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Manny Cortez, 67; Lifted Las Vegas Tourism With Marketing Catchphrase

Times Staff Writer

By green-lighting a five-word slogan, Manny Cortez launched a marketing campaign credited with bringing record numbers of tourists to Las Vegas. He also inadvertently sent the phrase “What happens here stays here” sailing into the pop-culture lexicon.

It’s been parodied by Billy Crystal at a sleepy Academy Awards show -- “Remember, what happens at the Oscars stays at the Oscars” -- and been the punch line of at least half a dozen Jay Leno jokes, a sure barometer of a nation’s passing verbal fancies.

Since its debut in 2002, the catchphrase with an implicit wink has been called one of the most effective tourism slogans of all time.

It is widely viewed as the chief reason that a record 38.6 million people visited Las Vegas in 2005.

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Cortez, 67, the longtime president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, died Sunday after suffering a heart attack at his Las Vegas home, said Billy Vassilliadis, whose R&R; Partners ad agency devised the campaign during a tourism slump brought on by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“It was the first time we were going back into the marketplace after 9/11, and Manny was more involved than normal because he was concerned that we get everything right,” Vassilliadis said. “But he liked it right away.”

When Las Vegas’ efforts to market itself as a family-friendly destination in the 1990s failed to pay off, the new slogan was seen as an effective way of letting the world know the old Sin City was back.

The beauty of the phrase “is that it’s a definitive statement of what Vegas is all about, but it also leaves something to the individual’s imagination as to what exactly it means,” Daniel R. Fesenmaier, a Temple University professor who studies the effectiveness of tourism advertising, told The Times in 2005.

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From his first job in Las Vegas as a parking attendant at the Stardust Hotel and Casino, Cortez rose to become the city’s chief of tourism in 1991, when 21 million visitors arrived.

By the time he retired in 2004, the number of tourists had grown to more than 37 million, according to the convention authority.

With charisma and connections, Cortez turned Las Vegas into a leading resort destination by targeting convention business and international leisure travelers, said Rossi Ralenkotter, who succeeded Cortez as president and chief executive of the convention authority.

A marketing budget of a reported $88 million in 2004 also didn’t hurt.

“When we first started doing this, we were all gaming-oriented,” Cortez told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2004. “We’ve become an all-around resort destination, which is why Las Vegas has been as successful as it is.”

Cortez was a patient, collaborative and focused leader, associates said.

“He had a gift for making people feel good. He could be incredibly articulate and sophisticated in his business interactions and very comfortable surrounded by cabdrivers at a ballgame,” said Vassilliadis, alluding to the period when Cortez ran Nevada’s Taxicab Authority.

Manuel J. Cortez was born in Las Cruces, N.M., and moved to Las Vegas when he was about 6. He once said his father was a baker by trade but “a horse player by vocation.”

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He attended what is now the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and worked in county government before serving four terms as a Clark County commissioner beginning in 1976.

Cortez is the father of Catherine Cortez Masto, a former assistant U.S. attorney and assistant Clark County manager who is running as a Democrat for attorney general in Nevada.

He is also survived by his wife, Joanna; another daughter, Cynthia Musgrove; and two grandchildren.

The “What Happens Here Stays Here” campaign also will survive him indefinitely. According to the convention authority, the expression will be used in ads as long as it remains effective.


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