With 40 years in the game, Rossi Ralenkotter may be Las Vegas’ most valuable player.
As president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Ralenkotter is responsible for rallying all sides of the Las Vegas tourism team — resorts, conventions, special events and advertising — and making them work cohesively. Whether in times of prosperity or struggle, it’s often the travel board that crafts the message echoed by the entire city.
Wearing a long-sleeved, light-blue dress shirt, reddish tie and cuff links with the word “love” on them, Ralenkotter sits at a long conference table in his third-story office at the Las Vegas Convention Center. A sign printed with the motto, “It is what it is” sits on his desk, and numerous baseballs in protective cases rest in a curio cabinet across the room.
On Tuesday , Ralenkotter will celebrate his 40th anniversary with the authority, where he started as a marketing and research analyst and rose to become president when Manny Cortez retired in 2004. When Ralenkotter joined the travel board, there were 100 employees and the operating budget was about $7 million. Today, he oversees 500 employees and manages a $208 million operating budget.
“You always remember the first day and the first week that you go to work anywhere,” Ralenkotter says.
At the convention authority, things are a little different from most jobs. On his first day, he was asked to lunch with famed sportscaster Frank Gifford. On that Friday, he was asked to dine with legendary “American Bandstand” host Dick Clark.
“That kind of set the tone, and that was the first week,” Ralenkotter says.
JOINING THE HOME TEAM
When he came to the convention authority, it was as if Ralenkotter signed with the home team. He was already familiar with the local tourism industry: His dad was a craps dealer at the Sands and Ralenkotter worked in accounts payable at the Landmark while in graduate school at UNLV. And, he was already familiar with the home field: As a teenager he roller-skated at the Las Vegas Convention Center, played high school basketball there and watched the Beatles perform in the building.
In his first few years at the authority, he helped produce the first Las Vegas customer demographic and occupancy reports. In 1975, the first visitor profile study was published largely because of Ralenkotter’s efforts.
The travel board was formed in 1959 to attract midweek business through conventions. It was primarily a sales organization but in the 1990s evolved into a marketing arm to counter competition from Atlantic City. Along with the reinvention of Las Vegas by hoteliers, shopkeepers, dining and entertainment stakeholders, the authority had to reinvent itself.
“We grew as the industry grew,” Ralenkotter says. “Competition is one of the best things you can have and that’s what happened.”
And in the past eight to 10 years, the authority has evolved beyond marketing to become an advocate for national travel. Until June, Ralenkotter is chairman of the board of directors for U.S. Travel Association.
“It evolved to that,” he says, “because we needed to have a unified voice and we needed to have a seat at the table.”
A VERY MEMORABLE SLOGAN
Under his tenure, the famous “What happens here, stays here” campaign premiered and subsequently was inducted into the Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame in 2011, eight years after its debut.
Billy Vassiliadis, CEO and principal of R&R Partners, has known Ralenkotter for 30 years. His firm came up with the Hall of Fame slogan.
“Las Vegas has no bigger fan, no one who has loved that community, that destination more than Rossi does,” Vassiliadis says of his friend. “He could have left 20 times to go somewhere else, for significantly more money in the private sector, but he couldn’t do it because he couldn’t picture himself selling something other than Las Vegas.”
Vassiliadis describes Ralenkotter at work as focused and methodical, but playful and lighthearted elsewhere. Away from work, Ralenkotter spends as much time with his family as he can, but he also enjoys playing golf from time to time.
“He’s a got a whole other side to him that I don’t think most people see,” Vassiliadis says.
Picture Ralenkotter, for example, who normally dresses in suits and ties, dressed in a head-to-toe Cincinnati Reds ensemble when the Reds aren’t even playing.
His focus, though, is what has netted Las Vegas numerous deals over the years. For instance, Ralenkotter solicited Virgin Atlantic to begin nonstop service from England to Las Vegas, a feat that took 10 years to see to fruition.
“I remember going to make the final presentation to (Virgin CEO) Richard Branson in his home,” Ralenkotter says. “You only have one opportunity there and you make sure you do the best job of selling the destination and the reasons why it makes sense for nonstop service from London.”
In June, Ralenkotter will transition out of his role as chairman of the board for U.S. Travel. During his time at the helm, he’s seen through implementation of Brand USA and visa waiver initiatives. Closer to home, he’s focused on advancing a $2.5 billion Las Vegas Global Business District project.
“There may be another destination that their gaming numbers are higher than ours, and so forth,” he says. “But when it’s all said and done, people still want to go to the place that is considered the gaming place.
“They want the excitement of the brand of Las Vegas,” he adds. “No one is ever going to be able to duplicate that. And that will be part of our success as we go into the future.”
DIFFERENT DAY, DIFFERENT LOOK
After 40 years, Ralenkotter says no two days have been the same.
“It seems like I just started here yesterday. ... I consider myself to be extremely lucky to be here all those years. It doesn’t seem like 40. I always tell people I’ll be here another 40.”
Not all of those days, though, have been filled with home runs.
“We are truly an international city,” he says. “So anything that can happen in the world can have an impact on travel and conventions.”
Over the years, Ralenkotter has seen Las Vegas weather recessions, the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, new competition from other destinations, gasoline shortages and February’s high-profile Strip shooting.
“It’s a very unfortunate thing that occurred and we feel sorry for all the families involved,’’ he says of the most recent negative event. “We are a safe destination and we’re viewed as a safe destination. Major crime’s down, something like 13 percent for this time frame compared to last year. We just need to make sure that we get the facts out, satisfy the media requests and talk about the safety of the destination itself.”
The most challenging crisis of all, he says, was 9/11 because of its enormity and tragedy.
“Every crisis management tool that we all had was thrown into the mix,” he says. “Information-gathering was critical, about what was happening right now and how do you deal with that.”
And with the bad, there’s always the good.
Back in his office, for instance, Ralenkotter talks about some of the signed baseballs he’s accumulated through the years.
“Our family moved here from Newport, Kentucky, in 1951, which is right across from Cincinnati, so we were Cincinnati Reds fans. We brought that affiliation with us when we came to Las Vegas. ... Most of the baseballs you see in my office are Cincinnati Reds balls,” Ralenkotter says.
One of the others, signed by Baseball Hall of Famer and New York Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio, is a product of a promotion held with Sports Illustrated. Others were signed by Johnny Bench, Pete Rose and Joe Morgan, all members of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” championship teams of the 1970s.
Ralenkotter, a huge baseball fan, helped bring the Reds here in 2011 for Big League Weekend. Of course, the travel authority chief threw out the first pitch.
“I love baseball,” Ralenkotter says. “I played baseball for Gorman.”
LOYAL TO HIS SCHOOL
Ralenkotter went to Bishop Gorman High School and since has been an active alumnus along with his wife, Mary Jo. Their five children — Tami, Tiffy, Kathy, Robyn and Todd — also went there.
The Rev. Richard Rinn, pastor of St. Viator Catholic Community, met Ralenkotter in the 1980s at Gorman. When the former became the school’s principal, the latter was on the school’s board of regents. Ralenkotter helped fill Rinn in on the school’s traditions and history and volunteered time to the campus.
“He became a very good friend,” Rinn says of Ralenkotter.
For Ralenkotter’s 25th anniversary at the authority, Rinn brought the Gorman band to the convention center to play.
“It was so much a part of Rossi,” Rinn says. “It was Gorman and the things he loved.”
Ralenkotter, who will be 66 on April 4, has 11 grandchildren: Caroline, Bridget, Austin, Alexa and Ashton, Jaxon, Mia, Michael, Ryan, Kamryn and Macey ranging in age from 2 to 17.
“They keep you young,” he says.
Contact reporter Laura Carroll at email@example.com or 702-380-4588. Follow @lscvegas on Twitter.