The late Bill Thompson Hardman was the pioneer for tourism in Georgia, the Southeast and the U.S. He was Georgia's first tourism director, the first president of the Southern Travel Directors' Council (now Travel South USA), chairman of the Travel Industry Association of America (now U.S. Travel Association), a key player in the development of the Georgia World Congress Center and the architect of the Southeast Tourism Society (STS).
In 1959, Gov. Ernest Vandiver appointed him Georgia's first tourism director. Hardman recalled in a 2002 newspaper interview that he told the governor he didn't know anything about tourism but that the governor asked him to stay for a couple of months. He stayed almost 12 years. Georgia was largely a pass-through state for Florida-bound vacationers then, but Hardman saw huge potential. During his tenure as state tourism director, he built the state's first eight welcome centers, launched a tourism advertising program, conducted the nation's first Governor's Conference on Tourism and promoted Georgia throughout the U.S. and in Canada and Europe.
He left state government in 1970 and founded Hardman Productions, which conducted travel and RV trade shows and other events. Hardman was hired in the early 1970s to lobby the Georgia legislature to appropriate $30 million to build the Georgia World Congress Center and to place it in Atlanta. Many legislators wanted the facility in other cities. "There's no Bill Hardman Room in the World Congress Center, but he was the visionary," according to Georgia Public Service Commission Chairman Lauren "Bubba" McDonald Jr. in a 2002 newspaper article that announced Hardman's induction into the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau Hospitality Hall of Fame.
Hardman's service on the national stage included being chairman of the Travel Association of America, now U.S. Travel Association, and having the longest tenure on that association's board of any member, more than 40 years.
In 1983, Hardman was at the center of the creation of the Southeast Tourism Society, which started with seven states and has grown to 12. "Bill Hardman has many legacies, but STS is one that continues to touch people every day and to strengthen the industry he came to love," said Bud Flora, retired senior vice president and former publisher of the Southern Living magazine.
Professional development is a key component of STS, and Hardman, along with his wife Dorothy, helped create the STS Marketing College, which leads to Travel Marketing Professional (TMP) certification. STS Marketing College programs are at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega every summer, and more than 1000 tourism professionals have earned TMP certification. "There are professionals throughout the tourism industry who are the beneficiaries of many programs and projects my father started. He was proud of that," said his son, William T. Hardman, who succeeded his father and currently serves as president and CEO of STS.