This is the story about the importance of serendipitous meetings, celebrity and timing. And, of course, travel and tourism.
Let's begin with serendipity. There was a time about a decade ago when there were serious concerns that advances in technology would slow growth in corporate travel. Arguments were made that WebEx, Telepresence, Skype and other emerging digital communications would reduce the need for face-to-face meetings. Why endure the hassles of travel and spend money to fly and stay in hotels when there were more convenient, less-expensive alternatives announced every few days?
Against what seemed a potent economic argument for cost savings was an almost New Age, faith-based belief in the value of shaking someone's hand and looking them in the eye, or anecdotes about how random seating at an industry banquet resulted in lucrative business deals with new acquaintances.
In the end, chemistry triumphed over math. The complex reactions that can occur when people meet in person might be unpredictable, but 10 years later, much of the corporate world seems to have concluded that in many instances they possess value that exceeds possible T&E savings.
Anyone with lingering doubts should ask Fred Dixon about his business trip to Arlington, Texas, in the spring of 2014.
As CEO of NYC & Company, part of Dixon's job is to attract meetings and events that will benefit the city's economy directly and indirectly through high-profile destination exposure. The Country Music Awards is just such an event, and he traveled to Arlington last year to make a pitch for that business.
At a dinner the night before the Country Music Association board met, he fell into conversation with a man sitting across from him. Robert Allen, then a board member, is on Taylor Swift's management team, and he told Dixon that Swift had been spending a lot of time in New York and that it was her dream to move there.
She writes about what happens in her life, Allen continued, and New York had inspired her to write a song he thought Dixon would find interesting. "We should stay in touch," he said as the dinner ended, and the men exchanged cards.
A few months later, Dixon received an email from Allen inviting him to Swift's TriBeCa apartment to hear a song.
Dixon's impression of Swift during the meeting was that she was "kind and poised. And tall."
She played "Welcome to New York" for him and asked what he thought about it.
"I said it was amazing, right on message," he recalled. "It's how we describe New York. She said, 'I want you to have it.'"
They worked out some details over the next few months. She provided the song and rights to her name and image gratis. She would also donate royalties from single sales of the song to New York public schools (about $50,000 so far) and record promotional videos for the NYC & Company website.
Dixon worked to make Swift the city's global welcome ambassador and have her headline the Times Square New Year's Eve celebration. A major media blitz was developed to coincide with her new album's release on Oct. 27.
But on Oct. 23, a case of Ebola was confirmed in New York. And the victim, a doctor, seemed to have been everywhere in the city. He had bowled in Brooklyn. He had ridden the subway. He had eaten on the Upper West Side. He had walked the High Line in the Meatpacking District.
In times of crisis, NYC & Company protocol is to shut down promotional activity and communications. The album release plans, however, were locked in place, and it appeared that the media blitz related to naming Swift tourism ambassador would no longer occur simultaneously with the song's debut. Instead of prepping for a promotion, Dixon suddenly found himself fielding calls from media questioning if New York was safe to visit.
Two days before the song's release, however, it was found that the Ebola victim was not contagious when he was moving through the city. The situation reversed; an almost-lost opportunity for promotion became the event that "helped wipe away [concerns about Ebola]," Dixon said. The ambassadorship and song, he said, "changed the conversation for us immediately and reinforced the message that the city was open for business."
It also created a new type of tourism promotion vehicle that others could duplicate. Cities around the world began naming global tourism ambassadors, with Tokyo achieving notoriety by choosing Godzilla. A bonus for Dixon was that most stories on subsequent ambassadors cited the Swift/NYC precedent, with one media outlet imagining a tourism ambassador death match between Swift and Godzilla.
NPR devoted an hour to asking listeners who, other than Swift, they would have chosen to be New York's ambassador.
Dixon placed the value of the media exposure related to Swift's appointment "in excess of $40 million. She ignited a conversation around the world."
The partnership "winds down in the fall," said Dixon, who has no plans to re-create the campaign with another ambassador. When it ends, he said, the organization will move on to something new.
The Taylor Swift backstory certainly demonstrates the power of celebrity, timing and serendipity, and to that I'll add marketing and public relations. It would be easy to conclude that a city as globally well known as New York doesn't really need to spend a lot to promote itself, but the Ebola recovery component suggests the opposite is true: A big city is more vulnerable to a big crisis, and when it comes to promotions, New York must live up to another musical homage and truly be the city that never sleeps.