Known as “Mr. Tourism,” Bill Hardman revolutionized Georgia’s image with out-of-state tourists and helped to professionalize the state’s tourism industry.
Billy “Bill” Thompson Hardman Sr. was born on June 5, 1926, in Colbert (Madison County) to Inez Thompson and William Luke Hardman, the owner of a general merchandise store. When he was three years old, his father died of pneumonia, leaving behind six children. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, his mother provided for her children by taking in boarders and working in the fields, picking corn and cotton.
Education and Early Career
Given his family’s difficult circumstances, Hardman’s strong work ethic and entrepreneurship began at an early age. He began working in his cousin’s store, selling gas and delivering groceries. In 1939 thirteen-year-old Hardman won a trip to the New York World’s Fair after selling the most newspaper subscriptions, an experience he credited with sparking his interest in travel.
After the outbreak of World War II (1941-45), Hardman enlisted in the U.S. Merchant Marine from late 1943 through 1946. After the war, Hardman briefly attended Piedmont College in Habersham County before transferring to Mercer University in Macon. Although he never finished his degree, Hardman became involved with business enterprises in Warner Robins. In 1948 he married Dorothy Jane Holcombe. After her death in 2000, Hardman married Helen Fincher in 2006.
Department of Commerce
Hardman’s business associates from Warner Robins, including Francis “Abit” Massey (later of the Georgia Poultry Federation) and colleagues in the Georgia Jaycees, helped to forge his path into the tourism industry. In March 1959 Georgia governor Ernest Vandiver Jr. named Hardman director of the state’s newly created Tourist Division within the Department of Commerce (later Georgia Department of Economic Development), which was headed by Massey. According to Hardman, at the time he became tourism director “[Georgia] was known for speed traps, clip joints, and poor roads.” Working with William Keeling of the University of Georgia’s bureau of business research, Hardman conducted a travel research study and then spearheaded attempts to improve Georgia’s reputation among out-of-state travelers. These efforts transformed Georgia from a place to drive through on the way to a beach destination in Florida into a “stop-over” destination.
Under Hardman’s leadership Georgia’s Tourism Division flourished. In 1961 he organized the Georgia Governor’s Conference on Tourism, an annual meeting for industry professionals to learn about the latest trends and techniques. This conference still meets annually and attracts hundreds of industry professionals and exhibitors.
In partnership with the Department of Commerce, the Tourism Division also created welcome centers across the state, along with signature campaigns marketing Georgia to travelers. These included “See Georgia First” and “Stay and See Georgia.” The first Georgia welcome center opened in 1962 in Sylvania, off Highway 301. Hardman promoted Georgia at every chance, with radio and television special programs, booths at tourism trade shows, and floats in parades, including the inaugural parades for U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He even hosted events for Canadian travel-writers. By 1967 tourist spending in Georgia had reached $570.7 million.
In 1965 Hardman became the founding president of the Southern Travel Directors’ Council, in which eight original member states pooled collective resources to wield greater influence in legislative matters for the benefit of southern tourism. That same year a panel at the Georgia Governor’s Conference on Tourism called for greater involvement in international tourism—particularly in Canada and Mexico—which became the council’s focus for the next several decades. In 1971 the council adopted the “Travel South USA” tagline for promotional purposes, which has since remained its popular moniker.
When Hardman retired in 1970, improvements in the state’s tourism industry had made Georgia into a recognized destination. By 2015 the tourism industry was the state’s fifth largest employer with an estimated economic impact of $53.6 billion annually.
Hardman’s concern for Georgia’s reputation as a travel destination continued after his retirement. In 1972 the Georgia General Assembly created the Georgia World Congress Center Executive Board, with the goal of constructing an exhibition and convention hall in downtown Atlanta. Hardman began lobbying for the project and, along with U.S. representative Bill Stuckey, secured a $15,000 contract. The two successfully lobbied the state legislature in 1973 to appropriate $35 million for the construction of the Georgia World Congress Center, which opened in 1976.
In 1983 Hardman founded the Southeast Tourism Society (STS) to establish cooperation between the government and the private sector. For years the STS staged an annual “Capitol Hill Hoedown” in Washington, D.C., for politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists. In 1997 Hardman retired from the STS as president and chief executive officer. By 2015 the organization boasted 1,000 members from eleven states.
Hardman received numerous honors for his many achievements, including induction into the Atlanta Hospitality Hall of Fame and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia Governor’s Conference on Tourism, both in 2002.
Hardman died of heart complications on October 18, 2013, at the age of eighty-seven, in Gainesville. In 2015 the University of North Georgia announced plans to build the Bill T. Hardman Center for Tourism and Hospitality, and the stretch of Georgia state highway 400 running through Dawson and Lumpkin counties was renamed the Bill T. Hardman Hospitality Highway.