Like the athletes who benefited from its sponsorship largesse, Visa International acted according to the Olympic motto - "faster, higher, stronger" - in the aftermath of the Centennial Park bombing.

The International Olympic Committee decreed that the games would go on, and so did the trappings, commercial and otherwise.

"I think the approach the IOC is taking is correct," said John Bennett, executive vice president of international marketing and the architect of Visa's sponsorship strategy. "Athletes in particular are trained to overcome adversity, and probably we ought to take our cue from them."

The Olympic movement skipped a collective heartbeat as the crime of Saturday morning brought forth memories of the terrorist attack in Munich 24 years ago.

This time, too, the games continued. And so did a relatively recent addition to the Olympic lineup: the activities of Visa, Coca-Cola, AT&T, and other corporations that spent hundreds of millions of dollars to support the competition and wrap themselves in the Olympic flag and its symbolism.

Such worldwide sponsors should have netted 99% of their benefits before the games started, said Lesa Ukman, editor of IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago-based newsletter. "If you just rely on two weeks to make your $40 million investment pay off, you're in big trouble."

Visa is using these 17 days in a unique setting to focus on one thing, said Visa U.S.A. president Carl Pascarella: drive card volume.

"It's not by accident that certain guests are here," said Visa U.S.A.'s Michael Beindorff, referring to member banks and valued customers such as retailers and cobranding partners.

"We want them to have a good time," said Mr. Beindorff, who is executive vice president for marketing and product management. "At the same time, there's a clear business purpose for the sponsorship of the Olympics."

Visa scheduled its visitors in four "waves," each of 800 people. The third arrived Saturday, in the wake of the bombing. There were 12 no-shows, the same as in wave two.

Weary but resilient staffers clad in bright blue and yellow Visa shirts and khaki shorts served as hosts to the bankers, merchants, sweepstakes winners, and potential customers at the company's Atlanta headquarters, the Sheraton Colony Square.

For four days these guests are housed, fed, and shuttled to and from events in a whirlwind of hospitality. But the fun was interspersed with business, including meetings of at least two of Visa's regional boards of directors.

"There are certain issues we want to discuss" with the constituencies, Mr. Beindorff said. "We have them in something of a captive, conducive environment."

Visa is not "going to beat them over the head with business," he said, but the games are "an opportunity for us to develop the relationship and get some things done over two or three days that in a one-hour meeting are sometimes not as simple to get done."

"We're walking the line - we don't want to be ostentatious," Mr. Pascarella said. "Our folks are here to work," he said, and the hours are long.

Visa's days begin with a series of meetings, starting with an executive briefing at 7 a.m., a full staff meeting at 8 a.m., and then team meetings as necessary for the plan of action. There is also a morning meeting for each wave of visitors to be updated on Visa's sponsorship and other programs.

One of the frequently asked questions: What does Visa gain from spending millions of dollars to promote its sponsorship? (The $40 million sponsorship fee is the beginning; it doesn't include the associated advertising and promotions, contributions to sports federations, public services like the Olympics of the Imagination art contest for students, or the hospitality detail in Atlanta.)

Citing its own tracking studies since its Olympic partnership began, in 1986, Visa says consumers' perception of the brand improve during Olympic years. As those who rated Visa the "best overall card" increased from 46% in 1986 to 61% in April, Visa's share of the general-purpose card market rose from 35% to 50%.

"Over time people's behavior will follow their belief systems," Mr. Beindorff said. The gap between perception and market share is seen as an opportunity for more Visa growth.

In the Visa surveys, American Express Co. has suffered the opposite fate. In 1986, 18% of consumers rated it the best overall card, but this fell to 7% this year. Its market share has dropped from 27% to 15%.

"There is a branding ruboff," Mr. Pascarella said. "There's absolutely no question in the world about that."

Another Visa study found that consumers aware of its Olympic sponsorship have a higher opinion of Visa - the overall brand and each of several attributes - than people who did not know Visa was a sponsor.

For 1996 Olympics visitors it would be hard not to know that Visa was a sponsor. From the time they arrive at the airport, and between there and the sports venues, are billboards, buses, ATMs, Olympic pins, shirts, hats, and the like proclaiming Visa's sponsorship. And as the exclusive card for the games, Visa is the only one accepted for ticket purchases, merchandise, and concessions at all venues.

"You want to use the Olympics as showcase for your products," Mr. Beindorff said. "Clearly Visa has done that, particularly with Visa Cash," the stored value card program being tested in the metropolitan area.

"You want to associate your brand with a property or entity people think highly of, with the belief that the image transfer happens."

Visa has been steadily ratcheting up its Olympic ads, reportedly spending $30 million on the campaign. Its most recent spot takes advantage of another sponsorship with the Nation Football League. In it, NFL star Deion Sanders plugs the Visa check card. The ad is the first national promotion of a debit program, Mr. Beindorff said.

"Again, I think the games' ability to help you sell more products is in the two years leading up to the games, not the two weeks during the games," said Ms. Ukman of the sponsorship newsletter.


Visa essentially took over the Sheraton at Colony Square, covering two entranceways with an Olympic design that also emblazoned the key cards given to hotel guests.

They also received a special Visa pin. It is attached to the blue pouch they can wear around their necks for identification and to hold event tickets. Within a day, many visitors have their pouches covered with other Olympic pins they have bought and traded.

The Visa pin, in a limited edition of 3,500, has been commanding up to $350 on the secondary market.

Other paraphernalia is also in demand. Visa International president Edmund P. Jensen said he was offered $150 for his Visa tie, and staffers have had to decline offers for their shirts and hats.

A number of the 1,700 people who visited the Visa customer service center left with a less valuable souvenir pins. By Monday, 6,000 had been given out.

The center also had replaced 86 lost or stolen credit cards and $6,125 worth of Visa travelers checks. Its most unusual and urgent request came from a man traveling with the Belarus team who needed a credit line increase, which a local bank couldn't provide. Visa tapped into its international network and had the card issuer do it.


Phil and Sue Hill of England were among 56 sweepstakes winners to watch the games courtesy of Visa or a member bank. Mr. Hill used his Barclays Connect Visa debit card in France last year, which qualified him for the contest.

He completed this sentence "I always travel with Barclays Connect abroad because ..." this way: "it's amazingly elastic. I circumnavigate on just one piece of plastic."

Visa's "second wave" of guests included the sweepstakes winners and 31 winners of the Olympics of the Imagination art contest. The latter group, ages 9 through 13, represented 22 countries. Framed copies of their creations were exhibited in the CNN Center.

Their challenge was to envision a new Olympic sport. Past and present Olympians, including decathlete Dan O'Brien, gathered one day last week to act out an idea from Jessica Der, 12, of San Francisco. Her event had people from different nations working on teams together to solve a maze.

At a ceremony honoring the entrants, Visa's president, Mr. Jensen, said art and sport are both aspects of the Olympic spirit. The participants "represent our future, the future of the Olympics, and the future of the world," he said.

Growing up in Hawaii, Mr. Jensen recalled, his only connection to the Olympics was trading cards. At one time he owned a coveted Jesse Owens card.

The Olympics of the Imagination evolved from Visa's art sponsorship in 1992, and before that its involvement with the Special Olympics.

"Getting young folks to become involved in the Olympics is one of the great contributions we can get from one of our partners." said Richard Pound, vice president of the International Olympic Committee at the ceremony. "It's hard to get right down in the community and get kids to start thinking what the Olympics is, and it really is a movement that can be felt all around the world."


New for this Olympics, also courtesy of Visa, was the Olympic Reunion Center in the historic Georgian Terrace. Olympians past and present were invited to use the center as a place to congregate, socialize, and participate in a daily electronic survey of their impressions of this year's games.

Allen James, a race walker in 1992 and 1996, found VORC, as Visa refers to it, a comfortable place to watch the games. He complimented Visa for it, and for its sponsorship of the U.S. decathlon team.

"One 60-second ad made a world of difference," he said. The team members "don't have to work - they can train."

Visa became the decathlon sponsor in 1990, a low point in the U.S. team's history. It is favored to win gold in Atlanta.

The card association also has raised money in other ways. Through Visa Rewards for the 1996 Olympic Team it is contributing at least $2.5 million to support athletes, coaching, travel, and sports-science programs for training. Visa said it has donated more than $10 million over 10 years to the Olympics movement.


Visa and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games devised an exclusive procedure for ticket sales. (More than eight million have been sold.) Only Visa cards, money orders, and cashier's checks were accepted for payment. If callers didn't have a Visa card and wanted one, they were given NationsBank's "800" number.

A NationsBank Corp. spokeswoman declined to reveal how many new cardholders came its way, but she said the approach was successful.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based bank's sponsorship deal with the Atlanta Committee didn't prevent MBNA Corp. from marketing against it. MBNA was giving away sports-related T-shirts at a booth outside Centennial Park to anyone who applied for one of its Olympic-theme credit cards.

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