For 14 years (1977-91), he was at the helm of the sales efforts of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority as their national sales manager. During that period of time, he got more than his share of major conventions for the hall on South Virgina Street while competing against sales reps from such major locations as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Miami. One such convention was the outdoor retailers.
He started his tenure with the RSCVA at the behest of a contingent of local businessmen here who got together and journeyed to Sun Valley, Idaho, where Burke was then serving as national sales manager for that famous ski resort.
The main reason the locals wanted Burke back was that the huge MGM hotel was due to open in 1978, doubling the number of Reno/Sparks top flight hotel rooms and for the first time giving the Biggest Little City and environs a legitimate shot at getting major conventions to come here.
Burke was well suited to represent the northern Nevada area since he began his local affiliation when then-owner of the Holiday Hotel (now the Siena), Newt Crumley, inveigled Burke to leave the Bay Area business in which he had been involved since an injury ended his football career with the San Francisco 49ers. Burke had been recruited by the Niners after a stellar collegiate football career at the University of Southern California.
Shortly after taking on the chores of representing the Holiday Hotel in the Bay Area, Burke’s connection with Reno suffered a blow as Crumley and local banking giant Eddie Questa perished in a plane crash with Crumley at the controls.
At that particular time, the Reno Chamber of Commerce was under the direction of Jud Allen, who was a promotion-minded, former Hollywood press agent. Allen had watched the success Burke had in representing the Holiday and immediately recruited him for a much larger undertaking — representing the entire city of Reno in the San Francisco area. Shortly after Allen had taken the chamber of commerce reins, he created a promotion committee made up of the public relations and advertising men of the major properties. The core of that group were Ray Powers of Harold’s Club, Mark Curtis of Harrah’s, Fred Davis of the Sparks Nugget and myself, representing the Mapes Hotel. Another property that was considered “major” at that time was the Riverside Hotel, but that facility had a revolving door approach to its representative and the only one I can recall was Nick Bourne.
To make a big splash in San Francisco, which at that time was considered this area’s prime market, a large storefront space was rented on Market Street the busiest thoroughfare in the city.
Burke and his staff operated out of this location and it was festooned with signs of the Reno properties, giveaway trinkets and the ability to book rooms and buy show tickets. To say it did a booming business would be an understatement of the most extreme kind.
A born promotion man, Burke was always on the cutting edge of developing new tourist programs, which he would pitch to the promotion committee to get the community’s backing.
His hallmark effort occurred when he did some homework with Southern Pacific Railroad officials and conceived of starting a weekly “Fun Train” from the Bay Area to Reno during the often-snowbound winter months. As he loved to recount how he made his pitch to us, it went something like this: He gave the detailed presentation along with the tentative contract that Southern Pacific approved and as all of us sat there in stunned silence he closed his pitch by saying, “I will accept your lack of comment as an endorsement of this idea!” All of us returned to our principals, relayed the Fun Train proposal and as Burke correctly surmised, it was approved unanimously.
I recall vividly the preparation and actual riding of the original Fun Train. Burke had plotted out with Southern Pacific the maximum number of cars that could be pulled over Donner Summit on the round trip. To his passenger cars he then added formal dining cars, a bar car, a stripped-down car for dancing with a live trio providing the music and an old-fashioned observation car on the end that we used to entertain the press and other dignitaries that we could get to take the ride — which was a seven-hour adventure. The idea was a hit from the start and through Burke’s connections, many groups and organizations from the Bay Area would book entire cars. They were also free to bring their own food and booze if they so desired and on many occasions I would find Burke hunkered down with them sampling their tasty victuals. The Fun Train still runs today and is sold out on every excursion. The chamber of commerce lost control of the train when room tax funds that had originally gone to the chamber were transferred to the RSCVA. However, another company immediately picked it up and it has run unabated to the present day.
The Fun Train established a successful format from which Burke was able to develop the Fun Flight and the Reno Drive-Up package. All three programs had similar offerings to purchasers in that they included a two-night stay at a major hotel, floor shows, several meals, drink tokens, gaming slips and novelty giveaways. It was considered the biggest tourist bargain ever.
Although he could point to hundreds and hundreds of benchmarks in his long career, one of Burke’s favorites was getting together with a gifted mechanic during his chamber of commerce days and producing the giant slot machine. The huge contraption, more than 6 feet tall, was a faithful reproduction of the “one-armed bandits” of that era. On its reels were posted various prizes from the major Reno establishments. The handle offered a “free” pull and the player would get a certificate of the prizes he was able to line up and then take the receipt to Reno to collect. Once the slot was built, a custom trailer was fashioned to carry it and then Burke would take it on busy weekends to major shopping centers in Northern California.
“I was like Mohammad,” he used to say. “If the mountain (meaning California tourists) won’t come to me, I will go to the mountain!”
To date, no one locally has eclipsed Don Burke’s marvelous record in tourism.
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.
Editor’s note: Harry Spencer’s column is sometimes a mix of reporting and opinion. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.