Gov. Sandoval handed Ascuaga the first-ever Nevada Tourism Legend Award during the Tuesday afternoon opening session of the Governor’s Conference on Tourism inside The Nugget. The award, according to Gov. Sandoval, went to Ascuaga and “will epitomize the ideals of the Nevada tourism industry.”
“It is very hard for me to realize that 57 years ago we opened the Nugget across the street,” Ascuaga said in front of a packed Rose Ballroom audience. “The biggest thing I am proud of is that we have such wonderful people that work for us and we have developed a team here that could compete with any other company in the world.”
Ascuaga had executives of the tourism industry tilting back their necks to laugh as he joked of slowing down The Nugget’s operations. He cited major Nevada road improvements and the help of his close family as his reason to continue.
“I was going to slow down my operation a little bit and then they built this road between Carson City and here and I decided I am going to continue on. What a great trip!” Ascuaga said laughing. “I can't tell you how honored I am to have two of my children telling me what to do. (Laughs) I have to remind them once in awhile that I still write the checks.”
Gov. Sandoval said Ascuaga has exemplified excellence in the tourism and hospitality business since taking over The Nugget in 1960. He said as the casino approaches its 58th year under Ascuaga’s care there is much to be noted about his success.
“John Ascuaga’s Nugget is one of the few family-owned casino resorts left in the country,” Gov. Sandoval said. “Mr. Ascuaga’s desire to spread success, promote tourism and uplift the community in ways many others cannot even imagine is the signature to his success, and the building of his legacy is one of the finest examples of Nevada hospitality the state will ever see. He has maintained his commitment to his family and the community he calls home.”
The governor marked the expansion of the hotel's two towers and Ascuaga’s scholarship program as two major successes. He said the scholarship program in 1956 funded four students $1,000 each to attend college. The program now offers tuition help to 26 students each year for higher education.
Ascuaga, recalling on the many days spent attempting to improve service at The Nugget, said he feels optimistic that the tourism industry will turn around.
“I have to remind myself I can still do it. There has been quite a load to carry in this industry and there has been a lot of challenges I have had, and we all had, in the last 57 years,” he said. “I feel that we will overcome this challenge we are facing today.”
In Gov. Sandoval’s opening remarks, he said he has tasked his cabinet to “think big and go big” in terms of improving tourism. The Governor’s Conference on Tourism brought in executives from cities and rural towns across Nevada and from tourism agencies around the world to spark innovative conversations on tourism, which can opt for a small adjustments.
“Innovation does not have to be grandiose campaigns and programs. It can be small steps and doing something better, more efficiently and more creatively that can make the difference,” Gov. Sandoval said.
In breaking down the statistics signifying Nevada’s reliance on tourism, Gov. Sandoval said 447,000 Nevadans are employed in the travel and hospitality sector, comprising 30 percent of all employment in state. He said 26 percent of state and local taxes, and more than 12 percent of GDP, is accumulated through the tourism sector, and it is the state's number one export.
Gov. Sandoval said the creation of the Department of Tourism will aid in the state’s efforts to boost the sector and showcase the state. He said the departments of Economic Development, Transportation, Wildlife and Cultural Affairs will be collaborating with the the Department of Tourism to develop a brand name and launch new improvements around the state.
“I continue to believe that Nevada’s best days are yet to come,” he said. “We have such a beautiful and diverse state and I do believe we can provide some of the most authentic western experiences that you can find anywhere in the globe.”