October 15, 2009

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Meeting Hot Spot

Conservative Image Attracts Conventions to Utah

By Marie Mischel

October 15, 2009

Value-oriented is the buzz phrase for Utah’s convention and meeting industry as it seeks to attract groups in a tough economy. The state’s relative affordability is a selling point, as is its accessibility and the variety of activities it offers. There are other bright spots, as well: With the increased emphasis on keeping things local, venues are reporting an uptick in business from in-state companies. Down But Not Out Convention sites in Utah have seen some scheduled groups canceling outright, but more frequently they’re seeing the conferences continue, albeit with fewer attendees than in the past. “Late in 2008 a number of conventions were cancelled for 2009,” says Steve Lundgren, chair of the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau and vice president of the Salt Lake Valley Lodging Association. “Some are still being cancelled, but those seem to be the exception. Of greater concern is that attendance is down at almost all conventions, as are spending levels of the organizations hosting the event and those of the attendees.” The decrease in the number of people attending a convention, or attrition, is “higher now than I can remember,” adds Lundgren, who is also Marriott International’s general manager for Utah. “Oftentimes attrition rates will exceed 20 percent of those planned to attend.” This applies not only to the large convention venues in the Salt Lake Valley, but also to small locations such as those in Cedar City. “The groups that we’ve always counted on are coming back, but they’re coming back in smaller numbers and they’re staying shorter durations,” says Maria Twitchell, executive director of the Cedar City-Brian Head Tourism and Convention Bureau. High-end resorts, such as those in Park City and Midway, have been particularly hit hard, says Michael Johnson, executive director of the Utah Hotel and Lodging Association. Because of the stigma attached to junket-type meetings by companies such as AIG, retreats to places like golf resorts now are treated with caution by many public companies. Johnson says he knows of several executives who had such meetings in the budget, “but they were told that if it looked extravagant, they couldn’t do it.” On the other hand, Ogden is seeing an upward trend in transient room tax collection; Ogden’s convention bookings are about 20 percent higher than last year, and the city’s ski group bookings were about triple this past year compared to two years ago, says Sara Toliver, president and CEO of the Ogden and Weber Convention and Visitors Bureau. Toliver attributes this to several factors: the national media exposure the area has recently received, the relatively affordable hotel rooms, the proximity of Hill Air Force Base and the state’s marketing efforts. “Without the state’s collaborative marketing efforts to the tourism markets or the ski industry in general, we would not be where we are,” Toliver says. Leisure travel around the state is down overall but up near national parks, Johnson says. This is due not only to the growing popularity of “staycations,” but also because many hotels are marketing to leisure travelers and offering discounts. So, although occupancy rates in those areas are stable, revenue is down. Incentives Versus Discounts Although some hotels are discounting their rates, many prefer to attract business by including amenities such as a round of golf or an extra night’s stay with a reservation, Johnson says. “People are looking for bargains, and business owners think if they can’t offer a deal they’ll lose clientele, but a lot of places want to keep up their rates. It’s hard to get rates back up once you’ve discounted.” Likewise, convention centers are giving incentives rather than discounts. Brittany McMichaels, meeting and convention coordinator for the St. George Convention and Tourism Office, says they’re offering more off-site events and programs for conventioneers’ spouses, and perks such as hot stone massages at Red Mountain Spa to meeting planners who bring in new business. “We’re not really getting wild and crazy and incentivizing a huge amount,” says Shawn Stinson, director of communications for the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re really sticking to our core sales pitch, for lack of a better term, and really promoting the fact Salt Lake offers a value-oriented meeting destination with comparatively inexpensive room rates, accessibility to the airport and numerous recreational activities.” If They See It, They’ll Come While most of the convention and visitors bureaus are increasing their print advertising, the best marketing tool for Utah’s convention industry is the on-site visit. “Almost every time we sponsor a meeting planner for a site visit, they fall in love with St. George and they end up returning with a group,” McMichaels says. The industry got a huge boost in July when Salt Lake City hosted the annual Meeting Professionals International (MPI) convention, with more than 2,000 attendees. Park City’s Convention and Visitors Bureau officials saw MPI as such an opportunity that they dedicated a significant chunk of their trade show dollars to it, says Tonya Sweeten, the meeting and conventions sales manager. The bureau hosted a party for 450 MPI attendees that showcased Park City’s Main Street with its boutiques and restaurants; displayed local entertainment, including the Flying Ace show at the Olympic Park; took a chairlift ride that emphasized the available recreational activities; and went on a pub crawl to highlight the state’s new relaxed drinking laws. “It was a really good introduction to Park City,” Sweeten says. “A lot of them mentioned that ‘I didn’t know there was so much to do here in the summer.’” Successfully hosting MPI was an investment in the future, Stinson says. He estimates that the state will see a 5 to 10 percent increase in convention business in coming years¬—not immediately, because conventions tend to book several years in advance. “We have basically showcased what Salt Lake has to offer as a meeting and convention destination to a vast number of meeting professionals who perhaps never had Salt Lake on their radar screen. What the Olympics did for our tourism product, we are expecting MPI to do for our meeting and convention industry.”
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