TTMA President Ernie Wooden leans on his abundant global experience, and his mother’s advice, to sell Los Angeles to the world.
By Cuyler Gibbons
When it comes to making the case for Los Angeles as a travel destination, the buck stops with a tall, broad-shouldered, African American from the east coast, who began his career in the hospitality industry as a hotel bellman. Ernie Wooden, spent almost 50 years in the hotel business, before becoming President of the Los Angeles Travel, Tourism and Marketing Association, so he knows a thing or two about what makes a place hospitable. And he’ll be the first to tell you, there are few places as hospitable as Los Angeles.
Wooden grew up one of five children, raised by a single mother in the bleak Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, a profoundly humble beginning that drives Wooden to this day. Armed with a belief in the righteousness of hard work, Wooden turned down several scholarship offers, and instead set to work in the hotel business. He rose through the hospitality ranks, eventually coming to Los Angeles as Hilton Hotels Executive Vice President of Global Brand Management. In this capacity he was responsible for all worldwide branding initiatives for the company, working with 3,000 properties in 80 countries.
In 2013, Wooden became CEO of LA Tourism, and as he says, “The opportunity to brand and tell the story of Los Angeles was an outgrowth of the work that I did for commercial brands but to a bigger much more diverse audience.” Wooden counts his international experience as critical to the formation of his branding skills. “I always found it intellectually challenging and rewarding to understand the various nuances of the different cultures including what worked from a brand messaging perspective,” he says. “I tend to look at world events differently with my hotel background; I think about cultural relationships and their histories, which are both fascinating and rewarding to me.”
The ability to look far afield with some cultural understanding is a vital skill for Los Angeles’ top salesman to possess, but Wooden will be the first to tell you his most important influence originated much closer to home—with his mother. “She truly provided me with the octane to drive towards success,” he says, as well as with what he felt was the single most important piece of advice he ever got. “She was always sharing with me the importance of being ‘twice as good as everyone else to get half as much recognition.’ That’s something I’ve never forgotten.”
Though Wooden just recently returned from a trip to China, he paused long enough in his busy schedule to give us the LA “elevator pitch” and provide an update on the future of Los Angeles:
Q). As LA’s “chief salesman”, what is the city’s “unique value proposition,” that single thing that sets us apart as a destination?
A).From my perspective, our city’s number one unique value proposition is our incredible diversity. Diversity and inclusivity have always been bedrocks of Los Angeles culture as people from 140 countries who speak more than 224 languages call it home. This creates a wealthy selling point for Los Angeles that very few other destinations come close to having. And not only do we have this rich diversity in Los Angeles, its both embraced and celebrated by Angelenos. Of course, we’re “The Entertainment Capital of the World” with endless cultural opportunities and ‘only-in-LA’ experiences. We boast more museums and cultural institutions than any other destination in the country. There’s a special ‘vibe’ in LA that cannot be replicated anywhere else; people from around the world aspire to become a part of this LA vibe. Lastly, I can’t forget about our near-perfect weather with nearly 300 days of sunshine a year.
Q) I know we set a record for visitation last year at 46million plus, will we reach your goal of 50 million by 2020? What are the current and future trends you see having the greatest impact on future tourism?
A). Global interest and desire for the Los Angles experience is at an all–time high as we welcomed a record 47.3 million visitors in 2016. We expect 2017 to be the seventh consecutive year of record tourism and we are firmly positioned towards meeting our goal of welcoming 50 million visitors by 2020. As with any forecast, it is subject to change at any time. Two major trends that impact our tourism industry are the rapid growth of both China and India. Los Angeles became the first U.S. city to welcome more than 1 million Chinese visitors last year, marking the seventh consecutive year of at least 20% growth. We just opened our fourth full-time tourism marketing office in the city of Chengdu, which is quickly becoming a top source of outbound travelers. Chinese travelers are far and away LA’s top international spenders with more than $1.3 billion in direct spend and it will be critical to maintain and grow our current market share. Another emerging market we would like to grow exponentially is India. We recently established a marketing presence in this key region with representation in New Delhi and Mumbai. India is the second-fastest growing market for outbound travel in the world and was our second-fastest international market for growth at 10% in 2016. It was one of only two markets to growth by double-digits, along with China.
Q). You don’t just sell LA, you personally enjoy it as well. Do you have a particular favorite thing to do in LA?
I’m always in awe at the wealth of our collection of museums and cultural institutions across the city. The breadth and depth of our cultural offerings are truly unrivaled. Los Angeles is one of the premier creative capitals of the world and no matter what area of the city you’re exploring, you can find something for every taste and interest. From The Broad, Hammer, LACMA, Huntington Library, Getty Center, among many others—it’s an abundance of riches. Los Angeles is a city where you can discover inspiration around every corner and that’s something I personally cherish.