When a rare tornado ripped through Salt Lake City on August 11, 1999, the Outdoor Retailers (OR) Summer Market took a major hit from the storm. It was there that the only fatality of the twister occurred, and market debris littered city streets for blocks before the tornado continued its course through the downtown area.
Now almost a decade later, the success of shows like the Outdoor Retailers market is blowing across the state in a different way, spawning a multi-million dollar convention industry that continues to grow and increase.
Dollars Make Sense
Scott Beck, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors' Bureau, points to the OR Show as one of the showcase events in the state. This year's convention, the largest ever in the state with 22,000 attendees, had a total economic impact in the Salt Lake area of nearly $30 million, with sales and use tax totaling an additional $2 million.
“We are heavily invested into the convention business,” says Erin Litvack, community services department director for Salt Lake County, which owns the Salt Palace and hosts the OR show. “We want to see [the convention center] used for the greater good of the community. [Attendees] stay in our hotels, they eat in our restaurants, they rent our cars and they spend their money while they're here.”
Fortunately for Utah, the dollars don't stop there. Beck points out that information gathered from Bureau of Economic Business and Research surveys, which are used to track economic impact, show that 24.8 percent of all attendees surveyed during the past four years intend to come back to Utah and will bring 2.4 family or friends with them. “When they return,” he adds, “they state they are visiting other areas in Utah, so not only is Salt Lake being exposed but upon their return our convention delegates are visiting the rest of our beautiful state. The economic multiplier is incredible.”
Those vacationers, however, are frequently not the end of the greenback trail either. Many then make a permanent move as their businesses open offices or relocate to the state.
“Companies like Black Diamond, Backpacker.com and Salomon were exposed to Salt Lake and Utah via the Outdoor Retailer trades shows. After years of attending the trade show here in Utah they decided to locate their companies here,” Beck says.
This is just one of the many “tangential benefits” of this one show, explains Allyson Jackson, general manager of The Calvin L. Rampton Salt Palace Convention Center and the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy. “The Outdoor Retailer Show has led businesses to look at Utah and Salt Lake County differently. Learning about our state, [they end up] falling in love with it,” she adds.
Around the State
While the burgeoning statewide convention industry is concentrated mainly in the greater Salt Lake area, conference centers throughout the state are springing up to meet a growing demand for convention space. Earlier this year, ground was broken in Pleasant Grove in Utah County for the John Q. Hammons Embassy Suites Hotel and adjoining 120,000-square-foot convention center. The new 13-story, 300-suite hotel will also feature a 40,000-square-foot grand ballroom, and the surrounding area will include 500,000 square feet of retail space and 1 million square feet of Class A office space.
One of the newest centers in operation is Layton's Davis Conference Center. The facility opened in September 2004 with 40,000 square feet, and will complete a 42,000-square-foot expansion in April 2008. (By comparison, the Salt Palace has 515,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space and 164,000 square feet of meeting space, while the South Towne Expo Center has 234,000 square feet of space.)
When the Davis County facility opened its doors, initial studies indicated an interest that would yield upwards of 450 conventions per year. As Dave Hilliard, director of operations for the Davis Conference Center explains, the center has far exceeded those goals, with 750 to 800 conventions per year.
“We have been blown away,” he says. “[What is going on here] is impacting the overall Utah economy.”
In the beginning, many conventions at the Davis Conference Center came from government entities stationed at nearby Hill Air Force Base, which proved to be a great boon to getting the center on its feet initially. But now, three years later, with a major expansion just around the corner, the center has shown that it can stand on its own.
“We're still a very well-kept secret,” says Hilliard. “We really don't compete with the Salt Palace or the Expo Center. The business they don't need is the business we need. We're not pulling away business [from them]; we're adding to it.”
At the other end of the state, with 47,500 square feet of space, is the Dixie Center, which has been around for more than 15 years, nine of those at its present location on the south end of St. George.
Even up to a decade ago, the majority of potential convention attendees from outside of the state could not identify St. George's location, says Jo Ann Gordon, marketing director at the Dixie Center. All that has changed, says Gordon, who shares an experience she had this past fall at a company's regional conference held in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
“Out of about 400 people who stopped by our booth, all but five knew who we were,” she says. “Seven or eight years ago, people would have asked, 'Where is St. George?' We don't have to do that anymore. St. George is on the map. We're known.”
Facing the Competition
According to Allyson Jackson, and surprising to some, the main reasons a corporation or association chooses to hold a convention in Utah has nothing to do with the traditional lures of the state.
“We are on the outer edge of the Mountain Time Zone so our days are much longer,” she explains. “You feel safer in the daylight. We want people to be out and around.”
When those longer days are combined with easy access to recreational opportunities, a clean environment, the energetic, high quality and non-union status of the workforce, and the affordability of services, Utah stands out as an ideal convention destination.
“One roof is not necessarily the end all, be all,” continues Jackson in reference to the competition of other states that offer sprawling hotels with all-under-one-roof centers for convention attendees. Here in Utah, however, the overriding opinion is the importance of selling the state as much as the facility.
As in real estate, where everything comes down to location, Jackson is quick to point out to convention planners that the distance from one end of the largest of these hotels complexes to the other is sometimes farther than walking across the street from the Salt Palace to a nearby hotel or the Gateway shopping center.
“When we market the place, we market the area,” says Dixie Center's Jo Ann Gordon. Over and over again, Gordon finds that people are amazed that a town the size of St. George has so many amenities, including great weather, golf and cultural events as well as proximity to national parks. These unique amenities, she adds, “are our strongest selling points.”
Getting Around the Construction
Like the tornado that ripped through the downtown area in 1999, the construction associated with the City Creek Center project could also present obstacles for convention attendees. When asked if the current construction has been an issue, Allyson Jackson responds with both a yes and a no. Because the process for choosing a site and preparing for the actual convention can take between two and three years, those who made their reservations a while ago are having to deal with the inconvenience now. But while those making reservations now may have to see the dust in a planning visit, what they'll be getting when they come will be great.
“We have not a single (problem) with the construction,” she says. “In three years, we're going to be an entirely different city.”
Scott Beck's experience with convention organizers has been similar. “We recently brought in a meeting planner from a very large national association. We took her to the top floor of the Marriott Downtown for a bird's eye view of the City Creek project. In her note back to us after the site inspection, she explained that the experience of seeing that project was one of the key reasons she will recommend our destination to her board of directors for their annual meeting of 20,000 attendees.”
To meet the current obstacles, Beck credits the Salt Lake City police department for assisting with traffic control issues during with the Rotary convention held in June, and Bill Knowles, construction impact mitigation ombudsman for Salt Lake City, for dealing with mud and dust for the Emergency Nurses Association in September during a few rainy days.
“(They) have made the potential for big issues, a non-issue,” he says.
The success of the convention business, in particular the expansion of the industry expected from the rise of the new City Creek Center, is a combined effort of many entities, says Beck, noting Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, and the leadership of Natalie Gouchnour and Lane Beattie with the Salt Lake Chamber. But perhaps the most significant group in his estimation is Property Reserve, Inc., the commercial real estate arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “They have been very helpful to our organization through their pro-active communication on the process and in helping us mitigate any potential problems during our peak business periods this past summer.” Beck also mentions the board of directors and staff at the Downtown Alliance.
“With representatives from the Downtown Merchants Association, the downtown restaurant businesses, developers, and land owners, the Alliance's efforts are unmatched and are the glue that holds this coalition together,” he says.
Litvack also looks to “the collaboration in this city to make the convention business successful. Everybody is supportive from the marketing and sales branch to the wonderful team at the Salt Palace to restaurateurs and hoteliers. We all contribute. We all play a role. Everyone works very hard and very well together.”
In speaking of the experience convention planners and attendees can expect from the facilities under her charge, Jackson says, “We're passionate about what we do. We're easy; we're accommodating. We know that when a meeting planner chooses our facilities, they're going to have a great meeting.”
So, whether conventions take place along the Wasatch Front, in Utah's Dixie, or at one of the many centers located on college campuses across the state, the convention industry promises a whirlwind of growth and expansion, allowing greater numbers of individuals, corporations and associations a glimpse into the best of what Utah has to offer.