Our Man in Atlanta
By Hollis Gillespie
TWO THOUSAND MILES from the Pacific shores of his former Coronado kingdom, Scott Anderson is poised gingerly on the edge of a set of concrete stairs atop a downtown Atlanta office tower. In light of a recent racquetball injury, a sudden fire alarm has posed a tricky question: how to maneuver down 15 flights of stairs and out of the building with a cast on his leg.
“It’s no problem,” he shrugs to several staffers, motioning playfully with one of his crutches. “Go ahead. Leave me behind.”
Of course, none of them does. Although the alarm turns out to be false, the staff’s devotion to Anderson is not. Some have known him for decades, going back to his days as a former hotel kingpin in Coronado. Others have known him only since his more recent rise to one of the most important corporate figures in the Centennial Olympic Games to be held in Atlanta next year. Whatever their connection, it seems the staff would rather face the flames than leave him behind.
“If you’re going to pick a quality,” says staff member Michaele Babcock of Anderson’s appeal, “it would be his integrity.”
“He’s my favorite person,” says a security guard who screens visitors to Anderson’s office building. “I guess it’s because he’s the first person I see every morning.”
At 7:30 a.m., the building is already as densely populated as any of the trendy bars on the street outside will be this p.m. The fact that Anderson is usually the first to clock in here each morning is a given; sometimes his day starts at 4 a.m.
“The only way to get all the work done is to come in early,” Anderson says. The alternative would mean missing dinner with his wife, Maggie, and their two children. “If I’m really worried about something, I come in at 3.”
This work ethic, he says, is actually easy to maintain after his years as a hotel honcho. “There’s a tradition in the hotel business,” says Anderson, leaning back in his chair. “When you open a hotel, you throw away the key, because it will never be locked again. I’m actually working fewer hours now than I did then.”
“Then” is a reference to Anderson’s tenure at the famed Hotel del Coronado. To this day, the Del visually dominates Anderson’s Atlanta office. A framed, panoramic photograph is showcased on the wall behind his desk. Others picture him shaking hands with most of the U.S. presidents since Lyndon Johnson.
Scott Anderson was just 31 when he took over as president and CEO at the historic resort hotel, and his youth is evident in the pictures. Today, his tan is gone and there’s a mist of gray in his hair. But when Anderson talks of the business that still excites him, his eyes light up like a kid’s at a birthday party.
“In the hotel business, everyone who checks in is predisposed to have fun,” Anderson says. His voice is deep and pleasing, and he often leans forward in his seat, appearing eager to speak candidly. “They’ve planned for this, their energy level is high, and they’re ready to have fun. It’s like a giant party your whole life. I always wanted to run the Del.”
Big aspirations come naturally. His father is Al Anderson, a stalwart of Southern California’s social and political old guard. Scott grew up watching his father deftly orchestrate his influence in several San Diego civic arenas, including work as the campaign manager who helped put Pete Wilson on the political map. In the Sixties, Al Anderson was a key figure in the Padres’ graduation to the major leagues and the recruitment of the Chargers to San Diego. The elder Anderson’s position with the Greater San Diego Sports Association helped bring the Super Bowl to the city in the Eighties.
“Everywhere I’d go when I was young I was referred to as Al’s son,” Scott says now. “My father is a great guy, but I didn’t want to be just my father’s son in San Diego.”
So young Scott Anderson set his sights on the Del. The professional launch came in 1967, when he was a 16-year-old private lifeguard on the beaches in front of the resort. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” he exults. “I’d drive over in my little sports car, clock in, set up my stuff, ogle the girls all day long and have a great time. They actually paid me to do this.”
Over the next decade, Anderson returned to the hotel, off and on, eventually filling nearly every employment position the resort had to offer—from kitchen to laundry to mid-level management. Carlton Lichty, then president of the Del, was a family friend who monitored Anderson’s development.
“He gave me a big break by letting me start at the bottom,” Anderson says of Lichty, with no hint of irony.
After graduating from Washington State in the mid-Seventies, with a degree in hotel and restaurant administration, Anderson took a job with the Westin hotel chain as a $700-a-month trainee. At the time, his new wife, Maggie, worked as a flight attendant for American Airlines.
“We didn’t have any money, but we could travel free and stay free,” Anderson says. The two took advantage of these benefits, covering considerable territory in a series of weekend adventures as Westin opened hotels in the Southwest. When Lichty began entertaining thoughts of retirement, Anderson got a call. “Carl told me it was time to come home.”
The Del staff embraced his return. “There’s no turnover. When I came back as president, the same staff was all still there,” says Anderson, recalling that many had supervised his summer jobs. “They all felt as if they had a part in my training as president.”
During the next 11 years, Anderson wore the Del’s corporate crown with panache, interacting with world political figures as easily as with kitchen staff. He had reached the top. “Unless I became owner, there wasn’t much upward mobility left,” he says.
ENTER THE POWERS at the Callaway Gardens resort. Located in Pine Mountain, just south of Atlanta, Callaway Gardens is an opulent vacation retreat owned by a blue-blooded Southern family grounded in old politics and even older money. With championship golf courses, tennis courts and a series of serene lakes, laced with wildflower trails and other horticultural collections, it is in many ways the Hotel Del of the South. And the owners made a successful bid to woo Anderson from the throne of his West Coast Camelot.
There are few similarities between Atlanta and San Diego. One cultural shock: It took Anderson two years to find a decent Mexican restaurant in Atlanta. But one common denominator: In both cities, winters come and go with essentially no snow. Shortly after he took charge at Callaway, Anderson was faced with the task of boosting the resort’s occupancy during the winter. Until then, the resort had traditionally been booked to just 27 percent of capacity in the colder months. Anderson’s antidote: the Callaway Gardens Fantasy in Lights.
“It all came from my love of Christmas,” he says.
A Point Loma boy who’d always spent the holidays in weather warm enough for surfing, Anderson knew Christmas lights could transform a snow-free landscape into a festive atmosphere. His lighting concept, honed at the Del, was employed on an even grander scale at Callaway. The result: an electrical spectacle of outdoor Christmas scenes that has become one of the major seasonal attractions in all of Georgia. Constructed by the same crew that put together Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade, its sections are visited via horse-drawn carriages.
“People wait for hours to get in,” says Anderson. “The trees disappear at night, and all you can see are the lights,” so the effect is of a suspended menagerie of dazzling illuminations. “It’s just incredible.”
With the success of the Fantasy in Lights festival, Anderson earned a state-wide reputation as a man of ideas—which made it all the more surprising when family patriarch Howard “Bo” Callaway abruptly dismissed Scott in 1993, then handed the job to another family member.
Today, from his perch high atop the Olympic pecking order, Anderson remains unperturbed by the episode. “It says Callaway Gardens over the gate, not Anderson Gardens,” he remarks.
Soon after, Anderson settled in with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. Millard Grimes, publisher of Georgia Trend Magazine, which recently ran a series of articles titled “The Long Quest of Bo Callaway,” put it succinctly. Asked about Anderson’s comeback, Grimes said: “He certainly landed on his feet.”
TODAY THOSE FEET are stretched alongside a conference table in Anderson’s office. At times, his long frame and leg cast traverse two chairs and a table. It has been not quite five years since Anderson left San Diego to establish himself in this city of the South, during which time he has managed to claim a sizable share of the Southern spotlight.
“This is fascinating,” Anderson says. “I’d be surprised if I ever went back into the hotel business. With this job, there are always a lot more balls in the air.”
And a lot more zeroes behind the numbers. His department has a budget of $480 million. Big money. In fact, nearly everything about Anderson’s new position with the Olympic Games is big: biggest Olympic event in the history of the games; biggest stash of available tickets; biggest predicted attendance. Ever. Anderson’s department is given the sweeping title of “Games Services.”
“They call me the ticket guru,” he says. “But ticketing is just one of my areas.” Anderson also monitors all hotel accommodations, all Olympic-sanctioned food, beverage and merchandise sales and spectator services. In short, Anderson and his staff will generate the bulk of the city’s Olympic tourism revenue.
Because many in Atlanta consider revenue the raison d’être of the Olympic Games, the media keep a close eye on Anderson’s department—reading his progress as the gauge for whether this event will succeed or fail for the city. So far, the progress is what you might expect from an overachieving, ex-surfing California transplant who has built a career on accommodating and entertaining the masses.
“We’re breaking records,” Anderson allows himself to boast. “The response is amazing.” In fact, more than 300,000 ticket requests flooded his office in the first 60 days of availability. With orders averaging $11,000 each, the total reached some $326 million—in just 60 days. And the money still flows in.
But Anderson’s ticket-issuing system has come under fire from scores of disappointed patrons, a subject highlighted in the media recently. The ordering process required customers to pay for their requests, often by credit card, up to three months in advance, which only entitled them to partake in a lottery process for their requested sports venue. After the lottery, the empty-handed were given the choice of a refund or another ticket lottery, among other options. After an estimated 650,000 people competed for a limited number of opening-ceremony seats, consequent public discontent was acute enough to inspire Pulitzer Prize– winning cartoonist Mike Luckovich to lampoon Anderson’s department in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
“This just shows everybody wants to come,” says Anderson with his typical optimism. “It would be worse if nobody cared.”
Another point of public contention was the refunds themselves, which were issued without interest. During the time between the ticket requests and the lottery, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games kept the money in a depository account, where it was used for short-term investments. “If they chose to finance their order, it worked out to be about $4 a month; it wasn’t a huge deal for any one individual.” But if you clump all the orders together, Anderson continues, “the interest is pretty good.”
The committee earned an estimated $5.2 million in interest because of Anderson’s ticket-lottery process. Though the number of disappointed would-be attendees has fueled the controversy around his system (“It’s fair to say there has been some bellyaching,” Anderson says), others claim this ticketing process is one reason Atlanta is expected to be one of the few cities to turn a profit as a result of hosting the Games.
“There’s a lot of respect for Scott because of what he’s done for the Olympics in such a short period of time,” says Rick Layton, deputy managing director of Anderson’s department. Layton and Anderson have a friendship and mutual professional loyalty that go back decades, to when they were both fresh-from-college employees in the Westin chain. Layton, along with Michaele Babcock and marketing director Jack Daley, is part of a cadre Anderson hand-picked to help lead his Olympic fiefdom.
“Scott actually created this position for me,” says Layton. “It took him about five seconds to figure out what to do with me. That’s how fast the guy works. ”
All of which serves to substantiate what a lot of people have known for a long time: No matter how high he climbs, Scott Anderson remembers where he came from. Back in his office, recovering from the marathon stair chase initiated by the false alarm, Anderson does his cast-encumbered best to jump to his feet, extending a hand in farewell. Ambling on crutches to the threshold of his office, he sends a parting note home: “Tell the people at the Del I said hi. I have a soft place in my heart for them. Always will.”