Retiring Lopez Negrete lauded for Mexico tourism growth

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Apple Leisure Group CEO Alex Zozaya, left, and outgoing Mexico Tourism Board CEO Rodolfo Lopez Negrete at Tianguis 2015 in Acapulco.
Apple Leisure Group CEO Alex Zozaya, left, and outgoing Mexico Tourism Board CEO Rodolfo Lopez Negrete at Tianguis 2015 in Acapulco. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

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The role of head of a country’s tourism board is in many ways a thankless one.

Tourists associate a destination’s success with its natural and cultural attributes and the quality of its hotels and restaurants. Locals attribute a booming tourism sector to the economy at large, a country’s president, maybe a minister of tourism.

The head of a tourism board rarely gets such recognition. But industry insiders — hoteliers, tour operators, airlines, travel agents — know who is behind the scenes, pulling the levers and strings that make things happen.

In the case of Mexico, arguably the most important international destination for the U.S. market, that person for the past five years has been the outgoing head of the Mexico Tourism Board (MTB), Rodolfo Lopez Negrete.

Many high-level players in Mexico's tourism industry who were recently asked about his legacy said that Lopez Negrete, who will step down July 1, was perhaps the most effective person ever to have held the position.

Thriving in an era of challenges

Lopez Negrete’s tenure saw an unprecedented time of sustained growth in arrivals and spending during a period when Mexico faced a series of tourist-sector challenges. It was a tenure bookended by the H1N1 (swine flu) and Zika viruses and peppered with drug cartel-related violence and natural disasters such as Hurricane Odile in Los Cabos.

Despite those challenges, arrivals to Mexico grew from 22.3 million in 2010 to 32.1 million in 2015, a 44% increase. And despite devaluations in the peso, the economic impact of Mexico’s tourism industry grew by $6 billion during his term, exceeding $17 billion in 2015.

The numbers from the U.S. market were even more impressive. According to the MTB, from 2010 to 2015, a time when U.S. outbound tourism grew by 18.9%, the growth of U.S. visitors to Mexico grew by 48.5%. Counting just air arrivals, Mexico’s market share of U.S. travelers grew from 14% in 2010 to 18% in 2015. During the first two months of this year, the MTB reported Mexico’s U.S. market share was 23.6%.

Many people attribute that success to Lopez Negrete’s candid and steadfast way of handling what could have otherwise become public relations disasters.

“When Hurricane Odile hit Cabo, he led the charge to get the information out that Cabo was recovering much quicker than perhaps the marketplace understood,” said John Caldwell, president of Delta Vacations.

Caldwell recalled that Lopez Negrete organized a “communication seminar” in order for companies such as Delta to get the word out to travel agents that Cabo was “ready to go and [to] welcome tourists back. Honestly, I think that involvement and that proactive approach to that situation allowed us to get service back into the marketplace quicker than perhaps would’ve normally happened.”

A political survivor

Lopez Negrete is consistently praised for ensuring continuity in the MTB’s efforts by having kept his post under two presidential administrations and three tourism secretaries, an almost unheard-of feat in any country but especially in Mexico.  

“Let’s be candid,” said Lawrence Elliott, group vice president of business and corporate affairs for the Sunwing Travel Group. “It’s politics everywhere, but particularly in Mexico, and two of the presidents were opposite extremes and different parties, and Rodolfo is retiring; he is not being pushed out.”

Lopez Negrete was appointed COO of the tourism board in 2010, working under tourism secretary Gloria Guevara, who was appointed by president Felipe Calderon.

Following the election of president Enrique Pena Nieto in 2012, a new secretary of tourism, Claudia Ruiz Massieu Salinas, promoted Lopez Negrete to CEO, a title he has kept under the current secretary of tourism, Enrique de la Madrid, also appointed by Pena Nieto.

“It’s a great accomplishment because what we need in that position is someone who brings continuity,” said Alex Zozaya, CEO of Apple Leisure Group. “Someone who makes it a commercial vehicle and not a political vehicle and not someone who will come and change everything every time there is a new minister of tourism or president.”

Zozaya and Elliott were among the voices observing that Lopez Negrete’s tenure was not defined by his reaction to challenges, but it was set apart from the moment he arrived, owing a great deal to his private-sector background.

“Unlike many other directors who [the MTB] had before,” Zozaya said, “Rodolfo came in with a fresh approach, very close to the private sector, very entrepreneurial, and totally understanding of marketing, which is important.”

Travel industry executives described Lopez Negrete’s marketing prowess as reaching a level not usually enjoyed by heads of tourism boards. In fact, they credited him with changing the entire image of the country he served.

“He took the Mexican brand and really helped make it something other than cheap and convenient,” said Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso. “He brought to the forefront the whole idea that Mexico is much more evolved, sophisticated and interesting, that it’s not just a place to go for a cheap holiday but for culture, food and art.”

Upchurch added: “It took somebody who understood how to build the larger brand of Mexico. He unified the brand of Mexico and has built a framework on that.”

Lopez Negrete was also lauded for understanding the distinct needs of the individual destinations within Mexico.

For example, Elyse Elkin, founder of Exclusive Group Travel, said, “He totally understands that even though Mexico is a destination as a country, every single solitary destination [within it] has its own idiosyncrasies and charm and selling points. He works with the destinations to get that message across [and] created different niches for the various markets. And he created ways for us to be able to promote it.”

Travel executives attributed much of Lopez Negrete’s success to his 13-year tenure at Hyatt International, where he rose to regional vice president for Mexico. The position, the executives said, gave him a deeper understanding of the industry as a whole than most tourism board heads have.

“I think that’s why he has an incredible amount of support from the Mexico hotel industry, because he was a hotelier,” said Sunwing’s Elliott. “He understands sales promotion, but he is a businessman and understands the business aspect of running hotels.”

Although some members of the industry voiced concern about how any successor would be able to fill his shoes, most agreed that his work provided a solid foundation that would point the direction of Mexico’s tourism brand for years to come.

“He will be greatly missed,” Zozaya said before Lopez Negrete’s successor was announced. “It’s not easy to find someone with that profile, and hopefully there is continuity on the strategy and the message of the last six years.”

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