July 1, 2012

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Utah’s Alcohol Problem

Do the State’s Byzantine Laws Stifle Economic Development?

Gaylen Webb

July 1, 2012

Four convention attendees, fresh off a good day on the tradeshow floor, walk into Red Rock brewpub in Salt Lake City to get a drink and network. Two want to taste a great local beer, one wants a glass of wine and one wants a martini. Can they all be seated at the same table before they decide where to eat?


The two visitors who want beers must sit on the “beer only” side of the brewpub, while the other two visitors must enter the restaurant located on the other side of the building, put their names on a list for a table and order food with their drinks. “Is this some sort of joke?” they ask.

Turns out, the joke is on them. Welcome to Utah, home of “the nation’s most restrictive, exotic and confusing liquor laws” (according to USA Today).

“All these people want to do is socialize and have one drink before they go to dinner, and they have been told about this great place, Red Rock. But they cannot do in Utah what is commonplace anywhere else, and the experience is absolutely horrific—and it happens all of the time,” says Scott Beck, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake. “So what happens is, they tell stories about Salt Lake, about how they couldn’t get a glass of wine, or they walked into a place and all they could get was a beer. Now, that is not the reality, but that is their experience.”

A Perception Problem
Interestingly, had the four convention attendees walked to Squatters rather than Red Rock, because of the liquor license Squatters has, these visitors could have obtained exactly what they wanted. “But you try to explain to someone from Wilton, Conn., the difference between Red Rock and Squatters—there is no perceivable difference. They are both brewpubs, they are both cool restaurants, both have great menus, but because one has a Class C liquor license and one has a restaurant/tavern license, the experience is completely different,” Beck says.

As the head of the Visit Salt Lake, the convention and visitors bureau, do Utah’s alcohol laws drive Beck nuts? “Yes. Absolutely,” he says, adding that the average citizen in the state has no idea how crazy the state’s liquor laws really are.

Despite recent efforts to liberalize the liquor laws, the state still suffers from a perception problem. Here’s another scenario: An influential meeting planner relaxes with a drink in the lobby bar at Salt Lake City’s only AAA five-diamond hotel, The Grand America, when he sees his colleague checking in. The meeting planner instinctively jumps up and heads over to greet his friend, but alas, there are hotel attendants prepared for liquor-toting escapees from lobby bars and banquet rooms.

“Sorry sir, but you can’t exit the bar with your drink. Utah law,” the attendant explains. The surprised and embarrassed meeting planner is stuck with three choices: chug down the drink, give it to the attendant or remain in the lobby bar. Further, he now has the impression that Utah’s liquor laws are insane—a perception that doesn’t bode well for future meeting business at the hotel (or in the state).

“From a guest service perspective, Utah’s liquor laws are really awkward and make us look like we are still in covered wagons,” says Bruce Fery, CEO of The Grand America Hotel and Resorts. “As well trained as my attendants are, there is no nice way to tell a customer you have to take their drink away. Utah’s liquor laws make us appear to be inhospitable.”

Perhaps that’s why shot glasses in souvenir shops mockingly say, “Eat drink and be merry—tomorrow you may be in Utah.” But there’s nothing funny about it. Utah’s ambition to grow up and become a global destination gets a cold slap in the face by liquor laws that often leave visitors befuddled, embarrassed and sometimes angry—all of which impacts economic development, drives out existing businesses, discourages entrepreneurship and drags down tourism.

Hundreds of Millions
Beck says Visit Salt Lake tracks every piece of lost business, and the No. 1 reason that convention and meeting planners pass on Salt Lake City is the perception that there is a lack of things to do here. When his team digs a little deeper, they uncover fears that Salt Lake City has no nightlife.

“We are told there are not enough restaurants and nightlife to keep the visitors occupied outside of the convention, because they can’t get a drink. We call it nightlife, but we’re not talking about nightlife in terms of strip clubs and gaming; we’re talking about nightlife like Gracie’s or nightlife like The Bayou—places where visitors can network or socialize with their friends and peers. But our liquor laws create a sense, and in some cases a reality, that you can’t do that in Utah. And we lose hundreds of millions of dollars a year in delegate spending because of that perception,” Beck explains.

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