Acclimate Founder Anthony Bartlett is used to being in new situations. As we learned in this blog, very few things daunt our fearless (well, almost fearless) leader. But what’s truly remarkable is his ability to take an experience he’s had a thousand times before and make it feel fresh and exciting for a newcomer.
That’s the starting point for this Q&A with Anthony about the business side of Acclimate.
How do you sell St. Louis exactly?
We go about that process a little differently around here. First, almost to a fault, our days and nights are the opposite of “touristy” – even though it’s kind of a “tour.” We don’t drive them in a circle. We’ve never taken the same route twice. I tell our guides all the time: every city has parks and museums. While ours are truly amazing, we aren’t the only ones who rave about their Zoo. Put another way, clients aren’t 6th graders on a field trip. They don’t need us to find the Arch. We want them to catch a glimpse of a real day in the life outside the office – for themselves, their partners or their families. We sell St. Louis as “cheap-er” but not “cheap,” as it’s not really a reason to move anywhere – at least not for top talent.
I’ve also found that by far the best way to help people get where they're going is to understand where they're coming from. Since exploring outside markets vicariously through our clients was always a personal interest and part of the fun for me, that generally comes first in our process.
If I don’t know much about the city from whence they came or haven’t visited before, I’m burying myself in the life and culture of said place near and far. It’s not unlikely that I’ve stayed up watching a city’s sizzle reels on YouTube and probably scoured our network of local hosts and former clients originally from the same geographic region to give me the 411 or even lend a hand. Simply put, no one sells a skeptical New Yorker on the idea of living here better than another (formerly skeptical) New Yorker in the car.
Once people arrive, I usually spend as much time grilling them about a day in life there, from whence they came, as I do talking about a day in the life here. Throwing the shoe on the other foot, I want to know everything about their corner of the universe in Nashville, Toronto, Denver or Delhi. I want to know about the kids' schools, their favorite haunts and bakeries, coffee shops, local delicacies, congregations, neighborhoods, the dating and social scene – whatever – right down to the goriest detail. I want to know the local beers they drink, the music they listen to, if the construction is new or old. I want to know their handicap, where the bike lanes are and the teams they follow.
When someone says Giordano’s or Primanti’s, Cubs or Socks, Sonoma or Solvang, something needs to click. And catching subtle references and tiny details matters. Silly as it may seem, you can tell a lot about how to help someone by what they put on a hotdog or how they crush a bowl of ramen.
While it’s not apples to apples, I’ll take those references and try to put them in a St. Louis language they can understand. “That school you’re talking about sounds like our John Burroughs. The congregation you're describing could be The Journey. A similar look and feel might be Tower Grove South. Oh, that’s your favorite dish in Minneapolis? Let’s be sure to try a place called Lona’s Lil Eats while you’re here.”
Once you demonstrate that we know and love, say, Iowa City, as much as they do, we learn where to differentiate or find an edge. Then we give it to them straight. I want them to know which parts of St. Louis will be better, worse or the same. I'll flat-out say, “Here we're going to be able to compete and then some. Here we will not. Here, as a city, we have room for improvement and could sure use your help.”
Where do people moving to St. Louis come from mostly?
It really just depends on the project, industry or employer. For the most part, it’s fairly random. Certainly, St. Louis has a number of privately held, family-owned companies that hire locally or from within. But for every one of those, there are countless others casting their nets for talent far and wide – and internationally too. For example, an institution may be recruiting from a particular university in Indiana, moving a department from Germany or hosting a start-up from Israel. Perhaps they are transferring a team based at a hospital system in Utah, a division in North Carolina or a manufacturer in Washington.
In some years, we might see a preponderance of newcomers from the same neck of the woods. But again, it’s generally wherever the talent or needed candidates reside. And I’d just like to reiterate: Anyone throughout the world NOT moving to Colorado, Texas or Florida right now, come here and give us a shot!
What would you say newcomers notice about St. Louis at first?
Oh man, we could go on forever about this one and have. All kinds of things. But on the lighter side, watching our clients pass by a St. Louis Bread Co. sign for the first time is pretty much the best. Seeing them roll down the window, point and gasp, “Wait, isn’t that place ripping off Panera!?!” At this stage, we share the origin story and assure them it’s not copyright infringement – and usually say something in jest like, “See, maybe you’ve loved St. Louis food all this time!?!”
Speaking of food, where do you usually take them to eat?
I mean, if we’re on the job, clients’ tastes and interests lead the way and take us to countless gems all over – probably way too many to name and thank here. (If you want to see more about where Acclimate goes on the job, follow us on Instagram @acclimate.city.)
But just to give you an idea, receipts from the past quarter have been the fire brunch at Beast Butcher and Block and breakfasts at Songbird, The Wolf, Turn and Southwest Diner. Lunches were Taco Buddha, Companion, The Piccadilly at Manhattan, Anthonino’s and J’s Pitaria. Snacks and stops were Sweet Art, The Annex, Nathaniel Reid, Mideast Market, Balkan Treat Box, Gobble Stop, Diana’s Bakery, Donut Drive-In, Pastaria Deli & Wine, Lefty’s Fried Rice, Kohn’s, Havana’s Cuisine, Clementine’s and Yummi Tummi. For drinks, it’s been a lot of Golden Hoosier, LIT, Basso, Tamm Avenue, 33, ‘ssippi, and Sophie’s Artist Lounge. Dinners have been everything from O&O Pizza, Turmeric and Diego’s to Sugo’s, Tiny Chef and Tai Ke Shabu Shabu. (And now we know why Anthony has gained a thousand pounds since starting this job.) [Laughs.]
What do you think are the best local sights to take people when they visit?
Ha. Again, the short and annoying answer is that I don’t have any. We always say, the best tour of St. Louis is their tour, where “itineraries” go right out the window. Maybe it’s visiting wineries, boutiques or horse farms. Others it’s meeting with piano teachers, museum curators or chefs. Of course, we’ll roll by the Arch and Forest Park and all that stuff to say hi. But people don’t really need me to find those sorts of things. We operate on Maya Angelou’s mantra around here (shoutout to a St. Louis native!) that it’s most important to leave clients with a feeling – that they are seen, known and understood – then, most notably, that they can find a life here to enjoy. Once you’ve done that, then I think it’s best to select the specific sights a person needs to see or experience at the time. After someone uncovers that taste of home or has their immediate needs addressed, they can move on to the local foods, tourist attractions or history tours run by actual professionals who are credentialed in that sort of thing, unlike me.
Our days with folks look more like hanging out at the MAC, Demun Park or Life Time Frontenac. Maybe we’re taking a car full of kiddos to the Missouri Botanical Garden or building Legos at MADE – showing Mom or Dad a few neighborhoods and schools along the way. Maybe it’s none of that, and the client just needs to decompress by walking around CAM, hitting the Vault and grabbing a glass of wine before going back to the hotel.
We had someone recently who couldn’t absorb a thing until understanding the healthcare options for herself and her growing family. Our days consisted of touring Palm Health and visiting the likes of Blue Fish Pediatrics, Children’s Hospital Specialty Care Center and the NICU at Mercy. We even stopped at some Total Access Urgent Cares and the MoBap ER for good measure. So while medical offices or hospital waiting rooms might not sound like a rockin’ good time, those sights were, for her, the best in St. Louis that day – and a “VIP” experience for sure.
Well, speaking of the ER, any crazy moments from touring people over the years you can share?
Haha. I mean, other than the occasional flat tire or flight delay, we haven’t had emergencies like that, knock wood. In general, what happens in an Acclimate car, stays in the car. However, I’m always happy to share my own outtakes – far more numerous than I’d like to admit. (When you host around 75 tours a year for the better part of a decade, believe me, you’re going to see it all.)
My favorite one at the moment was spilling a thousand dollars worth of wine at Paul Manno’s. Although before sending our corporate clients into a panic, I’d like to elaborate with a disclaimer that we do abide by very reasonable budget parameters for meals and entertainment. (Guests aren’t allowed to reach for their wallets when they’re with us and we were in fact paying for dinner, as we always do.) Having said all that, one of our candidates insisted on – for the table – splurging on some power bottles of cabernet on his own dime. So the server brings them over, does the whole song and dance, pours him a taste and a measly half glass, sets it all down … and BAM, I knock the table like Chris Farley talking about god knows what to send the whole situation flying.
There it all was, glugging out in slow motion like a crime scene as if literally choreographed to Frank Sinatra's voice in the air. Luckily, our guest thought it was hilarious. I was mortified. The best (or worst?) part is that I was driving everyone, and so I was profoundly sober, sipping on club soda or something no fun at all (which, of course, was the only glass on the table that didn’t fall over).
I noticed you also work with people after they move. What’s that like or how is it different?
We do. Pre- and post-decision, we call it. And yes, oftentimes it’s in the months (or even years) after they get here that people need the most help – with the boxes unpacked and the dust settled, so to speak. Funnily enough, our work on this end is eerily similar to what we do for someone on an initial visit – although it’s not all jammed into a whirlwind weekday or weekend. We still have community immersion days and tours out in the field, but for those already living here, we’re kind of like a remote city dispatch, cruise director or yenta for friend-dating.
The best part on this end of the job is seeing how one introduction, tiny adjustment or recommendation can totally move the needle and flip someone’s overall St. Louis script. Maybe a transplant had yet to go inside that bistro hiding around the corner or discover the club, congregation or would-be pal they didn’t know was here. Maybe they wanted a new neighborhood vibe or a friendlier place to volunteer. Anything, really.
It’s also insanely cool hearing that two people introduced through Acclimate became the best of friends. Every now and again we’ll see a cadre of locals and newcomers cheers-ing at the bar, posting holiday party pics or having play dates in the park with kiddos who hit it off. Sometimes they’ll even be in each other’s wedding parties or take the plunge themselves. Although we’re all about the peer (as opposed to romantic) connection, happy accidents do happen and we get a “save-the-date” at the office – which, crazy as it is to say, has occurred at least a dozen times over the years.
I try to warn all of our single clients moving to the area that the Arch is secretly a giant magnet. And while St. Louisans are pretty bad at casually dating, they’re REALLY good at getting married! [Laughs.]
Is there a lousy time to show people around St. Louis?
Totally – although not for the reasons you might think. Virtually every instance that St. Louis is in the national spotlight for something not so great, the texts and emails start pouring in with someone on the other end saying, “Welp, your job just got a lot harder” or “How in the hell are you going to get people to move here now!?!”
But honestly, if we let every pervading news story or political fiasco get in the way and end the conversation full stop, we’d never be able to do our work. For us, it’s actually the little things that prove to be the biggest obstacles. As an example, St. Louis is a really tough sell on a Monday or early in the week with so many of our local gems being closed – especially post-pandemic. Certainly, we have our go-to places and it’s still doable. But things can be a little too quiet or subdued for those coming from bustling pedestrian markets.
Another factor is that St. Louis shows terribly in the rain. Contrary to popular belief, most candidates (worried they are moving to the Arctic tundra) are pleasantly surprised by the weather. Hot or cold, humid or not, winter or summer, St. Louis is a beautiful place that truly shows well in any season, except for in the rain. Of course, we can’t control the weather, and we still have fun. And anything we do is better than someone sitting alone in a dark hotel room after an interview. But most of the time a job offer gets turned down, it’s after a candidate spent the entirety of their first visit in a foggy downpour. Thankfully, however, people usually get at least one sunny morning or afternoon per trip.
Various bloopers and obstacles aside, what’s the best part of your job?
Easy. I’m utterly addicted to that moment when you see someone’s St. Louis disposition totally change course in real time. For example, it’s not uncommon to have a candidate’s spouse land at Lambert Airport virtually (or literally) in tears, praying they won’t have to move or their significant other declines the job – only to go from a hard “no” to a “hell yes” by the end of the trip. It can feel like whiplash but in the greatest of ways.
There's nothing quite like watching a world-famous executive kick off her Louboutins, barrel roll down a 10-story slide (yes, that one), crash into her young boys at the bottom and belly laugh to the floor – only to get up, brush herself off and say, “Ya know what? I’m starting to feel like we could be happy here. Thank you.” You just never know when those magic moments or transformations are going to be. And for me, they never, ever, get old.
It also never gets old watching those extraordinary people turn around a year later to recruit former co-workers, friends, family members and even more talented folks to St. Louis, better than I ever could. Whenever I see them headline speaking engagements, sit on panels, chair non-profit boards, build fabulous businesses, expand their departments, fund developments and/or otherwise sing from the social media rooftops growing St. Louis in their own unique ways, it warms me to the core.
I guess that's the last best thing about this job – finding solace in the fact that Acclimate is really just the intermediary, and not alone in it at all. That all the moving parts can fall into place if we connect newcomers to the people, projects, and places already here. That everyone's endeavor in town – be it their service, artistry, music, mixology, curation, cuisine or friendship has a role to play. That we really can do just about anything working together. Attract almost anyone. That St. Louis might one day become the possibility it was always meant to be. And you know? That would be alright with me.
Anthony Bartlett is the Founder of Acclimate. Acclimate helps companies attract, hire and retain top talent within the St. Louis region by connecting prospective candidates and new hires with the lifestyle, communities, preferences and affinity groups that maximize their quality of life.