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Weekly Alibi The Selling of Roswell

Keeping the Phenomenon Fresh

By Os Davis

JULY 17, 2000:  So there you are in Atlantic City, representing an obscure New Mexican town of some 50,000 residents. Hordes of travel writers from the Americas, from European nations as small as Estonia, from far-flung locales like Singapore, see your hamlet as mystery mecca. You find yourself one of the most interviewed people at the convention, a weird aura preceding you. Journalists and Joisey residents alike have a single question for you, hanging on the answer.

It happens if the town you represent is Roswell, a burg with a worldwide reputation out of proportion to its population. The question, natch, is "what really happened there in 1947?"

Tom Garrity, a center of attention at the annual International Travel Writers' Convention in Atlantic City last month, doesn't know the answer; he sure loves being asked, though. Garrity is director of The Garrity Group, a public relations firm recently handed what he terms a "great opportunity": the opportunity to publicize Roswell, "a town more people have heard about than almost anywhere in the Southwest." The Garrity Group began the project with a budget of $110,000--an amount too small to build a campaign based merely on traditional advertising, thus necessitating a different strategy. That amount of money, says Garrity, "will get you a couple of ads. We'd rather shape a message that's more credible and at the same time will get more results."

The result is thus not so much an advertising campaign as an "awareness campaign" with the goal to increase awareness about Roswell through mass media channels. Roswell Mayor Bill Owen heartily endorses Garrity's appeal to the world of journalism: "The press carries a big stick," he says. "They've got more ink in their rollers than we've got. When you can get them talking about us and working with us, it gets lots of people's attention. We want to promote Roswell in as many ways as possible." Luckily, with current hype at a peak, Garrity says that "Roswell is selling itself right now."

That peak is the potential problem facing Roswell's tourism industry, an industry that, Owen explains, "for all practical purposes, didn't exist in Roswell 15 years ago." It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when this town attained its current pop cultural name-dropping status--some cite the 1993 episode of "Unsolved Mysteries" that led to a senate inquiry or The Incident's key function in the plotline of 1996 box office smash Independence Day. Since the 50th anniversary has come and gone, however, an obvious conclusion would be that Roswell's fame is ultimately as fleeting as that of many once-cherished icons. "Roswell" televison program or no, might not the town's 15 minutes be up?

This is precisely what makes Garrity ideal for Roswell. Julie Hewes, Public Relations Officer for the city of Roswell, says, "I think the thing Garrity Group has brought to the campaign is continuity. You had such an influx of people and enthusiasm in 1997 with the 50th anniversary; the entire community was involved. What Garrity Group did was bring all those people to the table and keep everyone together." And Garrity feels that if he can keep this nucleus of Roswellians together, promotional opportunity should last much longer. "Lots of places in the U.S. wish they had the kind of talk appeal of Roswell," he says. For example, how many towns of Roswellian size have even had a TV program named after them? (Truth or Consequences doesn't count--the game show came first.) Garrity feels confident in Roswell's small-town charm and convenient location in a region rife with tourist draws.

The early PR hurdle of recognizability thus passed, the next barrier for Garrity and company to deal with is a question that could dog the town as persistently as the one about UFOs and ETs: "Once we get past the Roswell incident, what is there to talk about?" Owen, too, realizes his town's uniqueness makes for a stumbling block: "There's not another city that we know of that we can use as a model. Every year we're looking at new ways to present Roswell to the world."

Garrity was able to test his ideas for Roswell's image circa 2000 while at this year's All-American City Competition in Louisville, Ky., in May. As one of 30 finalists, Roswell was represented with a display featuring--what else?--the ubiquitous humanoid aliens with hollow eyes and oversized cranium. Onlookers gaped at this arresting exhibit plunked in the midst of old-fashioned Americana. "It's not about aliens," insists Garrity, "but we use the aliens as a hook." Most Louisville visitors swallowed the bait: After an initial reaction akin to "Aliens, huh?" Garrity and company were able to deftly expand the picture of Roswell to include tales of historical relevance, the New Mexico Military Institute, and state parks. The PR firm was also in a unique position to promote outlying areas in southeastern New Mexico, as The Garrity Group was also awarded the account for so-called "Region No. 3," an area comprising eight counties from Otero to Lincoln, by the state tourism division.

The All-American City Competition in Lousville, Ky., coincided nicely with an exhibit running at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Entitled "Roswell and the Alien Invasion II," the familiar alien figure drew crowds usually reserved for feature exhibits. Called one of the Space Center's "most popular displays ever," NASA organizers brought the $30,000 display to Roswell to stand as part of the town's recent week-long "Trek Roswell 2000" festivities. As west Texas is one of Garrity Group's focus market, the popularity of the exhibit provides a positive boost to Garrity's strategy.

When asked what would indicate the success of Garrity's campaign, Owen says, "I'd like to see more conversations like this take place." Garrity echoes the sentiments almost to the letter. He likes simply "that people are talking about Roswell." Though too early to tell, Garrity is extremely confident that the town's continued success is inevitable: "The results [Garrity Group campaigns] have had in southeast New Mexico lead us to believe that Roswell will be successful."

An incident that showed Garrity immediate results in a business where results are often untraceable proved to be telling indeed. Having problems returning a rental car while attempting to depart Atlantic City, Garrity met with the acerbic attitude of a New Yorker who'd attended the conference. Impatiently waiting for Garrity's problem to be solved, she complained, "Ah, you Roswell people. That's all I'm hearing about is Roswell this and Roswell that." Garrity, despite himself, was pleased.

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