Rob Gialloreto, President & CEO of Tourism Victoria

Growing up in Montreal, where every kid wanted to wear Rocket Richard’s No. 9, Rob Gialloreto was a goalie.

Which might explain why he’s used to making saves. In fact, the 46-year-old marketer has something of a highlight reel of shutouts — awards, peer recognition, bottom-line successes.

But his on-ice memories aren’t so sweet.

He recalls getting hit in the “noids” by a Guy Lapointe slapshot while attending a hockey school run by his boyhood idol, another Habs legend, Yvan Cournoyer. But an errant puck or two didn’t deter Gialloreto from pursuing hockey — from a front-office perspective, anyway.

He worked for a decade marketing pro sports franchises from the IHL’s Manitoba Moose and the AHL’s Cornwall Aces to the Ottawa Rough Riders and Hartford Whalers.

While at the Whalers — a job he got through an internship with the NHL club as he was completing his MBA in Massachusetts — he met the legendary Gordie Howe.

Gialloreto recalls Howe coming into his office in a huff and dumping a stack of The Hockey News on his desk. Mr. Hockey’s wife, Colleen, was convinced that advertisers were using her husband’s name to sell their products without permission.

“Colleen thinks my name is being ripped off,” Howe boomed. “I want you to go through all of these and circle my name every time you see it.”

Gialloreto was a quick study. With the Moose he was named IHL public relations executive of the year. A gold medal of excellence for TV advertising from the National Council for Marketing and PR followed, thanks to his decision to hire My Winnipeg director Guy Maddin to oversee the spot. And recently he was named one of the Top 25 extraordinary minds in sales and marketing by Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International.

{advertisement} He taught marketing at three postsecondary institutions, and in between Gialloreto worked some magic as CEO of Travel Alberta International, where he grew the staff from 14 to 40.

His latest assignment is with Tourism Victoria, whose save percentage in recent years had slipped as funding was squeezed and tourists stayed home. It was in search of new leadership and a fresh approach.

Gialloreto arrived in April 2008 with his wife Christie, a sports psychologist, and their 10-year-old daughter Megan, a figure skater, and took over Tourism Victoria, promoting an industry that generates close to $1 billion in revenues. Since then, however, he’s had to cut staff and watch his budget drop almost $500,000 to about $3.6 million.

“People think Victoria’s beautiful and that automatically means people just come here to visit and that’s just not the case.” Those are his words of caution. Gialloreto still plays hockey regularly, just not in net these days.

There was turmoil when you arrived here. Cuts have trimmed the organization’s roster down to around 20 from 35 full-time staff. Three more people were let go last year. Was this all due to financial pressures or were you out to put your own stamp on things?

Clearly this was an organization in transition, so they were looking for a certain type of professional to come in. I don’t believe in shaking up an organization for the purpose of shaking it up. No matter who was in this chair, we had to make some changes. Financially, things were just not solvent.

How has the tourism landscape changed in the past two years?

It’s more challenging for sure. There are just flat out less people travelling and those that are travelling are travelling differently. In 2010, people were staying extremely close to home or going very far away… and spending less.

When do we stop filling every tourism brochure with tea at the Empress, whale watching, and Butchart Gardens?

The iconic things are a super-strong base for us. You don’t mess with your strong brand equity. When times get tough, [consumers] usually defer to something familiar. Look at the way Coke and Nike market. If Victoria means a little bit of old England and gardening you don’t mess with that strong brand equity. It might not work for all our markets so you flex your brand. This year we’re putting really specific messages into different markets. I think it’s lazy to say, “Hey, we’re just the garden city.”

Are we lagging behind in tourism marketing?

Did you know that 76 million Americans booked hotels on hand-held devices last year? There was a lot of work to be done in the world of social media. This organization wasn’t there yet. We now have a three-tiered social media strategy. We have iPhone and BlackBerry apps. We’ve started selling web property and we’ve generated over $100,000 selling tourism conducive ads on our website. If we’re not prepared to go after that we’re just leaving those dollars on the table.

What happened to that Olympic windfall we were supposed to get?

I never expected it. We didn’t spill over because Vancouver wasn’t full. I went over there in the middle of the Games and got a hotel room downtown. What we did get was great exposure for Victoria by bringing NBC’s morning show over here. That was a great ambush effort by our staff. They had no plans to come over originally.

What are your thoughts on Bob Wright’s proposal for a new, high-tech tourist attraction in the home of the old wax museum, that CPR steamship terminal?

What I don’t want in there is something residential. I want an attraction. We need a hands-on, experiential, First Nations exhibit, maybe like the Polynesian Cultural Centre in Honolulu.

You worked as director of media and PR for the Canadian Football League’s Ottawa Rough Riders when wildly unpopular owners Bernie and his son, Lonie Glieberman, ran the team. Got any good stories?

Oh yeah [laughter]. Better [Bruce] Firestone ones, but I don’t want to get sued. OK. Bernie came into my office one day and looked at me and said, “You! What do you do here?” I told him I was in charge of media and he said, “You ever watch the Phoenix Suns play basketball? You know that gorilla they have? I want it on the sidelines for us.” I immediately went out and rented a gorilla suit.

Why didn’t you stay in sports marketing? Maybe you could be front office with the Canucks.

Sports is way tougher than people think. It’s a grind. In hockey, you’ve got pre-season and 82 games, then the playoffs. And in the off-season you’re selling all the time. It’s really all the same, too. No thanks.

And speaking of the Canucks, are they your Stanley Cup pick or are you going with your heart and the Canadiens?

The Habs? I don’t think so. I honestly think Vancouver will win this year. When’s this article coming out? They’ll probably be in last place by then.

Are you finding it possible to accomplish some of the things you wanted to achieve with Tourism Victoria?

Money is frustrating. I told the board when they were hiring me that I’m an inside-out guy. The organization has to be functioning internally. Until the engine in your car is healthy you’re not going to go anywhere. We’re still on the road to doing some things, but the engine’s running.