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New RSCVA CEO: Reno-Tahoe tourism primed for quicker post-pandemic rebound

Charles Harris
Courtesy Photo

On a random weekend in August, you may have seen him walking around downtown Reno with an inquisitive eye. Popping into a number of hotels and casinos downtown. Strolling along the Truckee River. Heck, he maybe even asked you what you thought about Reno as a destination and what made it special.

He had good reason. Charles Harris was not only scouting out the city he would potentially call home, but also the region he would potentially sell to visitors as the lead executive of greater Reno-Tahoe’s top tourism agency.

“I spent time in the casinos, outdoors in the neighborhoods, down to Lake Tahoe, the whole area,” Harris said. “I really spent time just trying to get to know a little bit to see if it might be the right place for me to begin the next part of my journey.”

Turns out, it was. Less than a month later, Harris was offered the role as new president and CEO of the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority.

Harris, who steps in as the RSCVA CEO on Nov. 16, will cap his tenure as chief marketing officer and executive vice president of public affairs for Visit Anaheim on Nov. 6, a role Harris said helped prepare him for the challenge of leading Reno-Tahoe’s tourism efforts into 2021 and beyond.

Before he makes the move to the Biggest Little City, the NNBW spoke with Harris about his focus heading into his first day, the tourism industry’s road to recovery in the age of COVID-19, balancing the need to bring in visitors while not pushing out locals, and more.

Q: What have you learned in your current role at Visit Anaheim that you can apply to your new role in Reno?

Harris: The DMO — Destination Marketing Organizations — industry is going through a real transition right now, with COVID affecting destinations all across the country. And the fact is, lots of properties are either closed or have reduced schedules. There are a lot of changes going on. And the research is talking about not seeing a full recovery until 2023. And so I think we’re all learning through this process, which is unprecedented. Every destination has its own challenges in terms of overcoming some external forces to make sure that we all survive and get healthy.

It’s about understanding what consumers want and what they feel comfortable with, and what meetings and conventions look like. In California right now, the four largest convention centers are not having any sort of meetings at all. The Nevada governor has allowed some meetings to take place. So, Nevada is ahead of California when it comes to the meeting and convention business right now. Those are the things that I can focus on. Those are the trends that are out there. And like any other destination, it’s how do you survive and thrive during a pandemic?

Q: How many times have you been to Reno? And what have you learned about the community so far?

Harris: I’ve been to Reno a couple of times since the summer. And I actually spent a weekend driving around the community and seeing the sights and trying to know the destination that I had not been to in years. I walked into some different hotel properties and I talked to a lot of locals, asking them what they loved about the destination, and what really works, and what made it special. So, that’s just a start. I think I have to do a lot more of that once I hit the ground.

Q: What attracted you to this position in the first place?

Harris: I think a lot of things. One, the diversity of the product, whether it’s gaming outdoors, convention business, the lake … there are a lot of different aspects that make up Reno that are pretty darn special. The fact is, I’ve heard that there are a lot of great events that have taken place; there’s a lot of development taking place; the technology growth that the destination is seeing from California. Plus, there’s a lot of opportunity to help drive the destination in a very positive way … that was attractive to me, as well. And I think there’s a lot of room for growth and to bring some positive results to the destination.

Q: You’re stepping into this role in the middle of a pandemic and on the cusp of a Reno-Tahoe ski season clouded with uncertainty because of COVID. What will be your initial focus when you start in mid-November? 

Harris: It is just learning from the community, right? There are a lot of folks that have been living in the Reno-Sparks area for a long time. And I want to be embedded in the community, and being able to talk to stakeholders, hoteliers, and people in business to understand what makes this community special. And so that takes some time. I’m not going to walk in the door, knowing all the history, and part of that is learning from the locals. And so I think that’s one of the most important things that I can do starting off is to listen.

Q: Do you feel the region’s tourism industry is positioned well to bounce back from the economic slowdown we’ve faced caused by COVID?

Harris: The research shows that Reno has resources that people are looking for in terms of where tourism would rebound sooner than other destinations. Whether that’s being maximized or not, I’ll have to learn from the team that’s currently in place. From what the research has shown us on a national level, is that when people do have a pent-up demand to travel, they want to travel to the outdoors and beaches. Those are the top two places that people want to go to where they feel safe. And I think the Reno-Sparks area can play off of that.

Q: This area’s economy is booming, COVID notwithstanding. However, housing permits are severely lacking and home prices are rising. How does the RSCVA balance the needs of marketing this region as a destination and bringing in visitors vs. the need to ensure residents can afford to live here and stay here?

Harris: It’s a great question. I haven’t started yet, so it wouldn’t be fair to me to answer that question with any sort of expert knowledge. But, what I can tell you, some of the things that we’ve been doing in Anaheim. And part of that is making sure that our residents benefit from the tourism that happens, whether it’s economic development, jobs, education — all that has been part of the strategy of what we’ve done at Visit Anaheim.

And so, part of any destination wants to make sure that the residents are able to do well and thrive and benefit from the tourism industry as well. And there’s lots of different ways they can do that. But I certainly can’t have an authoritative answer for Reno until I’ve been in destination for a bit. It’s a question that I think you should ask me once I’ve been settled and understand and have a grasp of the Reno area.

Q: RSCVA’s previous CEO resigned amid allegations of misconduct. What are keys to maintaining trust within an organization and keeping everyone moving in the same positive direction?

Harris: I don’t think it’s maintaining trust, I think it’s building trust, right? I’m a person that’s coming from outside the area. Part of that is you got to earn that trust every day. And part of that comes from good communication, being transparent, laser-focused on what needs to happen in terms of hitting short-term and long-term goals, and defining those. It’s going to take some time. There’s got to be a lot of hard work that takes place. And I think listening to folks, getting to know folks, and earning their trust is important. I’m very passionate about this industry. I’m grateful for the opportunity and the faith that the board has put in put in me, and I’m really excited to meet the staff and to start.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.