Minnesota's Mall of America may not represent the typical mall. The 2.55 million sq. ft. shopping center has more than 500 tenants and sees some 42 million visitors each year. The marketing staff of 15 is certainly larger than what most malls maintain.

However, the mall confronts many of the same marketing challenges that other shopping centers face, including tight budgets and increasing competition for shoppers.

We sat down to talk to Mall of America Director of Marketing Wendy Williams. In this interview, Williams shares some of Mall of America's secrets to success in becoming one of the country's top tourism destinations.

What's your marketing background? My background is in sports marketing. I worked for the NorthStars (Minnesota's former NHL hockey team), and then I worked for Rollerblade before that. Among the people who work in this department, only one person, our retail marketing director, has a retail background. The rest of us have backgrounds in areas such as sports marketing, supermarket marketing and TV. Because this isn't your traditional retail entity, and because a lot of what we do is not only retail based but also entertainment based, most of us have backgrounds in other things.

What are the advantages of having such a diverse staff? It's huge. For example, the departments that I oversee are media, creative, advertising and events. So if I had a retail background, I would have no background in events. We've got national stars coming in every week releasing a CD or doing a book signing. Knowing events and knowing how to implement an event is hugely important, and our events people all have that background.

Sponsorship is a big area in sports marketing. When I first came to the mall, retail sponsorship was just getting off the ground. I came here as sponsorship manager, and we basically did the same thing we did in sports. We sold sponsorships for Mall of America based on the number of impressions and exposure the sponsors got.

Another area I oversee is tourism. Again, that's not something that someone with a traditional retail background would have. Our tourism manager used to work at the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, and she has a background in incentive marketing. Another one of our tourism people worked in tourism for another entity. So it definitely helps us having people with diverse backgrounds.

How big is your marketing budget? Those numbers we don't give out. But one reason we have a very active public relations staff is that our marketing budget is really small in terms of what we have to do. If you compare Mall of America to a company like Disney, Disney's marketing budget is in the billions of dollars. Ours is minuscule, and because we have to bring in people from all over the country, as well as all over the world, we don't have the money to market it like Disney does. So we rely heavily on PR exposure in getting the word out.

What is the master plan for your marketing strategy? The primary goal is defined in terms of numbers - keeping the traffic at that same point and every year increasing sales. Within each department those goals are broken down. For example, tourism has the responsibility to bring in X amount of people each year. Usually, we look at a 2% to 5% increase. With events - we have over 300 events each year - the goal is to generate national exposure. For example, when Newt Gingrich did a book signing here, there was a picture of him and Snoopy on the front page of The New York Times. We can't buy that kind of exposure. Another goal is to make sure that the events bring people out here, that they're fun and exciting, and that people come to see the events and then go shopping so the sales numbers stay high.

Sponsorship is a bottom-line-driven department. Their responsibility is to bring in sponsorship dollars, which we put back into the marketing department so we can fund advertising and market ourselves more. With tenant and retail marketing, the No. 1 objective is to help tenants increase their sales every year.

How many sponsors do you have? We have about 20 official sponsors such as Pepsi, Northwest Airlines and US West. Those are usually multi-year deals; they're here in some way, shape or form continuously. We have other event sponsors that come in for a specific event. For example, we do an environmental event every fall, called Ecommunity, and we get sponsors just for that specific amount of time. We also have companies that want to do sampling, such as looking for feedback from the general public on a new product. They pay us to have access to the people who come here every day, which can be anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 on a busy holiday weekend.

Do you have different marketing campaigns that target local, national and international visitors? Locally we are somewhat traditional in that we do radio, TV, magazine and newspaper. Depending on what our research shows, and what our goal and objective is for that year, that's how we decide what slant our creative takes.

As for tourism, that becomes tricky because our dollars are minimal. We can't afford to buy advertising on a regional, much less national basis. So we rely again on PR exposure. What advertising we do on a tourism basis, we partner with the state of Minnesota. We do tourism shows where we're meeting with wholesale tour operators and travel agents. We also rely a lot on our partnership with Northwest Airlines. We put together packages with them. They do fly-in programs from time to time, where they fly people in for one day and they shop all day and leave that same day.

What percent of visitors are tourists? During the summer it's anywhere from 35% to 40% tourists. The rest of the year it's usually about 30%.

How do you coordinate marketing efforts with your entertainment venues? They all have their own marketing people, but we do work with them to make sure we are on the same wavelength - especially with Knott's Camp Snoopy, because they are such a big part of what we do. We try to make sure we're in sync. For example, Tuesdays are Family Fun Days at the mall, and Knott's Camp Snoopy is part of our Family Fun Days package, as is Underwater World. We try to do that with all the tenants. If we create a program, we give tenants an opportunity to participate with us in some way.

To what extent do you involve tenants in marketing? Sometimes it's difficult with tenants like a Gap or Limited. The people here are just the managers, and decisions about advertising and marketing are made at their home offices. So with stores like that where it's a chain, it's difficult to get a huge deal of involvement because they just don't make those decisions here. We do have merchant advisory meetings every month, and we have probably 30 to 40 merchants that come and we tell them what's going on.

We also have a weekly hot sheet that says what's going on and whether there are opportunities to get involved - for example, be a partner in Family Fun Days or be part of our Garage Sale. But it's challenging, especially because a lot of the decisions are not made here. They need a lot of time to get approval, and a lot of times we don't have that time to allow them.

What are the biggest challenges of marketing this particular mall? Keeping the message fresh, and coming up with new ideas. We also need to get the word out that there are always new tenants coming in. There is always something fun going on, with bigger and better events.

How do you keep coming up with fresh ideas and booking top names? We have a phenomenal staff who work really hard, long hours. Seriously, that is the key. Our events manager has spent the past nine months working on his relationships with people at the record labels, so we can get top celebrities and stars to come here. Our PR department is continuously trying to figure out things to send to the media that are a great hook to get people to come out here and do a great story on Mall of America. So it's really the creativity of our staff.

For example, our associate general manager was watching "20/20" and saw a story on actresses Mary Kate and Ashley Olson. So she wrote a letter to their manager saying, "They do all these videos - wouldn't it be great if they came to the Mall of America to do a video?" Of course she didn't hear from him, but after a lot of follow-up and aggressiveness on her part, they actually ended up filming a Mary Kate and Ashley video out here that will be released this winter.

It did cost us some money in terms of expenses, but in terms of the exposure we'll get, it was minimal cost. It's called "Mall Party." It's Mary Kate and Ashley visiting the Mall of America. Our logo is all over the jacket. The whole video is shot here. That's an example of what we can do to generate publicity and get ourselves out there in a creative way.

Location: Bloomington, Minn. Date opened: August 1992 Gross building area: 4.2 million sq. ft. Gross leasable retail space: 2.5 million sq. ft. Occupancy: 96% No. of stores: more than 500 No. of visitors annually: 42 million Anchor tenants: Nordstrom,Macy's, Bloomingdales, Sears Key attractions: Knott's Camp Snoopy, Underwater World, LEGO Imagination Center Owners: Teacher's Insurance & Annuity Association; Melvin Simon & Associates; and Triple Five Corp. Manager: Simon Property Group