In a 15-minute address at the end of Tuesday’s Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority board meeting, CEO Rossi Ralenkotter listed the reasons he’s going to retire.
Before he leaves — a date has not yet been set — he should consider talking to the public about the things that could mar the perception of who he is and of the LVCVA, which is funded by room taxes and convention center facility charges. The LVCVA is arguably the most successful destination marketing organization ever created.
The Review-Journal recently reported that Ralenkotter used $17,152 in Southwest Airlines gift cards, purchased by the LVCVA with taxpayer dollars, for personal travel for himself and his family. Ralenkotter so far has declined media interviews.
Ralenkotter has worked for the LVCVA for more than 45 years and took over as president and CEO in 2004.
While in the driver’s seat, he oversaw the most successful destination marketing program ever conceived, “What happens here, stays here.”
Ralenkotter explained to the board that when he took over that job from Manny Cortez, he went to work on a vision plan to guide the agency’s future. That plan, he said, would assure that Las Vegas would remain the No. 1 tourism destination in the country and the best place in North America to hold a convention.
Unfortunately, shortly after taking the helm, the Great Recession forced the vision plan to be put on hold. Ralenkotter said one of his greatest achievements was not laying off a single employee during the recession and helping keep the local tourism industry afloat during a traumatic time.
In 2010, he faced personal turmoil, a cancer diagnosis. Ralenkotter spoke more about that Tuesday than he ever has.
“It changes who you are, what you are and where you’re going,” he told the board. “I had to reassess my future with my family.”
He disclosed that he had five surgeries and a ministroke and is still administered chemotherapy.
“Despite what some people may say, you’re never cancer-free once you have it,” he said. “Once it’s in your system, it can come back. The best thing you have is to be in remission.”
Ralenkotter said the best advice he got came from his wife, Mary Jo, who made a rare appearance in attending Tuesday’s meeting.
She recommended he return to work where his passion for promoting Las Vegas is nonstop.
So back to work he went.
He withstood a bid from Orlando, Florida, to steal the National Finals Rodeo. He helped engineer a second NASCAR race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway each year, the first of which will take place in September. He helped rally the local resort community to prevent the International Council of Shopping Centers from moving its annual RECon trade show to Orlando.
Through the LVCVA’s relationship with McCarran International Airport, Ralenkotter’s team recruited 1.2 million new passenger seats, a 75 percent increase, in eight years.
His sales team has booked 477 conventions in Las Vegas through 2023. That will bring 17.4 million people to Las Vegas, resulting in an economic impact of $25.1 billion on the community.
Ralenkotter saved the biggest announcement of his presentation for the end: The National Association of Home Builders will make the Las Vegas Convention Center its permanent home. That is 60,000 conventioneers coming to Las Vegas annually. Ralenkotter first made contact to bring the association to Las Vegas in 1974. He established a deal with the organization to meet in Las Vegas, alternating with Orlando. The organization will be back in Las Vegas in 2019 and 2020, but as of 2026, the nation’s largest homebuilding organization won’t be anywhere but here.
Four years ago, Ralenkotter said he recognized the need to develop a succession plan for his eventual departure. Earlier this year, Steve Hill, previously the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, was hired as president and chief operating officer.
Ralenkotter didn’t say when he would retire. And he didn’t address the most recent scandal involving his personal use of Southwest Airlines gift cards. He since has paid back the amount used back.
Now, it’s time for Ralenkotter to think about the questions the public has. Over the past year, the Review-Journal has reported that Ralenkotter used taxpayer-funded LVCVA security officers as chauffeurs despite receiving a vehicle allowance. The Review-Journal also found that the LVCVA has a history of routinely violating its own expense policies with lavish spending on high-end entertainment, gifts for employees and first-class trips overseas for board members.
Auditors don’t believe Ralenkotter was even aware that the gift cards he and his family used for personal travel were purchased. But even if they were given to the LVCVA as part of a promotion, he should have known better. More than $50,000 in gift cards are unaccounted for.
Now that Ralenkotter has apologized and paid back the gift card travel, he needs to explain what happened so that it never occurs again.
Otherwise, all the great things he has done for Las Vegas will be muddied by the few things he might have done wrong during a great career.