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If you were to name Las Vegas’ most influential movers and shakers, Rossi Ralenkotter, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), has to be on the short list. The 61-year-old Ralenkotter recently marked 35 years as an executive with the tourism agency, four years as CEO. The quasi-governmental agency hopes to attract 39.8 million visitors during 2008—and keep them happy.
Ralenkotter’s story is not all about crunching numbers. He and his agency invented the catch phrase, “What happens here, stays here,” which has become a worldwide phenomenon. The humorous award-winning “stories” that advertise Las Vegas have become the most successful tourism campaign in history.
A Kentucky native, Ralenkotter moved to Las Vegas in 1951, attended local schools, and served in the U.S. Air Force. He holds a bachelor of science degree in marketing from Arizona State University and a master’s degree in business administration from UNLV. Ralenkotter and his wife, Mary Jo, have three children and seven grandchildren.
He spoke with Nevada Magazine’s Events and Shows Editor, Ann Henderson, in April.
Q What was your reaction when you first heard the phrase, “What happens here, stays here?”
A Part of the genesis behind the slogan was our decision to switch from a sales organization to brand marketing. When we talked to our focus groups, about 3,000 people, the image of “adult freedom” resonated with them. The actual slogan was a team effort, developed with R&R Partners [LVCVA’s ad agency], and to convey the message, we drew on actual anecdotes from our customers to create the “stories” used in the new campaign.
Q Have there been other variations on the theme since it was introduced in 2003?
A “What happens here…” is our mainstay, but we have added two parallel versions: the alibi campaign, which focuses on our world-class shopping and dining, and “Your Vegas is showing,” in the same creative mode. Both were designed to talk about specific amenities and support the main theme.
Q What was Las Vegas like around the time you graduated from Bishop Gorman High School in 1965?
A I really didn’t grow up in a big town. In the ’60s Vegas was a small town [approximate population 64,000] with a limited number of high schools. We were into sports, movies, swimming, and golf. We’d ride bikes in the desert and play basketball at Doolittle Recreation Center. Yes, I cruised Fremont Street; it was like living the movie American Graffiti. Before Fremont Street was enclosed with the Fremont Street Experience canopy, on Friday and Saturday nights we’d drive through the loop at the train station where The Plaza Hotel stands today. After a slow crawl down Fremont, we’d end up at either the Tip Top or Blue Onion drive-ins drinking Coke and swapping stories with friends.
Q I understand you are a devoted Beatles fan. Were you in the audience when the British invaded Las Vegas on August 20, 1964? How many times have you seen “Love” at The Mirage?
A They performed two shows that night and I was in the audience for both. It was the height of Beatlemania, so stopping in Las Vegas was something special. The 6,300-seat convention center rotunda was the smallest arena they played on their tour. Herb Macdonald of the Sahara Hotel deserves credit for bringing them to Nevada.
I’ve seen “Love” twice: opening night and on the one-year anniversary when the theater was dedicated to the Beatles. Whenever there is an opportunity to see it again, I’ll be there.
Q You’re also big baseball fan. If you had the coach’s ear of your favorite team, the Cincinnati Reds, what wisdom would you impart for this season?
A A lot of us moved to Vegas in the ’50s and ’60s, and we brought our team affiliations with us. My family was from Northern Kentucky, within cheering distance of Crosley Field. Win or lose, you’re a fan. Consequently, my children root for the Reds, and I’m working on my grandkids.
I’m looking forward to a new year for the Reds, and my advice is to be aggressive and pay particular attention to the pitching staff. They have a young roster and need to be managed effectively. There’s a lot to look forward to, including outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. going after 600 home runs.
Q Do you think we’ll see the day when Las Vegas lands a professional sports team?
A I answer the question this way: it is not a matter of IF, it is a matter of WHEN. It will ultimately be a business decision, but I think we’ll eventually see a pro team. Being a baseball fan, I hope it is baseball. We have a growing local population [nearly two million] and 35 million visitors. A visionary just needs to step up and decide if Las Vegas is marketable.
Q When the original Las Vegas Convention Center was built in the ’50s, it was termed a “white elephant.” It seemed to have little purpose except for boxing matches and UNLV basketball. You’ve experienced the tiny-acorn-to-mighty-oak transformation of the LVCVA. How did that come about?
A In the 1950s a couple of things were happening—among them a national publication was spreading doom and gloom by saying the city was overbuilt. Community leaders got together and agreed something needed to be done to promote Vegas and move from a West Coast gaming attraction to a national and international destination. Over the years, the evolution of hotels, along with the world’s best shopping, events, dining, and spas, enabled their visions to become a reality. But we need to stay on the cutting edge.
Q The LVCVA is undergoing a huge convention center renovation. What is the cost and scope of the project, and when will it be completed?
A The price tag is $890 million, and construction should be finished in 2011. Three years ago we did a master plan based upon what was happening in the U.S. and international marketplaces. It became clear we needed a more appealing customer experience for convention delegates and trade-show attendees and to connect the three buildings in the complex.
Next April parts of the facility will be 50 years old and must be upgraded from a technological standpoint, which will allow us to compete for the next 20 to 25 years. We will need 43 million visitors [annually] to fill an estimated 170,000 rooms. We are currently working on 39 million travelers.
The expansion will have its own police and fire substations, which gives us an advantage over other convention centers in the U.S.
Q What sort of challenges do you face making sure the number of visitors and convention delegates increases each year?
A Economic challenges and competition are at the forefront. Every destination is really competing with Las Vegas, which will always be a factor and become fiercer in the future. Part of staying on the cutting edge is maintaining our market share and finding new markets. We need to expand the number of trade shows and increase the number of international visitors. We exist in a global economy, which is something we weren’t dealing with 35 years ago. The world economy is becoming smaller and we’re all competing for the same customers.
To succeed we need to make sure we are connecting with our customers on the leisure side and that we reach out for the convention market. Our messages must be on target. The LVCVA delivers the city’s overall image, and hotels deliver their individual messages. All of that helps us to remain competitive.
Q How important is the foreign visitor to Southern Nevada? Which countries present the best opportunities for the future?
A The international visitor is extremely important. They will help us maintain our edge. Three countries—Canada, Mexico, and Great Britain—represent 70 percent of the foreign market. China, Brazil, and India show great promise.
Q How many weeks a year do you travel in order to promote Las Vegas?
A I travel when I need to make a presentation, but mainly I concentrate on national and international policies in places like Washington, D.C. There’s work to be done on issues such as visa waivers and homeland security. To keep pace, members of the LVCVA marketing staff are traveling more than we ever have.
Q Do you think Las Vegas will ever lose its luster and become just another ordinary vacation spot?
A In the past, Vegas met the increased competition with innovative hotels and amenities. If there is a crisis or challenge, we collectively work together, which I think will keep us on top.
Q Your personal and professional awards and honors read like a chapter in Who’s Who.
A I’m proud of all the recognition that I’ve been fortunate enough to receive. None of these accomplishments would be possible without the support of my family and the fact I work with a great team. Whenever an award is given, it is always because of a joint effort.
Personally, Mary Jo and I were named Knights of the Gael by Bishop Gorman High School, where we both graduated. It recognizes people who have dedicated time and resources to the school. That was fun.
Professionally, R&R Advertising and the LVCVA were selected as Brand Marketers of the Year because of the “What happens here…” campaign.
Q Do you ever see yourself in a retired mode—having the time for baseball, fishing, or just doing nothing?
A I really don’t. I enjoy what I do. The amazing thing, I’ve never had two days that are the same. It’s great to promote your hometown.