A marketer for all seasons

Nov 23, 2004 4:50 AM


Rossi Ralenkotter is a Las Vegas guy.

His roots in the city go deep, all the way back to 1951 when his family moved to Nevada from Covington, Ky., and his late father, a craps dealer, began what would be a 40-year career in the gaming industry, mostly at the Sands and then The Mirage.

Ralenkotter’s career has mirrored his father’s in that he has spent the lion’s share of his adult life, 31 years, working for the same employer, the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, even when it was operating under different names.

Ralenkotter, now the president and CEO of the LVCVA, graduated from Gorman High School in 1965, Arizona State University in 1969 with a Bachelor of Science degree in marketing and business administration, and then UNLV, where he earned a masters in business administration in 1971.

Ralenkotter says he has put much of what he learned in the college classrooms to good use in a career that has required gobs of expertise in the areas of research, analysis, marketing, advertising and promotion.

After relatively brief stints as an accounts payable supervisor at the now-demolished Landmark Hotel and as a marketing representative for the former Central Telephone Company on Fremont Street, Ralenkotter joined the LVCVA in 1973 as a marketing analyst. He never left, even though he has had feelers over the years from both inside and outside the gaming industry in Las Vegas and offers from other cities.

"This is my home town," he says in explaining why none of the out-of-town offers really had a chance. "To me, there is no other city like us. Go down to Fremont Street or the Strip and feel the buzz," he raves about the metropolis that he calls "the most exciting city in the world."

He is no less lavish in praise of the LVCVA, "We are the best organization of our kind in the world."

The LVCVA certainly has weight. It has 507 full-time employees, about 400 part-time workers, and a budget of $190 million a year.

Ralenkotter was well-groomed by his predecessor, Manny Cortez, to head an organization whose growth has paralleled the growth of the city it promotes. Ralenkotter had been with the LVCVA for about 10 years when he decided he wanted to become president and CEO.

He reached that goal 20 years later when Cortez handed him the reigns on July 3 of this year and retired. Ralenkotter says Cortez acted as his mentor for two years so that when he took control there were no major surprises.

The smoothness of the transition is suggested by the recent approval of the authority’s request for a budget augmentation of $52 million for 2005. The plan is to add $18.9 million to the general fund for operating costs and $33.1 million for land acquisition, construction projects and remodeling work, including an upgrade of Cashman Field.

Much of the proposed $9.4 million increase in advertising is earmarked for cable television and marketing in other countries, especially England and Mexico, where the LVCVA has opened an office in Mexico City.

The authority gives four reasons for the additional money it finds at is disposal: more visitors than expected, higher room rates, increased room tax revenue and conservative budgeting and spending in the previous fiscal year.

The addition of 8,000 more hotel rooms in Las Vegas next year is a double-edged sword for the LVCVA. The additional rooms will ultimately mean more money but it also means that the agency’s responsibility to help fill the rooms will be increased. When tourists are being booked into Wynn Las Vegas starting next spring, other resorts will be looking to the LVCVA to help fill the rooms in their hotels that those visitors would have been occupying.

"We’re the only organization looking at the whole destination. We look at the macro view," says Ralenkotter.

The role of the authority has changed from the days when it was known as the Fair and Recreation Board and then the Convention Bureau. Back then, Las Vegas was little more than "a West Coast gaming destination," Ralenkotter says, and the resorts knew little about their customers since nobody had done any coordinated research or analysis work, and the concept of visitor profiles had not yet been developed.

Then, Ralenkotter came aboard as an analyst and produced a very brief, drab marketing bulletin that looks extremely primitive by today’s standards. Nonetheless, in the early 1970s, casino executives had never had that kind of marketing tool at their disposal. "There were pieces of that information around town but (the authority) compiled and coordinated it, and produced (information on) visitor trends and (as time went by) added more and more components of research," he says.

As he moved up at the Authority, first to marketing research manager, then to the tourism and sales department, to director of tourism and then director of marketing, the Authority’s printed materials became increasingly sophisticated. But it is the original crude bulletin that was the first effort to organize information on visitor trends. That original profile is encased on a wall of Ralenkotter’s spacious office that sits cheek by jowl next to the Las Vegas Convention Center on Paradise Road.

"I’m a marketing person, a branding person," says Ralenkotter. "All our marketing and advertising programs are research-driven," says the 57-year-old father of five.

The most recent and most controversial Las Vegas advertising campaign — "What happens here, stays here" — is the one that gives him the most pleasure to discuss. Ralenkotter and Billy Vassiliadis, president and CEO of R& R Partners, which developed the campaign for the LVCVA, won two of the marketing industry’s top prizes — Brandweek magazine’s 2004 Grand Marketer of the Year award as well as Marketer of the Year for travel and tourism as a result of "What happens here, stays here."

His only regret about the campaign is that it wasn’t conceived sooner. He says its significance is that it moved the LVCVA from selling a product to determining the essence of Las Vegas.

Ralenkotter, who plays golf and jogs when he is not spending time with his family, including his five grandchildren, says the only frustration he has in his position is that the federal government does not do a better job of marketing the U.S. as a whole as a tourist destination to people living elsewhere in the world. He says, however, that there is a small agency in the U.S. Department of Commerce that could grow into undertaking that responsibility at some point in the future.

But Ralenkotter is not a man filled with regrets. He is comfortable with what he perceives his legacy will be, which will include identifying the research elements needed for marketing campaigns, expanding the concept of marketing and being an integral part of the resort industry in Las Vegas.

He counts himself as lucky to have a job that allows him to market his own town, and no two days are the same.

"I’ve had no disappointments," he says. "I’ve enjoyed every single day."