Friday, August 5, 2016

Mr. Ambassador: UNO Distinguished Alumnus Mark Romig

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Mark Romig grew up in Lakeview, the second of seven children born to devoted Catholic parents who loved their babies, loved the Saints and loved their city.

He was a product of St. Dominic School, Brother Martin High School and, eventually, the University of New Orleans, where he learned he didn’t want to be a dentist but he did want to be a leader.

The plan worked out.

For the past 40-plus years, Romig has found himself telling the story of New Orleans in ways that make New Orleanians proud. From welcoming VIP visitors to the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition just six years out of college to now overseeing one of the most successful New Orleans marketing campaigns the city has ever seen, Romig has proven he’s a home-grown treasure whose heart for the city has inspired him to lay out the welcome mat without trampling on natives’ good will.

That’s why the University of New Orleans International Alumni Association has named Romig (B.S., ’78) its 2016 Homer L. Hitt Distinguished Alumnus. It was at UNO that Romig, now 60, discovered the Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Administration program. It was then a new degree offered through the College of Business Administration—and it would become the perfect career door for Romig, a man who loved to talk, loved to visit and loved to work.

Since taking the reins as president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation in 2011, Romig has been part of a leadership team that has helped the city through a resurgence that brought a record-breaking $7.05 billion in tourism spending last year. With a “Follow Your Nola” campaign that encourages visitors to step outside the well-trodden footprint of the French Quarter to also discover the city’s other beloved neighborhoods, dining experiences and attractions, Romig and his team have sought to draw the kind of tourists who look for authentic experiences, regardless of whether they seek vibrant nightlife or kid-friendly adventure.

Scott Hutcheson, cultural economy advisor to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, says Romig was the brains behind that campaign—and it totally makes sense: “Who wouldn’t want someone who loves the city and knows the city as much as Mark does to carry that message to the world?”

Witnessing graciousness at home  

Nearly every fall Sunday from the time he was a child, Mark Romig would listen to his dad call out his trademark, “First down! Saaaaaaints!” to fiery cheers that would erupt inside the Superdome. Having Jerry Romig, the Saints’ stadium announcer, as your father also meant you knew where you were from, win or lose, up or down. Through 44 years of home games—many of them heartbreakers—Jerry Romig earned and kept the trust of legions of faithful fans, while also building his reputation as a communication pro, from newspaper sports reporter to television station executive to development director for the Archdiocese of New Orleans to spokesperson for Charity Hospital.

Mark saw that. As a child, he and his siblings paid witness to their parents’ determined generosity in both private and public ways, even in the face of tragedy. In the span of two years when Mark was 5- and 6-years-old, mother Janice Romig gave birth to two infant girls, each of whom died due to Rh factor, a blood condition that was hard to treat in pregnant mothers in the 1960s. Mark Romig says he remembers the sadness in the house as the family mourned babies Ruth Ellen and Jan Marie, both of whom passed away at the hospital before coming home. But he also watched as his parents, already parents to four other children, then proceeded to foster 21 babies, his mother lovingly chronicling the infants’ days in their care so that adoptive parents would eventually have a written account of their new babies’ lives prior to being adopted.

When Mark Romig was 20 years old, his parents gave birth to a fifth child, Ellen. And even with their home, hearts and lives full, they continued to foster three more babies.

By then, Mark was a pro at diapering and caring for kiddos—so much so that when he and screenwriter David Briggs, Romig’s partner for 27 years, years ago considered adopting, Mark’s years of helping raise babies factored into their decision.

But the overall message Romig received from his parents’ example was clear.

“It gave us a great appreciation for always reaching out and helping people and also nurturing kids,” Romig says.

From dentistry and the priesthood to something else

Mark Romig and Homer L. HittMark Romig receives his degree from Homer L. Hitt, founder and chancellor of the University of New Orleans, in 1978.

Speak to folks who know and have worked with Mark Romig, and the descriptions usually include words like, “fun-loving,” “sincere,” “genuine,” “knowledgeable” and “hard working.” Ask them how he got that way and, to a person, they all point to Jerry and Janice Romig.

“There’s an inner goodness that can best be described as ‘his heart,’ that I think comes from his parents,” says Clancy DuBos (B.A., ‘76), columnist and publisher of Gambit Weekly. “Mark has a great sense of civic duty and moral duty and, again, I think that comes from both of his parents.”

DuBos recruited Romig into the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity while they were both at UNO. Even back then, he said, Mark Romig was a stand-out, as much for his leadership ability as for his good nature.

“Everybody liked Mark. Every fraternity wanted Mark to be a member,” Dubos says. Not only did TKE win him over as a pledge, it went on to elect him chapter president and, eventually, national president.

“Mark is just one of those guys who, whenever you needed a job to get done, you put Mark on it and you can turn around and walk away and know that it was going to get done and get done right and get done on time,” DuBos says. “And he’s that way in his professional life—somebody who is universally liked and respected and trusted.”

Yet, Romig didn’t always know what he wanted to do with his life.

By the time he enrolled in college, he’d already seriously considered two possible careers: dentistry and the priesthood. A difficult chemistry class at UNO talked him out of the former. And a priest at St. Dominic Church counseled him away from the latter.

When he took an interest survey in college, it concluded he would be great in three career paths: a funeral director, a missionary or a YMCA manager.

That’s when his father stepped in and encouraged him to check out the University’s new Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Administration program.

“He obviously knew me better than I know myself,” Romig says with a smile.

Unfurling New Orleans’ welcome mat

Within the next couple years, Romig found himself taking course loads of 15 to 18 hours while working 30 to 40 hours interning at the Royal Orleans Hotel, where he quickly took a shine to the world of hotel management. In between checking guests in at the front desk, whisking salad dressing in the kitchen, delivering food for room service, and helping out in the accounting and sales departments, Romig kept his eye on Ronald Pincus, the hotel’s sharp-dressing, boutonniere -sporting general manager.

“People loved him,” Romig recalls. “Everything had to be in ship-shape. He just had a knack.”

This was an industry that would allow you to work alongside people from all walks of life—from service personnel to Pavarotti—and Mark Romig dug it.

And if Pincus stood out to Romig, Romig stood out to Pincus, now chief operating officer of the Hotel Monteleone. “He’s one of those people who in our business you’re thrilled to be able to attract to a job in the hotel industry,” Pincus says.

After college, one job seemed to open the opportunity for another, each one giving Romig a close-up look at another side of the hospitality industry. He worked with a tour operator, learning event-planning. That job connected him with famed local architect and Krewe of Bacchus-founder Augie Perez who was working on the Intercontinental Hotel, the opening of which would be timed with the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition. Romig worked for Perez when the development company asked him to open its sales office, becoming the hotel’s first employee.  Soon after, the opportunity arose to work directly for the World’s Fair for two years leading up to its opening.

For a guy in his mid-20s who loved to talk to people, this chance to be the liaison for VIPs visiting his city for the World’s Fair felt like a dream job. He welcomed U.S. Supreme Court justices, Nancy Reagan, Jesse Jackson, Julio Iglesias, Dion Warwick and then-Vice President George H. W. Bush.

“It gave so much joy to every day go onto that fair site,” Romig says.

When the fair ended, Romig worked for a year as executive director of the LaFete summer festival before making his first and only move outside of New Orleans. He headed to Washington, D.C., where, for three years, he used his logistics-planning skills as a staff assistant to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole.

For a quick moment after Bob Dole lost the GOP nomination in 1988, Romig (who says he’s an independent) considered moving to California. But New Orleans drew him home again. He landed a job overseeing marketing and public affairs for Hibernia Bank. It was clear by now that, like his father, Romig had the communication chops necessary to make it in the world of marketing and public affairs.

Today, his resume includes 16 years in leadership at Peter A. Mayer Advertising and three years as vice president of marketing and public relations at HCA Inc., Delta Division. He has served as chairman of The Idea Village, the Allstate Sugar Bowl Committee as well as co-chairman of the media and public relations committee for the 2013 XLVII Host Committee.

Additionally, Mayor Mitch Landrieu tapped Romig to oversee the privately funded 2018 NOLA Foundation, charged by the mayor with organizing events to commemorate New Orleans’ Tricentennial in 2018.

John Williams, dean of the UNO College of Business Administration, which provides a visitor profile report for city marketing purposes each year, says Romig’s ability to get people to rally together has been instrumental in helping New Orleans stand out nationally.

In June, Travel + Leisure even ranked New Orleans the No. 2 city in the U.S. and No. 7 in the world, a particularly remarkable feat given the photos and stories of devastation that dominated national and international news coverage of New Orleans for years following Hurricane Katrina.

“He’s really been doing a great job of conveying the message out and it’s translating over in spending here plus the tourism numbers themselves,” Williams says. “He’s a wonderful, engaging, warm, articulate and very involved individual. Just a genuine person that you immediately like and love to work with. And you can just be assured that he’s always there working and thinking and bringing people together. He’s a rare commodity.”

‘He is not off’

Despite the many hats he’s worn and the kudos he’s accumulated along the way, Romig seems to stand apart most because of his reputation as, simply, a nice guy who possesses what seems to be an innate ability to see the up-side.

And that’s not a bad characteristic for someone charged with selling a city that after Hurricane Katrina 11 years ago nearly lost its pulse.

“It’s very hard for people not to become jaded,” says Hutcheson. “And I think as you live through your professional life and your personal life, different experiences mark you in a certain way. It’s so easy to get bogged down and dwell on the struggle … Mark doesn’t buy into any of that. He recognizes what’s happened but also what he spotlights is where we are now, what we’re doing now. And by acknowledging what’s happening now, you set a path for the future.”

Romig makes a point of helping promote others’ in their careers and, given his own experiences, doesn’t consider it a deficiency when someone is unsure about what profession is right for them. He says he has a policy of never turning away someone who wants to talk about their career. And, as his LinkedIn profile portrays, he makes a point of helping to promote the careers of former colleagues and interns.

Hutcheson, who has traveled extensively with Romig for work, said Romig’s natural optimism boggles his mind. Romig is not a huckster, he says. He’s not satisfied with a shallow tag line mentality, common in public relations circles.

“I look at him sometimes and I’m like, ‘I don’t know how you do this,’” Hutcheson continues. “He goes to everything. He participates gladly. I have traveled with Mark. I have spent more hours with Mark than I have my family, practically. And he is not off.”

When New Orleans lost its bid to host the 2018 Super Bowl, an event the city pursued to coincide with its Tricentennial, a reporter with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune was standing near Romig when he received the news at the Lakewood Golf Club alongside his colleagues.

“Romig,” wrote reporter Katherine Terrell, “swallowed his disappointment and immediately congratulated Minnesota, which he said ‘put together a wonderful bid.’”

"New stadiums are what they are," Romig said, according to the story. "But we have proven ourselves over and over again, that we can put on a great Super Bowl, and we'll have another shot at it again. We'll keep competing because we consider ourselves the best sports venue. But hats off to Minneapolis, congratulations to them."

Before he finished talking to Terrell, Romig added one last thought that ended the story: "Our tricentennial year,” he said, “will be spectacular.”

Holding dad’s microphone

Romig Family PhotosRomig keeps photos of him and his siblings surrounding their father and mother, Jerry and Janice Romig, on top of his desk at his St. Charles Avenue office. Jerry Romig was the Saints’ game announcer for 44 years before retiring in 2013 and passing the responsibility on to his second-born son. He died in December 2015. “Dad was the living legend of football announcing and set the standard,” Mark says, “and it was and remains a daunting challenge to be even a tenth of the announcer that Dad was.”

On Friday, Aug. 26, Romig will take up the microphone at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to announce the Saints’ first preseason home game. It’s the job his father had for 446 home games until he announced his retirement in August 2013, sliding the microphone over to his second-born son to take over.

Two years and four months later, on Dec. 23, 2015, Jerry Romig died.

Asked about starting this new season in the control booth without his father watching, Mark Romig thinks for a second and once again reflects on the up side.

“It’ll be good because we can get mom back into a game,” Romig says. “Last season, that was his twilight, so she was home with him.”

Then he looks across his small St. Charles Avenue office—the walls of which are covered with art and plaques and photos and a big painted alligator—and pulls out a framed photograph showing the LED ribbon board lit up with his father’s name.

“Jerry Romig Forever a Saint,” it reads—a Saints tribute to the man who was their voice, a man who his son remembers as someone who was always welcoming, always optimistic, always had the ability to look beyond motive to seek opportunities to make things better.

Mark Romig picks up the photo and looks at it again.

“I might bring that with me to the booth,” he says.

Read More

University of New Orleans International Alumni Association
Mark Romig Named 2016 UNO Homer Hitt Distinguished Alumnus
UNO International Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni Recipients