Airport’s Latin pitch: Come for the shopping

What’s the best way for Atlanta to lure international travelers? One answer from airport and tourism officials: Shopping.

Miami, with its luxury boutiques and shopping malls, has long been a leading hot spot for Latin American travelers. But with economic growth in some countries driving increased wealth and travel, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport general manager Miguel Southwell wants to establish Atlanta as a shopping destination for travelers from Latin America.

A key target market is Brazil, a large, fast-growing economy that was the second-largest country for visitors to metro Atlanta in 2013, behind the United Kingdom.

Airport officials and others are working on an array of efforts to make Hartsfield-Jackson more attractive for Latin American travelers and to promote tourism to Atlanta. If successful, it could help to drive increased business for retailers, restaurants and hotels in metro Atlanta and increase Atlanta’s global connectivity.

On average, international travelers stay longer and spend more than domestic travelers, said Wiliam Pate, president of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“They go out shopping and they’re almost always eating out every night,” he said.

Southwell, who went on a trade mission with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to Brazil earlier this year, said when the mayor of Rio de Janeiro was asked what Atlanta could focus on, the message was: shopping.

“You have no idea the amount of shopping that Latin Americans do in this country,” Southwell said. In Brazil, “there’s so much money out there that there’s just not enough supply to meet the demand for goods in such rapidly-expanding economies.”

The focus on Latin America is part of a broader effort to attract more flights from key developing economies around the world — including China — through flight incentives that waive certain landing fees for airlines that launch new international routes.

While Hartsfield-Jackson heavyweight Delta Air Lines is growing its New York hub as a gateway to Europe and is establishing Seattle as a gateway to Asia, its largest hub in Atlanta is well located to collect travelers from around the country and connect them to Latin America, and vice-versa.

Airport and tourism officials hope to capitalize on that by getting more Latin tourists to come to Atlanta.

The visitors bureau promotes Atlanta to tour operators, who still play a key role for international travel and send tour books to their customers who travel frequently, showing trips to different parts of the world and what they will see — including shopping.

One challenge, said Latin American Chamber of Commerce of Georgia president Alejandro Coss, is that Atlanta has a language barrier with fewer multi-lingual signs and speakers than Miami.

“For people who don’t speak English fluently… it can be challenging or intimidating,” he said.

The airport has in recent years added more Spanish-language directional signs. While there are multi-lingual tourist ambassadors in downtown Atlanta, Spanish and Portuguese speakers aren’t as prevalent as in Miami.

Mary Kathryn Wells, marketing director for the new luxury shopping center Buckhead Atlanta, said the center has one multilingual staff member and plans to make its website multilingual. “If we want to target those international travelers, we have to make it as easy as possible for them,” Wells said.

At Lenox Square, marketing director Lauren McNulty said the mall has some messages in multiple languages and plans to add more.

“We certainly recognize there’s a need for it,” McNulty said.

Coss praised such measures but added, “those things work when people get here…. The bigger challenge is how to put Atlanta in the mind of the potential consumers, the traveler.”

People and companies in Latin America will think of Miami, Texas, California and Chicago, “but the Southeast is kind of like this donut hole. So more promotion needs to be there for tourism and for business,” Coss said.

A related challenge is Atlanta’s limited number of nonstop routes to Latin America compared to Miami.

“Going to Miami from Latin America is very easy,” with many direct flights, Coss said. “From here, a lot of times you have to go through Miami.”

Delta now flies nonstop to about 9 destinations in South America and 10 in Central America.

“Latin American travel to Miami is decades old, so you’ve got multi-generational families who have been to Miami,” ACVB chief Pate noted. But, “you can also get tired of going to the same city every year…. Our message is, you have an opportunity to see another region of the country.”

He added, ‘They can come to Atlanta and start their journey, and they can go to another city or two before they go home.”

The visitors bureau and Phipps and Lenox malls worked with Delta last year on a stopover program for several tour operators in Brazil, Mexico and Panama. Travelers got a special fare to stop for three days in Atlanta, with extras such as a MARTA pass, a discount at Macy’s, a City Pass for attractions and a savings card for shops, restaurants and activities.

“It was really to create an awareness in Latin America,” said Brandon Barnes, director of international tourism sales at the visitors bureau. “We’ve always struggled to capture all these travelers to Atlanta who change planes to go somewhere else — even to get them in the city for two or three days.”

Southwell became Hartsfield-Jackson’s top manager earlier this year. He is familiar with Latin American travel after spending 12 years as a manager at Miami International Airport.

As evidence of the importance of shopping for international travelers, Southwell points to the success of the Miami airport’s contract for luggage wrapping services — a popular service for Latin Americans after shopping and filling their bags with new items.

He said he hopes to add such a service here.

“People don’t wrap bags unless they have valuables in those bags,” Southwell said.

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