It wasn’t just the remarkable scenery of the Salt Lake Valley that attracted Linda McKinsey to the area. It wasn’t even the convenience and accessibility provided at the local convention center and hotels. When it came down to it, McKinsey, who is the director of meeting planning for the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, brought her group to Utah for its convention because people at the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau (SLCVB) went above and beyond what was expected to make everything work perfectly.
“The hospitality in your city is just phenomenal,” she says. “It’s a very welcoming, warming city. It was such a pleasant experience. People went out of their way to accommodate us and by the time we left, everyone was so thrilled.”
McKinsey’s group visited Salt Lake last summer, right before the economy took a nosedive, leaving many cities begging for conventions. While many cities—like Las Vegas—have taken a significant hit in convention and trade shows because of the slowing economy, the Beehive State is still attracting such events, according to Shawn Stinson, director of communications at SLCVB. Stinson says businesses are still looking to Utah for a reliable, cost-effective and convenient site to hold their conventions, board meetings and trade shows.
“Right now the economy is really gloom and doom,” Stinson says. “People are cutting back, but we’re doing all right.”
Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the SLCVB had one of its best booking years for conventions in 2008, second only to the flurry of activity during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. In fact, meetings are being booked in Utah as far off as 2021. So why is the Utah convention business flourishing when others across the country are stagnant? Stinson feels many unique factors are bringing new groups to the state.
What it Takes
Though the state’s conservative image was once thought to dissuade people from visiting the state, Stinson says Utah may now actually be benefitting from its reputation. In an era of excessive spending, federal bailouts, CEO bonuses and overall dissatisfaction directed toward the corporate world, a perception of restraint and stability brings meeting planners to Utah as opposed to Las Vegas or Los Angeles.
Plus, with affordable room rates, convenience to and from the airport, and a convention district with plenty of meeting space and access to hotels, meeting planners are taking a closer look at Utah when organizing business events.
Another factor that has had significant impact on booking future conventions is Utah’s recently-changed liquor laws. “People are starting to realize Utah is not a dry state,” Stinson says. “More personal business is done after hours in bars. People want to meet for a beer and a more casual conversation.”
The fact that Utah cities are consistently ranked high for health and fitness is another draw for people outside the area. The idea of being associated with a state known for outdoor sports, recreation and good health habits is a big attraction for various industries all over the country.
Although numbers are down slightly when compared with 2007, more than 270,000 delegates visited Salt Lake City during 2008, spending $243.6 million and booking just less than 330,000 room nights. The recession is definitely a factor with the slight downturn in bookings and attendees, but overall optimism is ruling the day.
Stinson credits the increased interest in Utah sites on a combined effort with marketing, a great service department, Website referrals and the new Meet In Utah organization which unites the conventions bureaus from Salt Lake, Davis Area, Park City, Utah Valley, Ogden-Weber, St. George and the Heber Valley Chamber.
As the president and CEO of the Davis Area Conventions and Visitors Bureau, Barbara Riddle is excited about the joint effort created with the Meet In Utah group.
“We have a great product and a unique product scattered throughout the state,” Riddle says. “We sell the state as well as individual communities. There’s so much more you can do together than when you work alone.”
If a CVB within the Meet In Utah organization cannot accommodate a convention or trade show request, due to lack of availability or space, that CVB passes the information along to others in the system in order to keep the business in Utah. With an interactive Website, soon to include an online RFP process, and a wide range of areas to choose from, Utah’s CVBs expect convention business to keep rolling into the state.
Increased marketing has also contributed to Utah’s survival in the trade show business. Through a co-op marketing program with the state, Meet In Utah spent almost $200,000 to promote the state’s CVBs, including an extensive ad campaign in publications targeting meeting planners.
Spreading the Word
The SLCVB Website is also constantly being updated and becoming more user-friendly. Driving business to the Website is an on-going project, incorporating all types of social media like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
“We’re using multi-media to get the message out,” Stinson says. “Not long ago, everything was brochures, but now we’re posting news with up-to-the-minute happenings in Salt Lake.”
Bringing in the Meeting Professionals International convention in July 2009 will also generate more interest in Utah for future conventions. The organization (that met in Las Vegas last year) decides where groups and companies should hold their meetings and trade shows, and promoters hope MPI’s good impression of Utah will encourage these professionals to direct their business out west to Salt Lake City and surrounding areas.
“Basically, we are expecting 3,000 to 4,000 of the top meeting professionals to come to Salt Lake,” Stinson says. “It’s Salt Lake’s turn to shine.”
But once conventions are booked, it takes a cumulative effort to keep businesses coming back to the Beehive State. Good first impressions are invaluable as meeting planners visit local hotels and convention centers to scope out the best location for their companies.
If all the meetings turn out as well as McKinsey’s convention, getting repeat business shouldn’t be a problem. It was the first time she had planned a meeting that received absolutely no criticism from the participants. A feat, she says, that’s almost impossible.
“As a meeting planner, I would plan another meeting [in Utah] in a heartbeat,” McKinsey says. “To come under budget and to have everybody happy shows it’s a great location. There are some people who make you feel totally welcome to be there. That’s the way we felt about Salt Lake.”