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And Another Fifty Million People Just Got Off of the Plane

The old NYC & Company was a simple membership-based organization. Hotels and restaurants would sign up, pay dues, and, in return, get extra business thrown their way through conventions, sporting events, and so on. Fertitta was not impressed. The bureau had “no expertise from the marketing perspective,” he says. “There was no vision to expand to international markets. No vision to make it a world-class organization. No in-house creative. The website was … adequate.” It also had limited city funds behind it and no clear mandate. Bloomberg gave Fertitta $103 million over five years—a number the company would go on to nearly match through its own marketing efforts, Fertitta says—and a wildly ambitious target: 50 million visitors by 2015. In 2008, lest anyone relax, Bloomberg moved up the deadline to 2012.

No one had tried this sort of business model before. (It is widely copied now—Boris Johnson and Richard Daley adopted it in London and Chicago.) Fertitta got rid of almost all of the old agencies’ workforce and brought in an “A-Team,” in his words, of advertising executives and creatives. The room began to ring with adman-speak: “O.O.H.,” “earned media,” “the spend.”

The first thing the company set out to do was to upscale the city’s image. It was determined early on, for example, “that New York can’t have a tagline,” Fertitta says. A slogan, any slogan, would drag it down to the level of a Minneapolis (“City by Nature”) or Chicago (“Second to None”). The closest NYC & Company would come to a tagline was the minimalist “This is New York City.” Next came the logo. The so-called Brand Identity Project, which started with the chunky NYC insignia on taxis, took five years for almost every city agency (some enthusiastically, some kicking and screaming) to adopt. “The mayor wanted everyone to feel like they’re part of the same team,” says Willy Wong, the company’s chief creative officer, while the lettering itself “conveyed a sense of strength.” Like it or not, New York now had a font. It also had a new entity that, while not a part of the government, had the juice to tell other agencies what to do.

In 2007, Bloomberg saw Fertitta at City Hall and said offhandedly, “New Yorkers think tourists are just a pain in the ass. We have to do something about it.” Fertitta responded by creating the “Just Ask the Locals” campaign, designed to get New Yorkers to be nicer to visitors and to give the city an “engaging, friendly, warm personality.” The idea was to photograph New York–associated celebrities giving local shopping and dining tips—neighbors first and stars second. Fertitta began by getting Robert De Niro, whose Tribeca Film Festival his old firm had helped launch (“That was an easy ask. It was like, boom”), and a slew of boldface names, 40 in all, quickly fell in line. No one asked for a dime or a favor (except, notably, Diddy, who contrived to be photographed next to a Sean John billboard). The celebrity-studded campaign then became a magnet for corporate sponsorship. De Niro had a relationship with American Express, which ended up underwriting Just Ask the Locals. American Airlines flew in scores of international reporters for the press conference unveiling the campaign—which happened to take place in the brand-new American Airlines terminal. (“We’re always trying to connect the dots,” says Fertitta.) Soon, AmEx was sponsoring Get More NYC, a system of visitor incentives, and AA was in for a two-year, $8 million deal with the city involving ads on cabs and a Times Square billboard. NYC & Company started doing something no visitors bureau had ever done: make almost enough money to pay for itself.

Today, NYC & Company departments have their hooks in almost every interaction between New York and the outside world. Its Government Affairs arm reaches out to elected officials here and abroad. Sports Marketing and Convention, Meeting & Incentive Development land events like the Super Bowl. The Interactive Media team runs, the company’s new website (it generates some $3 million a year in revenue, mostly through ads). New York’s cachet and attractive demographics give Partnerships leverage to strike lucrative deals. When it won the contract to build our glassy new bus-stop shelters and news kiosks, the Spanish company Cemusa agreed to pay New York $1 billion over twenty years for the right to sell ad space on these structures. Under the terms of the arrangement, not only did NYC & Company get to keep 22.5 percent of the ad space for its own purposes but it secured $18 million worth of free ad space a year in Cemusa markets, including Spain. Spanish travel into New York shot up 25 percent, generating $794 million. As one city official put it to me, “We are New York. We don’t pay anybody. You pay us.”

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