The story of how a PR pioneer helped generate Expo 67 fever

When Montreal was handed the right to host the 1967 universal exhibition in 1962, it was never going to be easy.

Russia had originally won the right to hold the event, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution, but had to back out. As well, New York City's World's Fair in 1965 had been a disappointment, with financial problems and a lack of international support.

But from the start, Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau had a vision.

He wanted to turn around the city's reputation and make it a world-class city. And he believed Expo 67 was the ticket.

Becoming the Paris of North America

Before the 1960s, Montreal welcomed tourists — but not always the right kind.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the city was known as a kind of sex capital of North America — a place where you could buy alcohol and find prostitutes easily and cheaply. But in the mid-1950s, crusader Pax Plante cleaned up the city, arresting corrupt police officers and closing brothels.

Drapeau began to construct a new kind of reputation for Montreal as an international city, as the Paris of North America. 

But to help attract a new and better kind of tourists, Drapeau turned to a U.S. public relations company which was a new concept at the time. 

Golden age of PR

The man he hired, Bob Wolcott, wrote about the challenge later in his unpublished memoirs.

"When we inherited this massive account just a year before it opened, we entered a negative media situation, for the N.Y. World's Fair was not all that great, and thus we first had to overcome that huge wall of negativity towards any World's Fair," he wrote.

The PR industry, at the time, was entering a golden age. Businesses were turning away from the advertising "mad men" of the time and turning to PR consultants who would act as middle men to deal directly with journalists — in those days, newspaper and wire service reporters.

Wolcott decided on an unusual, and somewhat expensive strategy.

His company, Robert B. Wolcott Associates, wrote to journalists around both America and around the world and offered them a free trip to Montreal to see the infrastructure under construction and to experience first-hand the excitement that was building. 

"To do this," he wrote, "we organized a series of media trips to Montreal. These were two-day visits, including a tour of the magnificent site, interviews with Expo's top leaders.... In short, we showed off the product, and when you have a great product then you can communicate, and this was precisely an example of that PR tenet." 

His son, Denis Wolcott, also a seasoned PR expert, says the strategy was novel at the time — and very successful.  

"When you bring a thousand media people there in groups, they're all going to come away with not one story, but with multiple stories. That can be spread out over time,"  he said in an interview.

There was so much to see, he said, " and if you do it far enough in advance, with that kind of coverage, it's hard to imagine the public wouldn't be interested."

Resounding success

The public was very interested. In the end, more than 50-million people passed through the turnstiles. Many, of course, were Quebecers and Canadians. But many also came from the United States and around the world.

As Bob Wolcott wrote, the payoff from the journalists was enormous. 

"All the media outlets did major feature spreads on Expo, and this paved the way for what would be a record-breaking attendance. I always used to say that every major publication in the country did a big feature on Expo — except Playboy!"

It also helped that the product itself was exciting.

"The thing we recall is that Montreal itself was being billed as a beautiful city," Denis Wolcott says. "All the charm could be talked about there. The world was getting smaller. People heard about world expos before, but this one had some technology people had not heard about before."

That's what Denis Wolcott remembers from his own visit to Expo 67, when he was 11 years old.  

He remembers seeing, for the first time ever, multiple screens up on a wall, showing images from all over the world.

"Essentially what we see today in any airport or sports bar," he remembers. "But back then, seeing the use of screens and imagery was new and exciting. We could see where the world was headed."

That moment in 1967 was a catalyst for Montreal's tourism industry. Millions of people went home with positive images of the city: the technology, the centenary of Confederation, the mini-skirted hostesses. And many returned again in later years.

Enduring legacy

The creation of Île Notre-Dame and La Ronde and the re-creation of Île Ste-Hélène in the middle of the St. Lawrence River left an infrastructure that, after many iterations, still brings millions of visitors to the city.

The president of Tourism Montreal, Yves Lalumière, says the number of people who arrived in 1967 had to have been more than expected.

In those days, he says, Montreal had maybe one-third the number of hotels it has today. "Can you imagine? It was truly a fantastic event for the city...truly gigantic at that time."

Expo 67 also left an important legacy. Lalumière says the two islands "are still a jewel for Montreal: a fantastic recreational product for the city and, in the end, a good investment.… unfortunately we let it go for many years, but we have now learned, we need to keep it up."

And he says Expo 67, followed by the Olympics nine years later, helped to make Montreal truly an international city.