as you sometimes see, but as an opportunity to tell your story. We had a compelling story and continue to tell it as a result of those relationships.
Given what is happening in this city with new construction, in sports and entertainment and beyond, Atlanta truly has aspirations of becoming an international city and is emerging in so many different ways. Can you talk about the Georgia World Congress Authority’s place within that larger narrative of hotels, conventions, sports and entertainment, the whole package?
I appreciate the opportunity to say this because we have a vision to be the number-one convention, sports, and entertainment destination in the world. We believe we have the most compelling package of facilities in North America, and we want to have the most compelling package in the world.
Part of having a compelling package is keeping in mind that there are certain elements of infrastructure that Atlanta has that no other city has. The world’s busiest airport 15 minutes from our campus helps. We have 10,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of our campus. We have a tremendous complement of attractions surrounding our campus.
Families who are coming in for conventions or other events can attend the College Football Hall of Fame. They can go the world’s largest aquarium. They can even go to World of Coke, which is Atlanta’s hometown brand. We believe that while we don’t have the beach, we may not have Disney World, or the name recognition of some of the other cities that we compete against, what we do have is ease of access, walkability, and southern hospitality.
At the top of the question, you talked about Atlanta being an international city. The 1996 Olympics put Atlanta on the world’s map, and we became a gateway for visitors from all over the world. We treasure that legacy. We embrace that legacy as our heritage. We continue to build on it today as team Atlanta.
One of the things that the ALSD loves about you is you’re a forward-looking thinker. You really are a leader in that sense. Do you mind sharing some of the things you’re currently working on with an eye towards the future?
The most significant activity in the organization right now is how we populate our venues with top-tier talent. Currently, the unemployment rate in Georgia is right around 3%. It’s one of the lowest in the country, so the competition for top employees is at a premium.
The organization has positioned itself to meet those market demands by creating a compelling package that attracts people to our brand and to our organization, while not relying on just the sensationalism of one event, but really taking someone through a career lifecycle exercise.
We draw employees to the organization with team members who are thinking about their careers. That’s not something that we’ve seen in previous generations when you saw longevity within careers. Now you read a lot about people who don’t spend their whole careers in one job, and we acknowledge that.
We attest that employees don’t necessarily spend their whole careers in one job, but they can spend a whole career at the World Congress Center Authority because there’s endless opportunities to build skills, build a career on our campus, and stay with the same employer. We’re really looking at how we capture the A-talent in Atlanta, and we want to be the number-one place to work in the city.
“Don’t pursue a job for money or title, but pursue a job because it makes you happy, and happiness will make you money.” – Jennifer LeMaster, GWCCA
Let’s close with another question on career building. Once you have acquired that top-tier talent, how do you coach them? What is some advice that you give young professionals?
The best advice I ever got was from Tubby Smith, former head basketball coach when I was at the University of Kentucky. He said to me two things that have always stuck with me.
Number one, don’t choose a job, choose your boss. I’ve always kept that in the forefront of my mind. When I’m making decisions about my career, I want to know who that influencer is who’s going to really pour into me and sponsor me for my next great opportunity.
The second part is don’t pursue a job for money or title, but pursue a job because it makes you happy, and happiness will make you money. I think that’s true.