Last Memorial Day weekend, Leigh von der Esch, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, visited the Chuck Wagon General Store in Torrey, Utah. “It was a totally international experience,” she says. “The counter was packed. I heard people speaking Dutch, Flemish and German and I ran into Scots. Down the road, a group of French men and women were filling their motorcycles with gasoline.”
The store encounter solidified von der Esch’s professional understanding of international travelers’ increasing interest in visiting Utah, and of the financial contribution such travel makes to the state. “During the recent economic downtown, international visitors made the difference for many Southern Utah business owners to be in the black rather than the red,” she says.
Ruby’s Inn at Bryce Canyon is one such business that was able to stay busy thanks to international visitors. “Garfield is an economically depressed county with 98 percent federal land,” explains Lance Syrett, resort level hotel general manager at Ruby’s Inn. “International visitors are 70 percent of our customers. If it weren’t for international tourist dollars, our business would not be here.”
While the 700,000 international visitors last year comprise less than 10 percent of Utah’s 20 million visitors annually, their numbers are steadily increasing and “becoming more and more important to the state,” says von der Esch.
. Bill Malone, president of the Park City Chamber and Visitors Bureau, adds that Park City’s international visitation is highest during ski season, between January and April. Despite the generally slower economy during the past two years, last year saw an 8 percent increase in lift ticket sales to international tour operators. Travelers from countries such as Canada, Mexico, Germany, the UK and South Korea usually stay longer—an average of 14 to 19 days as opposed to a three-day stay for domestic visitors.
They also spend more money. “The average international skier spends over $300 a day with lodging and lift tickets, food and beverages,” says Shawn Stinson, director of communications, Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau. Von der Esch adds, “International visitors are very experiential and want to enjoy fine dining and local festivals.”
Malone explains that while domestic customers are accustomed to booking their own travel, in many countries tour operator and travel agents are a big part of the travel process. “We measure those sales by which tour operators purchase the eight to 14-day lift ticket package,” says Malone. “In terms of tour operator sales numbers, the UK is first, Australia is very high and Germany is very strong. Several countries in the southern hemisphere, including Mexico and Brazil, are also large numbers in terms of tour operator sales.”
Charlie Delorme, international travel trade delegate for San Juan County Economic Development & Visitor Services, says that in 2009 and thus far in 2010, San Juan County maintained international visitation levels within 4 percent of record levels set in 2008. He explains that von der Esch and her staff have extended partnerships to Utah regional destination marketing organizations, “which enable us to leverage local budgets coupled with state funds in a coordinated effort to reach international markets. The combination of coordinating funding and market plans permits a much greater ‘buy’ in key markets than any of our individual regions or even the state office could obtain as stand-alone entities.”
Delorme adds that this partnership has allowed San Juan County to triple the amount of hotel tax collected and increase international visitation from 52 percent in 2006 to 70 percent today. “Without the increase we’ve developed from international markets, many of our businesses would not have fared well during the past 18 months,” he says.
Visitors come to Southern Utah from Asia, the UK and Europe. “Delta’s nonstop flight from Paris has contributed immensely to our increased transatlantic visitation,” Delorme says. “Visitors from abroad, particularly with the national parks product, are not coming to visit just one or two of Utah’s national state parks and monuments, but also often to visit destinations in our neighboring states. This approach has been particularly beneficial in developing further partnerships with surrounding states in the Grand Canyon and Four Corners area.”
Southern Utah also experienced an economic boon with the Ironman triathlon in St. George. The event brought in approximately $7.85 million and attracted nearly10,000 people to the state to watch more than 2,000 athletes from 47 states and 30 countries participate in the triathlon. Top countries in visitor numbers were Mexico, Canada, the UK, Puerto Rico, Germany and Singapore. Athletes also arrived from as far away as Australia, French Polynesia and the Republic of Malta.
Quick Start Program Benefits Skiers and Utah
For tourists coming to Utah for their first time, the Quick Start program offers quite the perk: Complimentary skiing on the day the traveler arrives. The Park City Chamber and Visitors Bureau sponsors Quick Start, which is valid at three Summit County ski resorts: The Canyons, Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley Resort.
“People can fly in, ski on their day of arrival and get more vacation out of their vacation,” says Bill Malone, president of the Park City Chamber and Visitors Bureau. “Visitors register online, then bring their online voucher and boarding pass to the ticket window and ski for free on the day they arrive.”
Last year, there were 18,980 Quick Start pass redemptions in Park City, up 14 percent from the previous year.
“One online question asks if the Quick Start applicant has skied in Park City before,” says Malone. “We show that approximately 42 percent of people redeeming this year have never skied here before. We feel that this is a significant number and want to make sure that we are attracting new business by continuing this program.”