In Business Q & A
James Woodrow and Michele Tell-Woodrow, owners, Preferred Public Relations
July 6, 2007
Interviewed by Phoebe Sweet/Staff Writer
When Michele Tell and James Woodrow met in 1997 in a creative writing class at UNLV, love wasn't the only thing that blossomed.
So did the couple's public relations firm, Preferred Public Relations & Marketing, which they opened in 1999 from the kitchen table of their condo while they were dating.
Eight years later they have more than 20 employees and 35 clients, billed $1.8 million in 2006 and are in the process of doubling their office space.
Woodrow, from Honolulu, has a finance degree and worked in the hotel and convention industry in Hawaii before moving to Las Vegas and meeting Tell, who was raised here for most of her childhood.
Tell-Woodrow started out in PR at Warner Brothers Pictures in Los Angeles and soon returned to Las Vegas to work in the gaming industry.
In addition to a successful public relations and marketing firm, the partners have two young daughters.
They attribute their success - inside and outside of their business - to sharing common goals. No matter what the workday brings, they say, it's nothing a chat over dinner with the girls can't solve.
In Business reporter Phoebe Sweet sat down with the couple in their under-construction offices this spring to talk about how their company has grown and where it's headed.
Michele, tell me about your background with Las Vegas casinos.
Tell: I started at the Sands and became the director of public relations. And then I launched MGM Grand. I joined MGM in 1992 and launched the property in 1993. I stayed with the company until 1999. That's when I met James and we decided to tip our entrepreneurial hat and started Preferred Public Relations & Marketing in 1999. We opened up Preferred PR while we were dating. We opened up the business, then we got married, then we had two children.
Tell me how you made the decision to open up the business? What were your motivations?
Tell: I was in the hotel/casino industry for 10 years, three years at the Sands and seven years at the MGM Grand, and after 10 years it was just time. And I met James and fireworks happened on so many different levels. He has always been business-minded, and we just wanted to try it.
Woodrow: I moved to Las Vegas because it was just a great market. And housing at that time was very affordable and I was going to go for my MBA at UNLV. I met Michele and started working in the business industry here and felt that it would be a great time back in 1999 to start our own business. I come from a very entrepreneurial family, and back at the time that I met Michele I had my own writing company. I used to write for some advertising agencies and do a lot of proofing for productions.
Did you have a goal or a vision of what you wanted the business to become?
Tell: Absolutely. Being a client in this industry for 10 years - and I was a client to many PR agencies from around the world - we wanted to create an agency that was extremely results-driven, extremely passionate about our clients. And we set some goals. We saw the growth that was happening in Las Vegas - never imagined that it would be this strong, but did see that growth happening - and saw so many new industries coming into our market that we thought it would be great to tackle strategic PR campaigns. So we put our minds together and made a one-year plan. We were dating. We started the agency on our kitchen table, really, in our townhouse. A month later he proposed. We started working and 24 hours after I left MGM Grand to launch Preferred with James we had landed four clients. The Venetian resort was our first client, and MGM Grand hired us immediately to launch the lion habitat ¦ All of these clients started coming on board and I think these clients saw our passion and our drive to create a whole results-driven PR agency.
Did you expect it to take off like that?
Woodrow: We work, not only with our clients on strategic timelines - three, six, nine month plans - we also do that operationally for our business. We work on a short-term, mid-term and long-term plan, going out no further than five years. And since 1999 we've grown tremendously and we have exceeded our expectations. I thought it would take a lot longer - probably double or triple the time it has - to generate the success that we have.
We have 21 employees, we bought our building back in 2004 - didn't think that would happen until longer out from now.
How many clients do you have?
Woodrow: About 35.
And what was your billing last year?
Woodrow: It was approximately $1.8 million.
And you just celebrated your eighth anniversary?
Tell me how you have changed over the years aside from size.
Tell: We just recently created a two-practice area company. We have one practice area that's arts and entertainment and another that's business and gaming and real estate. So we have two distinct practice areas. In addition, we have a special events department and we have a crisis communications team. These are the four areas we specialize in.
When we opened up our company we became so special-events intensive that we had to create a special events division. And it became a smart way of handling business. Rather than having your publicist do all the events we have one specialized department that runs our special events. We do probably 100 to 125 special events each year. That's grand openings, everything to do with media relations, whether it's concierge events, destination management company events, taxicab events, grand openings, anniversaries, topping-off ceremonies - anything to drive media attention and public relations.
What are some of your favorites?
Tell: Launching the Venetian was one of my favorites. We've done so many recently. We just launched the Grand Canyon Skywalk.
Woodrow: The Nevada Development Authority - we roll out some interesting campaigns, whether it's in California, we're launching a campaign in Boston, and we just targeted New Jersey as well.
Tell: We've done every special event for every ride the Stratosphere has launched and those have been spectacular. And then we do a lot of corporate events which are smaller in scope but just as important.
What's the hardest part about being the boss?
Woodrow: We've found that running a company with four or five staff is much different than running it with 10 or, of course, 20. And so every couple of years we have to reinvent how we structure and how we have the flow chart work. And that's a challenge, but we need to make sure that we're as efficient and effective as possible.
Does that help keep you on your toes and innovative?
Woodrow: Yes. It really does. And with that, we're growing our company not only size-wise and with different types of clients, diversifying out to different industries, but also our clients are getting bigger and that keeps us on our toes.
Tell: We're always on our toes, and being innovative in this industry is always important. We feel that we are a cutting edge public relations part of the industry. We try new things, we research new things.
I'd like to hear from both of you what your favorite parts of running a company are.
Woodrow: I'd have to think about that one.
Tell: You know, I really enjoy teaching people public relations and helping them learn strategy and development. We're very big on strategy at Preferred Public Relations. Everything we do is very strategically laid out. We pride ourselves on that strategic-thought process. And we feel because we're so strategic that's what drives so many of the results we attain for our clients. And I enjoy really helping and guiding our staff members and learning from them every day. So many new industries are coming into our market and even though PR can be applied to all of them it's still a new experience for everybody. So that's quite exciting.
Woodrow: I wouldn't per se call it being the boss, but building a business is a creative endeavor. It really is. It's not just business. It's very creative and there are challenges every day, whether focusing with the staff on being more efficient or coming up with innovative ideas and out-of-the-box thinking. So our whole focus is to really try to build a business and make it a viable entity and march forward. It's just a very creative endeavor and it's very fun.
Tell: It's very fun.
Tell me about this renovation project you have going on.
Tell: Well, a couple of years ago when we decided to buy a building, that was a big step forward. We were one of the first independent public relations agencies to really dive in and buy a building and create it from the ground up. You can see we've created our area to look like an interactive newsroom. What is public relations? Public relations is a newsroom serving newsrooms. We work efficiently as a newsroom serving other news facilities. We've created a newsroom atmosphere. And we have taken up half of the building and have grown to take over the other half and we're very excited to do that.
Woodrow: Again, we moved forward a little quicker than we thought. We purchased the building and leased out half. And now we need that other half. It's a challenge to decide exactly how we're going to utilize that space. But we're going to knock out some walls, build some other offices.
Tell: We're building a creative space for thinking called "The Cave,"so that will be very exciting. It's just nice to be able to take over the other side and have two conference rooms and some space and now that we have two major practice areas - arts and entertainments on one side and the business/gaming division on the other - maybe we'll separate into different areas. But we're just excited to expand and have some creative space.
Tell me about The Cave and the philosophy behind it.
Tell: The Cave is just going to be a place where people can think and explore and expand their minds. One of the elements of public relations that I feel is so exciting is the fact that you can reinvent your clients. That's one thing I very much pride Preferred Public Relations on, is that we've been open eight years and we have more than 20 clients that have been on board six and seven years. And to be able to continuously do great PR for our clients, we have to be creative and go out of the box and think beyond the immediate to create great PR campaigns. Part of our philosophy is open thinking. And we really want our team members out there to be passionate and really expand their minds. It makes it fun to come to work every day.
Obviously you're expanding the size of your office. Are you looking to grow the business more, too?
Woodrow: Well, we're always looking for more growth, but we're not doing it aggressively. We really try not only to be selective in the staff we hire but also the types of clients we take on. We have to make sure everybody we are associated with, work with and work for is a great fit for everybody.
Do you ever turn down business?
Woodrow: Yes. We may turn down a client who may want us to do something that might be better suited for another type of marketing agency. Sometimes we feel the type of business they want us to promote might not be a good fit for our client mix.
Tell: A lot of people think that PR can happen in two hours, and yes we do creative quick-turnaround programs, but it's amazing that people will invest several million dollars and then expect PR to happen in a 24-hour experience. We turn down clients if it's not a perfect fit.
Woodrow: It's just part of the nature of business. You can't take on everything. Las Vegas is growing and we want to make sure that from the get-go we have a good relationship with whoever we decide to work with and whoever decides to work with us.
Tell: It's like everything - you have to have that connection, that passionate connection, between PR agency and client for it to work.
Now let's talk about who your clients are. Tell me some of your big accounts.
Woodrow: Nevada Development Authority is a big and important client for us. It's a fun client. Everybody thinks it's just a business client, but we do some great, innovative things with Nevada Development Authority, with Sommer Hollingsworth. We travel to other states and promote Las Vegas on a business level, which is interesting and also a challenge because Las Vegas is so well-branded as an entertainment and a gaming resort property.
Tell: We have a lot of great clients and I would love to be able to share all of them because they're all very important. We work with Amazing Johnathan, Aquarius Casino Resort, Blue Marble Development, Boca Raton, Cannery Resorts, Classic Cigar Art, Defending the Caveman at the Golden Nugget, City Mark Development, The SkyWalk at the Grand Canyon, First Asian Bank, Galaxy Theatres, James Hong Documentary, Kim Flowers International, Las Vegas Meetings by Harrah's, Lladro Boutique, Mac King, Makino's, Memphis Championship Barbecue, David Copperfield and Crazy Horse Paris at MGM Grand, Nevada Development Authority, Polly Esther's at The Stratosphere, RA Sushi, Ronn Lucas, Sammy's Woodfired Pizza, Snell & Wilmer Law Firm, Steve Wyrick and the Steve Wyrick Entertainment Complex. Stratosphere Casino Hotel and Tower, Sweet Water Prime Seafood, TAO, The Art of Peter Max Gallery, Vinnie Favorito and the World Jewelry Center.
Woodrow: What's great, though, is that for the most part we keep our clients long term, for years. And that has really been the way we have grown our business has been the foundation. And not only is that a great benefit, it's also helped us diversify and kept us stable as a business.
Tell: And that's very important to keep clients forever, and that means that we're reinventing PR wheels to create that.
Does one or the other of you run each side of the business? Are you, Michele, the arts person and you're the business/gaming person, James?
Tell: Yes. That's basically it. And also I foster new business for the agency and James runs the business. Regardless of what business we are, PR or anything, it's a business. It's employees, taxes, payroll, running our company as a business. James heads that up.
What are your business philosophies as far as new business development?
Tell: Our business has grown from great word of mouth, from clients spreading the word that we're a great PR agency. That's how we build so much of our business, from existing clients expanding their own businesses or sharing the word with friends and colleagues about us. And that's really how we have grown our company is from our clients thinking we do a great job and spreading the word.
And I'm thankful we work with the local media. The local media have also given us some great leads, and some of our high-profile events have garnered some interest in our business.
Internet has been a great way.
What's exciting about Las Vegas is - and I know that this is not a perfect poll - but I can tell you we're still growing based upon the phone calls I get every day. Every day I get calls. Boston, I just got a call from Cleveland today about a restaurant group that's moving into this market in 2009, 2010. I just got a call from a company out of New York that wants to launch a retail store here in 2009. As long as I get those phone calls I know Las Vegas is still headed in a great direction. But that's what happens. People call us and we get to be part of their processes as they're devising their way to get out to Las Vegas and sure enough we get that call a year later. And that what has helped their entire roller coaster.
Let's talk about recruitment on the employee side.
Tell: We're very aggressive. I'd like to say we're the hub for the PR resumes. We get probably 10 to 15 resumes a day. And that word has gotten out among my PR colleagues. They call me and say, Michele, do you have any resumes and I'm happy to give them resumes. That's kind of fun that we have become a resume hub.
We're very aggressive recruiting nationally, we're very aggressive recruiting regionally and we're getting some great talent. There is super talent to be had, you just need to find it and go after it.
How do you hang onto it once you've got it?
Tell: I hope we've created a very fun working environment. We're all A personalities. So that's a great mix. Part of making a great company is making sure you're bringing in the right mixture for what you have. And we've created a real family tight-knit group out there that are very passionate about what they do.
Passion is key at Preferred Public Relations and I can see that in the first 30 seconds of an interview, if somebody wants to be the best in their field, if somebody can't sleep at night because they want something to go perfect, well that's a Preferred candidate. We love that energy and that's the energy we've created here at Preferred Public Relations.
Woodrow: We are always looking to improve on every level, whether it's working with clients or creating a better environment out there for our staff. Because they work hard, and that's one reason we're taking over the second half of the building is to create more space for us so we have more room, and create that Cave environment so people can go in there, relax a little bit, get away from the phone and really think about exactly how to do a project.
Tell: Talent is hard to find in any industry, especially as quickly as Las Vegas continues to grow. But once you find talent you have to hang onto it, and we're very excited about our staff members here at preferred.
It's funny you mentioned that you're like a family here because you really are a family here. I'm curious what that's like - working with your husband.
Tell: I'll answer that one. (Laughs.) We're a different company than when we opened up on our kitchen table. Now we're in a professional building and have an incredible staff here. And James runs his division and I run my division and what's great about it is at the end of the day we have common goals. We want to create a great working atmosphere for our employees and we want to create the most strategic, results-driven agency for our clients. At the end of the day there are no hidden agendas in our partnership. We are after two very key elements: great results for our clients and a great working environment for our team members. So that helps that we share the same vision.
It also helps that we're here to read each other's minds. And our company is still a boutique public relations agency, even though we've experienced great growth. We're still very close-knit and still very involved with all our employees and their strategy. At the end of the day we still have great things to share and that is what has made it very special to work with my husband. That's a very important part of a marriage - to collect at the end of the day and he shares his things and I share my way and we collaborate over the dinner table with our kids. That's what we've created.
There have been some hard times. And there will be with any partner and sometimes I see things one way and he sees things another way. But at the end of the day we share that common vision. We take the personal out of it and (go with) what's best for our company, our clients and our employees.
Woodrow: We get that question asked all the time and the back end of the question is always, "I don't think I could do that with my wife or my husband."Simply put, we complement each other. Everyone has strengths, weaknesses, or things that they want to do or don't want to do and we sort of round each other out and we march forward.
Do you have any other specific goals or plans for the agency?
Woodrow: Yes. We always have things that we think and let them ruminate. Some of those things we don't like to mention.
Tell: I will tell you, we are a national agency. We handle national PR for the majority of our clients and international PR as well. Our reach nationwide is quite strong. We may be located at Jones and Sahara and do local PR every day for all of our clients, but we're also a national agency with a national reach. So we're expanding some horizons out on a national level and we do have plans to have a second and third office in other states.
We have been approached and we're ruminating about that to see if that's where we want to grow. Right now Las Vegas is our main priority, our clients here are our main priority, but we do have a national capability that we want to explore as well as a couple of other business opportunities that James and I might want to tackle as well.
Tell me how the industry has changed since you began.
Tell: The Internet has changed the entire face of public relations and it's become a consumer-to-consumer process. People buy things based upon what they've heard from other people. And you have to change with that, and James and I, at Preferred Public Relations, have debuted some things on our Web site that will be second to none to keep us ahead of the trend of the Internet-based public relations world.
Woodrow: The media and how it's perceived is changing. There are some good opportunities out there. You have blogging, you have the Internet that is really coming online. The way people get the news has really changed. The younger generation is really looking more to each other and the Internet to get their information and their opinions out. There are some challenges with the traditional media, but I think regardless, as long as you can truly and effectively transform yourself and roll with those trends I think you'll do fine.
Tell: I laugh that I opened up MGM Grand and there was no Internet, there was no Web. I know I'm dating myself, but it has just changed the way that we focus. You will hear less phones ringing in a PR company and more e-mail clicking. It's just a quick, more efficient way to talk to journalists. I used to have to label photographs and that's how I got my cutline. Now everything is digitally transmitted. It's just changed the face. You need to be up on high-tech and you need to be able to service the media as quickly and efficiently as possible.
And as Las Vegas continues to grow, small, independent, boutique PR agencies like Preferred Public Relations will continue to grow. It's very exciting to see Las Vegas expand, especially as a local, a product of the Clark County School District. It's so exciting to see what's happening to our city and how fun it is to be a part of this process. We are a big city with big ideas, and outside companies are looking at our advertising and our public relations as a big player amongst the industry. No longer are they just going to the New York-Los Angeles arena. They're looking at Las Vegas. That's very exciting in our industry.