Breaking the mold

Robert Lopez made a name for himself as a social media influence; now he’s McAllen’s tourism leader

McALLEN — Robert Lopez was shirtless again, looking to get the angle just right.

About a month before his new job announcement, Lopez was at the beach — his cardinal rule for any shirtless picture. Beaches and pools. But many people who know Lopez know what he looks like without a shirt — thanks in part to a Men’s Health magazine photoshoot — or with a tequila shot in his hand — from his online video series of sipping shots with South Texas personalities.

“As long as it’s cool with Steve and my mom,” Lopez, 38, said of his online presence.

Both have pledged their endorsement, perhaps none larger than this week’s announcement when Steve Ahlenius, President of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, said that Lopez would lead tourism in McAllen, with his new role as vice president of Visit McAllen, the Chamber’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. Ahlenius talked about Lopez’s leadership and perspective, and said he “earned this opportunity” after seven years working in sales at the chamber.

The choice has surprised some who only know Lopez from social media, and Ahlenius said the two have discussed all that comes with the elevated role.

“We’ve certainly had our conversations about this,” Ahlenius said in an interview. “There’s a whole other level of scrutiny and politics that comes with it.”

Lopez’s promotion to a higher-profile and more visible job did not surprise people who work with him regularly, as they said he has given a new twist to a role that is often, across the state, occupied by the same person for a long time.

“He’s really sharp and creative,” said Rebecca Olaguibel, who works frequently with Lopez in her job as the city of McAllen’s director of retail development.

The job announcement comes at an inflection point for McAllen’s marketing efforts, as the city continues its aggressive approach to combat what officials here view as negative attention associated with McAllen. Since 2014, McAllen has been a ground zero of sorts for migration from Central America to the United States. International news organizations, politicians and even celebrities and professional athletes have flocked to McAllen.

Courtesy photo
Robert Lopez reviews plans for an event in McAllen.

The conversations resulting from that attention are almost entirely related to immigration issues. Federal laws are such that hundreds of thousands of asylum-seeking migrants have stopped through McAllen shortly after crossing the southern border. The attention on the city may have peaked last summer, when the Trump administration separated thousands of migrant families at the border.

But from the family separations crisis, McAllen officials saw an opportunity, with so much focus on the city, though for reasons mostly out of the city’s control. The chamber of commerce, in cooperation with the city, launched a $414,500 advertising campaign in early June 2018. It was not a direct response to the Trump administration’s immigration policy, the McAllen officials said, but the timing aligned.

“It can help deflect some of this negativity that the rest of the world is seeing out there toward our area,” said Nancy Millar at the time, who served as Lopez’s predecessor for more than 20 years and whom Lopez credits for helping him join the chamber.

The advertising campaign featured videos, digital and print advertising promoting McAllen as a destination, which is how the city has tried to brand itself, holding destination-style events that could encourage out of town guests to spend the night and spend money in the city.

The descriptors Ahlenius used when he discussed the 2018 marketing effort is markedly similar to the way Lopez looks at his job.

“I see all the immigration issues as a way to embrace our culture even more,” Lopez said. “How can we utilize our location on the border in the best possible ways?”

He noted the city’s focus on sports tourism, with the new youth baseball complex in north McAllen as an avenue to host tournaments.

“Let’s be the No. 1 destination for international sports,” he said, citing already-held youth baseball tournaments with teams from Texas and Mexico.

He mentioned MXLAN, the inaugural arts and music festival that launched in July, an ambitious endeavor that city officials were cautiously optimistic about but ended in a success of more than 80,000 visitors and scores of music, food and other entertainment. Following the event, the magazine Texas Monthly wrote positively with the headline: “How McAllen’s New Festival Could Change the Valley’s Music Scene.”

Lopez did not run that event or spearhead the idea, but if an event like MXLAN is any indication of the city’s brand, Lopez pointed a younger and ambitious generation in McAllen of which he considered himself a member. He also cited various people under 40 years old who are leading city departments or local non-profit organizations.

The average age in the Rio Grande Valley is 29, and two McAllen city commissioners elected just this year are under 40 years old. One, Commissioner Victor “Seby” Haddad, has known Lopez for decades.

“Bob is always looking to break the mold a little bit,” Haddad said. “If you’ve been around him at any events, he’s extremely passionate about the things going on here.”