RSCVA chief pushes to nail down conventions

Looking a few years into the future, Ellen Oppenheim knows she needs to push hard and right now.

At the same time, she needs to take it slow, and give things some serious thought.

The schizophrenia comes with the territory for the new president and chief executive officer of the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority. Oppenheim, previously deputy chief of neighborhood and customer services for the City of San Diego, took the job March 31.

On one hand, Oppenheim said a few days ago, she needs to push the RSCVA sales staff particularly the group working with meetings and conventions to nail down some contracts as soon as possible.

Some of the groups looking at the Reno area today are scheduling their conventions as far out as 2012, and the tourism industry for years to come will depend on the deals that are struck in coming months.

"If we're not booking that business now, it won't be here when we need it," Oppenheim said.

But even as she's focusing her staff on the immediate task of filling the conventions pipeline, Oppenheim also is taking a longer look toward the development of a strategic plan that will lay out priorities for RSCVA.

"It's important," she said, "to make decisions in the short-term in the context of our big-picture vision."

Any number of competing visions for the future of the tourism business demand attention from RSCVA gaming and outdoor adventures, national conventions and regional feeder markets to name a few.

"We don't have the resources to do them all right away," Oppenheim said. "What can have the biggest impact soonest?"

From her experience as an associate dean of students at Stanford University in the mid-1980s, Oppenheim drew on one of her management mantras: "Good ideas are all over the place, but we only have the time to do the great ones. Better we should be exceptionally good at a few things."

And it's certain, Oppenheim said, that RSCVA can't go it alone in its efforts to build visitor and convention business in Washoe County. Rather, it needs to rely extensively on a network of partnerships with businesses and other public agencies.

Some of those partnerships are obvious. A key issue to improvement of the conventions business, Oppenheim said, is development of more direct-flight air service to U.S. cities. That's an initiative in which the RSCVA and executives of Reno-Tahoe International Airport share an interest.

But redevelopment of downtown also is a key issue for the tourism agency. After all, Oppenheim said, anything that improves the experience of visitors will help build repeat business.

RSCVA works, too, with economic development agencies. Conventions of industries that might have a future here alternative energy systems, for instance can help fill the Reno-Sparks Convention Center while potentially generating leads for the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada.

"We're a critical part of the economic fabric of northern Nevada," Oppenheim said.

Whether it's working in partnership with hotel properties and public agencies or pounding the pavement on its own, RSCVA is challenged by the sometimes smarmy image of Reno created in many consumers' minds decades ago.

For convention planners and group tourism executives, Oppenheim said, nothing beats getting them into town for a few days to see the new Reno.

To attract individual tourists, meanwhile, RSCVA is likely to continue its reliance on advertising campaigns. As the agency is able to boost hotel occupancy whether through conventions or individual tourism the room taxes that fund its operations will rise. And that, in turn, gives RSCVA more marketing muscle.

Which brings Oppenheim back to the need to book convention business.

Those bookings generate big blocks of room nights and help jump-start RSCVA's other programs.

The agency recently added a convention-sales representative in Chicago a lot of convention-sponsoring groups are based in the Windy City and Oppenheim is paying close attention to the training and work of the convention sales staff.

"We have to compete in a noisy and competitive marketplace," she said, noting that numerous cities brought new and expanded convention facilities onto the market in recent years.

Reno's hotel facilities, while good, are spread farther apart than many convention organizers would like, Oppenheim noted. Expansion of the Peppermill and Atlantis, and plans by Station Casinos for a new property at Kietzke Lane and South Virginia may overcome some of those challenges, she said.

But Reno and Sparks also have strong competitive advantages, she said, ranging from the growing perception of the region as "America's Adventure Place" to the ease of working with a visitor agency that also owns the major convention facilities in town.

"We're viewed as a pretty good value in the convention world," Oppenheim said.

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