At the top of his LinkedIn profile, Gathan Borden declares, “I have a love affair with all facets of the marketing function.” That’s an easy statement to make, but his professional successes back it up.
Borden, vice president of marketing for VisitLEX, has brought his love affair to Lexington’s tourism with a new energy, focus and vision for the future. He also has 10 years of experience in marketing to draw on.
From Fraternity Fliers to Telecoms and Tourism
In his junior year at the University of Kentucky — while pursuing a double major in business marketing and business management — Borden became president of his fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi. The role required creating events, and that’s when he discovered his passion for marketing.
“This party, or this community service event, is actually a product — and our goal is to go out there and market it. And I started enjoying that aspect of it,” Borden says.
They started with fliers and handbills. Then Borden looked to technology. He taught himself to code and launched the fraternity’s first web presence — on Geocities. His marketing worked, too.
“We used to throw a lot of parties at Heritage Hall, and we used to sell those parties out completely all the time,” he recalled with a smile. “We were the only fraternity that was able to do that.”
After graduation, Borden spent five years in sales with telecoms. While successful, he knew he wanted more. In 2007 the Greater Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau created a marketing manager position, and Borden applied on a whim, even though he wasn’t a match on paper.
“When I got to the face-to-face interview, [they] told me, ‘You have got the least education and you have the least tourism experience because you have zero,’” Borden recalled.
But Borden’s reputation and sales skills trumped his résumé’s soft spots, and he got the job, and just as well for Louisville’s tourism scene.
The Early, Early Days of Social Media
Drawing on his Geocities experience, Borden began by establishing Louisville’s tourism firmly into the social media scene.
“I remember our first conversation about doing social media was ‘should we do a Myspace page or a Facebook page?’ and we’re arguing it back in forth in the office,” Borden said.
They settled on Facebook. But Borden didn’t stop there. When Foursquare started gaining traction, Borden added everything from Louisville’s visitors’ guide into the app — an easy and inexpensive way to create a mobile, digital version of the information long before customized apps existed.
“When somebody checked in to a place, they would automatically get a pop-up that came from the Louisville CVB, and it would say, ‘Thanks for checking in or registering at ABC. Make sure you go visit this place and this place and this place,’” Borden says. “From that time I’ve been known as the social media guy from Louisville.”
Building Urban Bourbon
Foursquare check-ins at bars and restaurants might not have been the beginnings of urban bourbon tourism, but Borden made the program formal.
Mirroring the success of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail program, in 2008 Borden as part of a team at the Lousville CVB created Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail program. Back then, there weren’t any distilleries in Louisville open for visitors.
“All we were doing was marketing: ‘Stay in Louisville, go to Bardstown, come to Lexington, come out this way and visit a distillery but come back to Louisville for the night life,’ and so we were promoting the bourbon bars and restaurants,” Borden says.
That was one piece of a long-term plan for bourbon tourism that included the then-crazy idea of establishing distilleries along Main Street in the “slugger corridor” between the Louisville Slugger factory and the Louisville Slugger Field. It didn’t take long for his vision to take shape. Just four years later, Heaven Hill announced development of the first museum-style distillery — the Evan Williams Experience — to be built in downtown Louisville.
“One of the main reasons they did that was because of all the tourism marketing that we were doing for bourbon as a whole,” Borden says.
By the end of this year, downtown Louisville is expected to have eight distilleries open for visitors.
With those substantial successes, Borden’s reputation had grown enough for Lexington to reach out to him.
“When the position opened up here, Mary Quinn [Ramer] called my boss in Louisville,” Borden said. Ramer, president of VisitLEX, had a job opening and knew exactly who she needed.
With Louisville tourism on solid growth, Borden saw Lexington as his next challenge, and he joined Ramer’s VisitLEX team in July 2015.
After reimmersing himself in Lexington’s culture, Borden created his “Four Pillars” marketing strategy: bourbon, horses, beer and food. He describes these as “anchors.”
“When you’re trying to market a destination, you’ve got to have something major that’s going to say, ‘Wow, that’s on my map,’” he said.
But he also realizes there’s a lot more to Lexington.
“How do we build up the remaining pillars of Lexington — the arts, the culture, the history, the heritage, the live music?” he said. “You talk about NoLi and Crave and Thursday Night Live — all these things that are the fabric of Lexington — now we’re going to get into telling those stories. Once you come here for a bourbon distillery tour or a horse farm tour, that’s only going to last you a couple of hours. You’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do for the rest of the day.”
Sharing the Lex
Predictably, Borden is continuing to take technology marketing to its limits. His current approach includes the new ShareTheLex.com website — a platform for local influencers to showcase — the city — and a “Content 365” program of publishing a piece of content a day.
With video expected to account for a growing share of online traffic, Borden is making it a priority. VisitLEX filmed 100, 15- to 30-second videos showcasing Lexington and the surrounding counties, focusing on scenic shots — especially aerials — with text overlays.
He’s even taking Lexington on the road with 360-degree virtual reality experiences designed for tourism and meeting conventions.
The Future of Lexington Tourism
Tourism globally is trending toward location, exclusivity and personalization.
Airbnb recently launched “Experiences” to capitalize on this trend. Airbnb’s Experiences are built on three components: exclusive access, experiential participation and original perspectives. And while Airbnb hasn’t (yet) included Lexington in the list of cities included in the program, Borden will ensure the city isn’t left out.
“Tourism across the board is really all about handcrafted experiences. Everybody wants to go where they can experience something that they can’t experience at home,” Borden said. “And you can’t get any more handcrafted than bourbon.”
And while the handcrafted experiences are still in the development phase, all of Borden’s programs have a singular focus.
“My No. 1 goal is to get Lexington on the list for the best places to travel for 2018 or 2019,” Borden said. “That is my ultimate goal. If we can get there, then we’ve achieved what we’re supposed to achieve.”