Keeping Austin weird in the face of huge success

Austin has seen phenomenal growth in recent decades, but what does this mean for the future of the city’s place brand proposition? We reached out to Tom Noonan, President & CEO at Visit Austin, to understand how they’ve been managing the momentum of their growth and what they’ve done to support their local residents and businesses as they recover from COVID-19.


To start with, can you share what place branding means to  you?

When you talk about your place the first thing it needs to be is honest, real, authentic, and it needs to be reflective what your community can offer visitors.   We have a new ad campaign ‘It's better live.’ It’s a spin on our positioning as the Live Music Capital of the World®, but it is not only live music - culinary is better here live, our parks and trails are better experienced here live, our venues, all of those things that make up Austin are all better experienced live, and it fits with our branding and the real experience you find in Austin.  You don't want to manufacture something that really isn't reflective of your destination; it's not going to sell and it's going to disappoint a lot of people. The authenticity of Austin really rings through with people that come to visit as well as our residents – and that’s absolutely key.

It's like the whole “let's keep Austin weird” which was started by local businesses who wanted to differentiate themselves away from big chains. They didn't want to lose what made Austin different and local brands and local businesses are a big part of what makes Austin special. I think it's really important that there's a charm about Austin - it's kind of a very big small town and we want to stay fundamentally a small town . In its core Austin is a small music town / college town / southern state capitol kind of place, but still a place with amazing culinary and retail opportunities and parks and trails and tech… when people come here, they really experience what they expect to see.

I’ve had people tell me “Austin is my favourite city in America. I’ve never been there, but I hear so much about how great it is, I just need to get there.” The brand is so strong, and that goes a long way. People have heard the story of Austin, and they've heard people come back and say “I had that experience, and it's exactly what they say it is and you need to try it too.” I don't think you can get there without your local community being a part of that story.

Where did the initial inspiration come for your  positioning as ‘Live Music Capital of the World®’? It’s interesting to see that  it’s pulling through to your current campaign of ‘It’s better here live.’

The fact of the matter is there was a large music community here, there were a lot of venues, and talented artists here, and local people passionate about music. It's a big part of who we are and we really celebrate music here in Austin! Through this pandemic, one of the things our organisation was proudest of was helping support those musicians when they were out of work by hiring them to do virtual gigs. We had to keep our musicians here employed, to make sure that as we came out of this pandemic that we were going to be the same Austin. It was about making sure that as many of our music venues survived so that there'd be a place for people to play, because it's such a part of who Austin is.

There's such a pent-up demand for people to get back to seeing live music. I’ll give you a great example of it. We have the Austin City Limits music festival here every year. It’s two weekends in October and without even publicising the full schedule, they sold out both weekends in under three hours.  In August we will open the new Waterloo Greenway downtown - a new 5 000 seat outdoor amphitheatre & park that is going to be an amazing new music venue for locals and tourists to go to. And as you're sitting at this outdoor amphitheatre, behind the stage is the State Capitol building of Texas right so that's the backdrop which is amazing. When I think about the future for Austin in the music scene, we're adding all these really cool new venues such as Q2 Stadium, and the new UT Moody Arena which are going to be something you're going to want to come and see, so it’s going to be great.

Austin has seen an increase in investment in Texas  recently, particularly from Silicon Valley companies who are seizing the opportunity to expand into a more competitive region. How could this impact on  the future of your place attractiveness proposition? Is it altering any of your  messaging?

It's been great - we've been on these lists for Best City to Live In America for the last four years before the pandemic, and we’re the number one city in America right now in terms of population growth and overall city growth.  All those things are great as long as you don't lose who you are. One of the things the Mayor and our council has been working on is ensuring that in many ways, we still have the same Austin that was here 20 years ago - it's just a little larger.

Yes, we're excited about Elon Musk & Telsa’s commitment, the new Oracle's headquarters and all those other corporate headquarters moving into our region. A lot of those are world leading brands are on our buildings downtown and across our region and that's great to have as a backdrop to Austin. It gives us a whole other level. If you could have seen Austin 30 years ago and you looked at downtown… we didn't have much high tech, we were struggling to fill our office buildings, we didn't have hotels or a convention center.  And now we've got this downtown that has all these iconic brands on the buildings amazing new architecture and we have thousands of people living downtown. That's all good, but it's just as important to make sure the spirit of Austin doesn't change as we go through that.

One of the great things about Texas - and about Austin - is it's a big place. We have lots of undeveloped space in and around our city and while we don't want to be huge, there is area to grow here still.  OK, I know I’m the tourism marketing guy for the City of Austin, so I might be a little biased, but I think Austin is the prettiest part of the state of Texas. It's our outdoor space as much as our indoor space, it's this community that we all reside in and taking care of that is really essential too. One of our greatest assets is just that this is such a beautiful kind of magical place to live.

Following on from the challenges of the past year, are  there any lessons that you will be carrying forwards as you prepare for the  return of business and leisure tourism?

It’s always been key, but it became even more important during the pandemic to make sure that our local assets do well and survive and thrive because that's who we are as a city. So that's been reinforced, but we also recognise that, as tourism, we are the number three industry in the city of Austin. Everybody talks about the University, and the state government, and high tech, but 135,000 people have jobs in the hospitality tourism industry. That's a lot of Austinites. So, it's important that the industry recovers as quickly as it possibly can because we have a lot of Austinites that depend on that job in hospitality tourism industry. One of the great things about hospitality and tourism is that you can come into it in an entry-level way and work your way up and have an amazing career and learn along the way. Or maybe you're just going to be in the tourism industry a little bit as you're going through school and that's fine too. It offers so much to so many different people in so many different levels.

One of the lessons coming out of this is to make sure we protect our tourism industry and continue helping it grow. Over the last couple years, Visit Austin created a foundation. We've been doing things like career fairs, education seminars, and  an insurance portal for people that might have lost their jobs so they could find life insurance or medical insurance for their families during this pandemic. We’re trying to give back to the community, because we recognise that, yes, we want people to come here spend their money, have a great time here and then go home, but we also want to make sure those folks that are working in our industry are taken care of as well.

That’s amazing that you’re able to use the foundation to  create that support for Austin.

Before I came back to Texas, I ran the tourism organisation for the City of Baltimore, Maryland, and it was the same thing there. In Baltimore there were 10 000 new jobs coming into hospitality tourism at the time. We had to find people, make sure they were trained to work in the industry, offer scholarships if they couldn't afford to go to the university… It was how we could give back, while also reinforcing the strength of the sector.

When I came to Austin, there was a serious growth curve here as well in terms of new hotels, new venues, new opportunities, and we needed to find staff that could work in our industry and train them, but maybe we could also offer those folks in Austin that are the neediest an opportunity to find a career in a pathway forward. The foundation was a natural for us because we've got a lot of corporations that want to make donations and give back to their community as well, and if we weren't set up as a 501c3 – that’s the tax code here – they couldn't make that donation to us. It was like, “Wait a minute. Let's make it as easy as possible for those folks to give to us so we can do good things with the money.”

I’ve seen that you’re launching the ‘Vibrant City’  campaign – is culture an important pillar in your recovery?

Arts and culture is a big part of who we are and why people come to visit Austin, so the Vibrant City campaign is a natural offshoot of what we should be doing. It's so great to be able to talk about all these assets that we have and let people know that they're open again and that the Austin after the pandemic might even be better than the one that was here before.

I talked about that Waterloo Greenway Park. It has been a dream for the downtown for decades and now it's finally phase one. It's just open and there's going to be three more phases coming to it over the next 15-20 years. And when you arrive in the airport, they’re all local restaurants. You're not seeing chains in there, so you get kind of your first experience of Austin just as you just land in Austin or you're as you're leaving Austin you know. And we got public transportation enhancements coming and an airport another expansion will be coming in waves over the next 20 years… There's so much coming in the future that we're excited about and we want people to come and experience first-hand.

And lastly, is there one campaign from another place that  you’ve always wished you could have been involved with?

‘I Love NY’ - what a great campaign that was. At the time, it was one of those first really great placemaking campaigns. I think Nashville, like Austin, has done a really great job with Music City and what they've done with their campaigns. And Seattle and Emerald Cities and those places that have found that relevant, authentic brand that really rings true to people… It's nice to be in their company. I'm not jealous of them, I'm just glad that we're one of those as well right. Las Vegas has created a great brand, and numerous great campaigns and they've had a great budget to create those moments, plus it’s a great place to visit, but I'm impressed with places who have created these brands and maybe done it without all the overwhelming money muscle-might behind it. They've done it with great creative and they've done it with authenticity. And that’s really amazing.

Thanks for sharing that with us, Tom. It was great being  able to speak with you!

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The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.