Claudia Vecchio

The state’s incoming tourism director on Las Vegas as a cultural destination, our famous ad campaign and her gambling strategy

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Still reeling from the recession, Nevada is welcoming new leadership to oversee (and hopefully jump-start) its No. 1 economic engine: tourism.

With the state on financial life support, there’s a critical need to fortify our primary industry, and that includes diversifying our image to attract more niche-oriented travelers. The silver lining is Nevada has always overcome what seemed to be potential problems, from Indian casinos to online gaming. But now we find ourselves at a pivotal moment in terms of economic development and tourism, and the task of guiding us through these challenges falls to Claudia Vecchio, whom Gov. Brian Sandoval recently appointed director of the new Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs.

Vecchio, 51, has worked in tourism and economic development for more than 20 years, most recently as a partner with Dallas-based marketing firm Destination Integration and previously as Ohio’s director of tourism for four years. Vecchio starts her new Carson City-based job Nov. 1.

What’s your familiarity with Nevada?

I’ve been to Las Vegas several times, and I love it. I’ve loved watching the evolution of Las Vegas. They are the best marketers in the tourism business. I cannot wait to get in the room with those folks who market that state and get that creative energy going. That’s just going to rock. I’ve also been to Reno and Lake Tahoe; I love Lake Tahoe, I love the outdoor piece of the Nevada experience—I’m a hiker and a biker and an explorer in the outdoors. … My biggest joy will be to explore the state and find out everything there is to offer and then translate that—how those experiences feel—to compel visitors to come to the state.

We have had some magical ad campaigns that sell the Strip experience. Would it work against us to try to be something other than that—to sell Las Vegas to cultural travelers—in a broader market?

In the purest traditional marketing sense, it would be an uphill battle [to do both]. But the overall awareness of that [Vegas] brand will help any other marketing campaign. When you start talking to cultural travelers, they get their messages in a different way. They aren’t necessarily looking at TV ads. If they see a great story through one of their travel clubs or niche marketing kind of things, they’re going to be interested. It’s kind of looking outside of the traditional marketing box to find those people and talk to them directly. Those people like to have fun, too.

What do you make of Tony Hsieh moving the Zappos headquarters into what will be the old City Hall building? Is it one of those private investments in something that’s ultimately beneficial to the public?

Those kinds of partnerships are so incredibly important to tourism development. When you can find somebody or some company that’s interested enough in the development of that type of experience to invest in it—and he’s making an investment in a big way—not only does it bring some funding and start momentum for other people in the funding arena, but it brings a great brand and authenticity and realness.

One of my favorite projects was a community in southeast Ohio that used to be an old manufacturing place and through public-private partnerships built itself as an arts district. Artists came in and took over these dilapidated buildings and made them into galleries and workshops. Those kinds of partnerships are critical. I hope I can work on some there.

Do you recall President Obama’s remark telling people not to travel to and spend money in Las Vegas, and can such remarks actually affect travel decisions?

I am very familiar. That was something else. And I do [think it can have an impact]. No words go unnoticed in this 24/7 media environment we live in. [Obama’s comment] caused ripple effects not only in Las Vegas but across the whole industry. The meetings industry plummeted for some time and had to work its way back. The tourism industry is evolving every day, and it’s not something we can take for granted. Whether it’s Obama or a legislator or a celebrity, everybody hears about it.

The “What happens here, stays here” campaign has been wildly successful, but there have been critics. Where do you stand?

I think it’s absolutely brilliant. The fact that it’s been mimicked by so many other destinations is a testament to how powerful it’s been. As people age, they lose who they are, and they forget that they’re fun and that there’s a side of them that still likes to enjoy life. And that’s what [the ad campaign] means. It shows an authentic side of Las Vegas. It’s [telling] people to just be who you want to be. It was legendary.

Are you a gambler?

In so many ways [laughs]. I do enjoy it, but I am not a winner [so] I am a casino’s best customer. I am a strategic gambler. I come with a certain amount of money, and then I leave. I love watching other people. Las Vegas is the best people-watching on the planet. But I also enjoy the celebrity chefs and shopping that round it out.

The recession has hit Las Vegas harder than most places, but the city has a history of evolving and surviving. What do you see for us 10 years down the road?

I see Vegas becoming more developed, more complex, appealing to a greater group of travelers, using the various [marketing] channels. Social networking is the most powerful marketing tool. … There’s [now] a partnership between marketers and travelers.

They used to say that the No. 1 way people found out about travel destinations was conversations over the back fence. Social media is a virtual back fence. But now marketers get an eye and ear into everybody’s conversation. Generations to come are going to be so much more savvy, [and] we have to respect that and evolve in a way that is going to meet their needs and yet also market your destination the way you want it to be marketed.

Ten years down the line we’re talking a new generation of travelers with different preferences. I think we’ll see a little different product in Las Vegas and across the state, and that will be so cool.

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