Our contributor Lea Puechel sits down with globetrotter and head of the Mexican Tourism Board in Canada, Rodrigo Esponda; and exposes a personal journey that maps out Canada’s place in Mexico’s future.
There’s nothing extraordinary in Rodrigo Esponda’s home-life. “I wake up very early and exercise in the morning. I like to run, bike and swim.” Coffee is the first thing his itinerary before indulging his children and heading to work.
Work has become less roundabout in the past few months; however, injecting spontaneity and thrill has been his mandate. As Director of the Mexico Tourism Board in Canada, Rodrigo is more than an administrator or manager. His imagination and creativity is providing an existing market a steady incline for Mexican tourism.
Since November 2011, Rodrigo has dedicated his time to establish Mexico as a top destination for Canadian travelers.
A perceptive businessperson, Rodrigo’s astute analysis of the Canadian travel sniffed out the importance of Mexican tourism to the Canadian consumer. “In Canada, there are 33 million people and there are 1.6 million people who travel to Mexico. Alternately, the United States, a nation of 300 million people, sees 17 million people welcomed in Mexico. The disparity in these figures is very large,” explains Rodrigo.
Backed by a well-oiled team, the dilemma was tackled head on, and of course, a solution has seen extraordinary results for unilateral benefit. What Rodrigo and his team found was that “every strategy for bringing Mexico more tourism had already been reduced to a single North American market. The U.S. approach did not work in Canada,” says Rodrigo. “For instance, we analyzed the travel routes between Canada and Mexico. The length of travel is often three times longer between Canada and Mexico which obviously creates challenges for our Canadian tourists.”
Rodrigo had some observations regarding the Canadian traveler. “Canada is a country of sincere travellers,” says Rodrigo. “I don’t think Canadians know how inspiring they are,” he adds. His thoughtful strategies for tourism show he is not only a smart marketer but has an understanding of how to speak to the Canadian traveler; a group of people he’s come to understand, a society he interacts with, and a market he believes adds a different element to Mexico’s tourism and trade culture.
Rodrigo’s path to tourism followed an uncommon route, much like the itineraries he encourages travelers embark on. Born in the nation’s capital, he lived in Mexico City studying architecture and urban development until his early twenties. As is often the case, the young graduate wanted to start his own company for which he sought the counsel and mentorship of a family friend. Rodrigo’s life path, would not include architecture, rather he was sought out as an aide in the government tourism agency.
At the time, the agency encountered a number of internal issues requiring youthful, forward thinking energy pierced through expired tactics and models. Fortunately for him, he was young, and forward thinking. Reluctant to change a career path before he had one, a twenty-minute meeting virtually set him on another path. His mentor was convinced by the eager young man, calling his assistant and instructing him to “take Rodrigo to sign some papers; that’s how I started working in tourism.“
In 2000, Rodrigo moved to New York City to complete a Master’s degree, and continued to work while studying. “The Mexican Tourism Board was newly created and I was interested in a new position I’d seen announced. I prepared my application and after three months was told that I was eligible to apply. It was a step-by-step process. Again, I needed to send more papers and take an exam. At that point, more than six months had passed since I first applied. I did the interview and after yet another month, I heard back that I’d been given the job.“
Resilience in the face of abrupt chance fueled Rodrigo, and the culture change only provided the energy to inject the agency with ideas and strategies for increasing the visibility of Mexico as a viable travel destination. “I was actually really impressed by the cultural change. I was amazed by the pace of the city and the competitive environment.”
In New York, the first thing I learned was that I had two minutes to connect professionally, compared to the Mexican style of spending a good portion of any professional meeting discussing family, adding a personal note to the atmosphere. In New York there was no room for personal notes in the atmosphere. This forced me to really plan ahead and prepare and now I really appreciate this way of doing business.”
The cultural dissimilarities Esponda has encountered on his professional journey seemingly add to the strategy of intercultural dialogue and appreciation he chooses to highlight in the marketing of Mexico. There are as many unique languages, cultures and foods in Mexico that foreigners tend to believe are the same, but that’s the richness of Mexico that I encourage travelers to explore. These routes to intercultural dialogue are evident in the Canadian traveler, he notes. “The Canadian market is known to be open to absorbing, participating and broadening an awareness of new destinations. Canada is a nation as diverse as Mexico with native communities as diverse and rich as Mexico’s, and with urban centres as complex and multicultural as Canada’s largest: Toronto. The inclusivity of the Canadian identity offers Mexico a colourful template for the inquisitive explorer.”
Canada is a country of inquisitive travellers
When Rodrigo talks about Mexico, he speaks as though he just recently fell in love with the country. He talks about its food, its culture, its landscape, and its architecture. “Mexican architecture is a unique way of shaping the space with colours. Even if we create something modern, we go back in time and take with our structures the colours and shapes that will forever reflect our civilization into the future.“ His argument is clear when admiring ancient Aztec, Maya ruins or award winning, internationally notable post- modern design; the essence of Mexican creativity always remains palpable.
One might wonder whether homesickness badgers a person immersed in the mythology of their home country. Rodrigo recalls initially longing for the tastes and flavours of Mexican cuisine, and equally crazing the Mexican way of life. His philosophy for life, however, makes it possible for him to feel at home anywhere he is called to represent those flavours and ways of life. “My idea is to simply keep an open mind about my situation. You can always be in your own country and not feel at home. Projecting my country abroad always keeps me connected to it.“
Mexico is a rich and varied civilization with languages, food and identities as diverse as Canada’s.
Success in the tourism business is attributed to an analytical mind and notably, an ability to adapt. He takes a direct and clear approach to leading a team, which makes him stand out in the tourism sector. “I ensure my team’s happiness by simply asking, because I can’t be physically present as often as I’d like, I need to listen and I can’t micromanage.”
There’s a sense of honesty found in the tone and attitude Rodrigo exudes, that sets his direct leadership style apart. Everything from a conversation about the cup of coffee we are drinking can begin as simple as how bold the coffee tastes to the politics surrounding that same cup of coffee and back to the beautiful sights and sounds in the southern Mexican region where the country’s best coffee is produced. He describes how “interesting it is to see small producers and communities joining efforts to produce and export the coffee in a very sustainable ways.”
Rodrigo chooses his luggage in the same way he claims to lead his proven business model: “I think luggage is just like life. We tend to carry too many things that we don’t need.“ His unique interest in intercultural dialogue, patience in understanding the nuances of the Canadian consumer positioned against other cultures he’s worked with in his tourism business, and the confidence he invests in the Canadian traveler to his country, represent a man who does a great service to enriching cultural dialogue between these two emerging nations. In a post NAFTA era, it’s visionary partners that both nations need for continuing to move our societies forward.