Born and raised in Atlanta, William Pate has seen the “jewel of the South” transform from a quiet Southern city to the nation's fourth most popular travel destination. Now, Pate helms the nonprofit organization responsible for drawing even more visitors to Atlanta. The native Atlantan gave us insight into his favorite places, childhood memories and why he thinks this is just the beginning for Atlanta.
You were born and raised in Atlanta. How is Atlanta different today from when you were a growing up?
When I was growing up, there were probably half a million people in the city. In fact, the Darlington Hotel on Peachtree Street used to track the number of people living in Atlanta, and I remember how big a celebration it was when we got to a million people. Now, Atlanta’s population is more than 5.5 million. Even as Atlanta has grown, it really hasn’t lost its charm, and hasn’t lost its customer-focused reputation. The city also has significantly more international flare. We certainly see a lot more international visitors in the city on a daily basis. A lot of that comes from the 1996 Olympics. Atlanta has been on this trek for a long time to be more than just a large city in the U.S., and I think we continue to move in that direction.
What differentiates Atlanta from cities like Philadelphia, Chicago or Las Vegas?
One thing is access. We’re absolutely unparalleled in access. We have the world’s busiest passenger airport. We have more nonstop domestic flights than anybody else in the country, and we’re number two in the country in nonstop international flights. Over time, we’ve added a lot of exciting things like the College Football Hall of Fame and Center for Civil and Human Rights being the most recent. Also, everybody tells me that it’s all about customer service, and I see it everyday when I walk around the city. People get lost and stop a businessperson on the street who helps them find out where they’re going. People here really do want to help people, whether it’s helping them find their way or giving them recommendations on places to go. There is a genuine customer service aspect to the city that goes beyond the people in the hospitality industry. I think that’s what separates us—people here genuinely care about other people.
Atlanta welcomed 45 million visitors in 2013. According to your data, what are the most popular stops for these visitors?
A lot of that is driven by what people like. In terms of sheer volume, Georgia Aquarium would have to be number one. The World of Coca-Cola is probably the second-most visited. Then, you start grouping some of the arts and cultural sights like the Atlanta Botanical Garden and the High Museum of Art. Atlanta’s blessed with 1,500 cultural arts institutions in the metro area, so we have great offerings for people who want to have a cultural arts experience. We have great family-friendly attractions around Centennial Olympic Park, where you can hit two or three attractions in a short amount of time, including the aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, Inside CNN Studio Tour, College Football Hall of Fame and Children’s Museum of Atlanta—all within walking distance. And just a short ride outside the city are Six Flags Over Georgia and Stone Mountain Park. No matter who you are, Atlanta has a wide variety of destinations within the destination that tap into whatever your lifestyle and interests are.
Where is your favorite place to spend time in Atlanta?
I like the parks. I like to walk around Piedmont Park and people-watch. The Atlanta BeltLine is great. I like to walk, so I really enjoy areas where I can walk around and see people. If I’m going to the convention center from my office [downtown], I love to walk through Centennial Olympic Park and see the kids playing in the Fountain of Rings and people having lunch. To have some of the simple pleasures inside of this dynamic, urban setting is really nice.
What is a typical weekend like for you and your family?
A typical weekend is getting out of the city. We like to go to our place on Lake Hartwell. When you’re so immersed in everything involved in the city day to day, sometimes its nice to get out and be able to refresh your perspective. To be able to get out, relax on the lake, sit on the dock and watch the world go by relaxes you and gives you a chance to come up with new ideas. If we’re intown, we’re out there Friday nights watching my son play high-school football. Sunday night we always have a huge family dinner. Being around the house and around family is important, because I travel a lot. It’s nice to be able to take the weekends to reconnect with the family.
What kinds of landscapes are available to visitors in Atlanta?
One of the great things about Atlanta is in less than two hours you can be in the mountains, less than 45 minutes you can be at Lake Lanier, and in four hours you can be on the Atlantic coast. Sixty percent of people who visit Georgia come through Atlanta and many of them go on to other destinations in the state. Atlanta’s a great hub. After experiencing Atlanta, a lot of people like to go to Savannah, Augusta or Columbus. In that way, Atlanta feeds the state’s tourism business.
What are your favorite fall activities in Atlanta?
Of course, I love football. Football’s always crazy in Atlanta. I love when the Atlanta Braves are in the playoffs. There’s nothing like fall baseball. College football is huge in this part of the country, and the Atlanta Falcons [NFL] are huge. Atlanta is a huge basketball city, too, so the fall is a great time for all three of the professional sports. And we like to go to all the festivals that are around town. We had Music Midtown in September, which is always awesome, and the BronzeLens Film Festival in October. Atlanta always has a wide variety of choices for things to do in the city, which really reflects the diversity of the people here.
What are your holiday traditions?
During the holidays, we love to watch A Christmas Carol at the Alliance Theater and go to the ice skating rink at Centennial Olympic Park. I’m not much of an ice skater, but it’s great people-watching. We love seeing the lights at Atlanta Botanical Garden, which is always spectacularly done. I’m not much of a shopper, but I’m always in hyperdrive during the holidays. So, I spend a lot of time in Buckhead at Phipps Plaza and Lenox Square Mall and, now, the shops at Buckhead Atlanta. That way, I get all my shopping done over a three-week period and that’s usually good enough for a year.
What can visitors look forward to from Atlanta in the next few years?
One of the great things about Atlanta is it never rests on its laurels. As much development as we’ve had, when you look ahead, we’ve got that much more coming. We’ve got two new stadiums opening in 2017, four new hotels, continuing expansion around Buckhead Atlanta, and a new hotel on the backside of the Georgia World Congress Center opening in 2019. We also expect a lot of high-profile events as we get near the end of the decade. We hope to host the college football championship, a Super Bowl and another Final Four. The new Falcons stadium is being built to Major League Soccer specifications, so we certainly hope to be in the mix for a World Cup bid.
How would you describe Atlanta to someone who has never visited the city?
It is a big metropolis that very much feels like a small town. It’s very intimate. The people here really care about each other as well as visitors who come to the city. It’s a very walkable city. People often visit and never leave, which is why the population continues to grow. It’s a great place to live and it’s a burgeoning international city. One of the things that you’ll see change throughout the next 20 years is the influx of international visitors and residents. Atlanta is going to blossom into a major international city over the next two decades.
Where do international visitors come from?
We follow Delta Air Lines’ flight path, so we have a lot of visitors from Latin America, Europe, and more visitors coming from Asia. In general, as Delta expands into other cities, so does Atlanta. We’re very lucky to have one of the world’s largest airlines headquartered here. As they expand, it creates additional opportunities for people to come to the city and explore, and I think that enriches the city.
What is your favorite Southern saying and why?
Probably the one I get called on the most is “y’all” or “you all.” Oftentimes when I’m giving a speech to out of towners, I will say “We’re happy to have y'all” and it always gets a lot of laughs. I guess people who don’t live here don’t hear that phrase very often. To me, it’s very normal and comfortable to say.
What is your favorite Southern recipe? Is there a restaurant that prepares it to your liking?
I love chicken pot pie. My two favorite comfort food restaurants that do Southern “meat-and-three,” as we call it, would be Evan’s Fine Food in Decatur and Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Midtown, which is an Atlanta staple. They both have great food and wonderful people who work there. The food is very similar to what I grew up with—you got a meat, three vegetables and a sweet iced tea, and you were on your way.
What are three essential travel items a visitor should pack for a trip to Atlanta?
Sunglasses and sunblock, because we have a lot of sunshine and it’s very bright here. And headphones to go with your mp3 player, because it’s nice to go to one of the parks, lay back and relax, have the music going and watch the world go by.
Where is an unexpected place you can be found in Atlanta?
I love going to Ace Hardware. I always have projects going on at my house. I’m a do-it-yourselfer, and I love to be around tools and outdoor stuff. I’m at Ace Hardware almost every Saturday.
What do you never leave home without?
My noise-cancelling headphones.
If you could wake up anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would it be?
Florence, Italy. Florence reminds me of Atlanta in that it’s a big, international city that’s very intimate, the people are magnificent and it’s got such unbelievably rich history—to think that you’re walking on the streets that Michelangelo and Dante played on as children. It’s very walkable, and it’s just a wonderful city.
Window, middle or aisle? Why?
Aisle, absolutely. I want to be able to get out if I have to.
What are you doing tonight?
I’m heading to Savannah for the Georgia World Congress Center retreat to talk about our business and what’s coming for the convention center.
My Perfect Day
9 am: A Southern Start
I love to have breakfast at the Majestic Diner in Poncey-Highland. It’s been there for 85 years, and it’s a microcosm of the city. You gotta have the grits, bacon and eggs. 1031 Ponce De Leon Ave. NE, 404.875.0276
Noon: Tourism Time
Head downtown to visit some of the major attractions.
3 pm: Beverly Hills of the East
Out to Buckhead to shop at Phipps Plaza, Lenox Square Mall and, now, Buckhead Atlanta. Those are the three pillars of shopping in Atlanta. If there’s time, the North Georgia Premium Outlets are a visitor favorite.
9 pm: A Menu of Options
The evening is an opportunity to venture out. I would give visitors a gift card to the Buckhead Life Restaurants, which have a great tradition in Atlanta going back over 40 years. The food at each restaurant is excellent, and they’re also very diverse.