The senior director of tourism development strategy for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (CVA), and for more than 20 years a key figure in the destination’s international tourism sales and marketing effort, Rafael Villanueva was honored last week at NAJ’s RTO Tourism Summit in Marina del Rey, California as the Tourism Summit’s Person of the Year in recognition of his contribution to tourism development for the Las Vegas CVA.
Prior to honoring Villanueva at the opening luncheon of the RTO Summit, Jake Steinman, CEO of the NAJ Group, which operates the RTO Summit Series, sat down with Rafael Villanueva and spoke with him about his experience with the Las Vegas CVB. Following are excerpts from their conversation.
JS: When did you begin the LVCVA and what was your first position?
RV: I started April 6, 1998 as a Sales Executive working the domestic market. Eight months later, I took over Latin America when they only had 60,000 visitors from Mexico. In 2017, they have 1,150,000 from Mexico.
JS: What was international visitation that year and what is it today?
RV: Unfortunately, I cannot find the numbers from back then, other than Mexico, which was just over 60,000 visitors. In 2017, we had 1,150,000 visitors from Mexico. The big change came in 2008 when we started out International initiative. At that time, international accounted for 12% of the 37.4 million, approx. 4.5 million visitors. In 2017 international visitation was slightly over 6.9 million. They tell me I will be very happy with 2018 numbers. They are just confirming certain numbers.
JS: How many in-country reps did you have then and how many do you have today?
RV: In 1998 we had three offices—Japan, which was our first, the UK and Germany. Today we have 14 international offices representing us in 34 countries.
JS: What about international air service—then and now?
RV: The number of direct international flights and number of flights today? I do know in 1998 we only had three to five charter flights per week from Mexico. Today we have 48 weekly schedule non-sop flights.
JS: What do you feel has been your biggest career accomplishment?
RV: That’s a tough one. (Here’s a quick recap of what he said) Helped develop and grow a strong international team. We’ve grown the Latin America Market, especially Mexico and Brazil. The first eight years we had no offices in either country. Then, there was that crazy year, between 2007/08, when we RFP’d all our international offices, we traveled around the world as we added six new offices, changed four and kept three. All this, while also organizing Pow Wow 2008 in Las Vegas.
JS: What are your favorite activities in your spare time?
RV: As I travel so much and I’m away from home for long periods of time, my spare time is dedicated to whatever my wife wants me to do. Also, I love spending time with my family. And if there is time after that, l love watching movies.