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Off Season: Utah tourism is working to draw visitors in slower months

Ask anyone whose job it is to promote travel and tourism in their region about their “dry seasons,” and you might not get a response. After all, no one wants to admit there are times when their resort, retreat or destination location is perhaps a bit less desirable than other times. But the reality is that there are peaks and valleys with tourism in Utah, just as there are in every other corner of the travel world.

That being said, Utah’s tourism industry continues to grow. Record-setting numbers of ski days in 2015-16, sparked in part by an improving economy and lower fuel prices, has pushed tourism into a nearly $8 billion industry annually.

Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, Film and Global Branding, met with more than 400 tourism professionals from across the state in late September. Their purpose was developing a strategy to continue growing the state’s piece of the industry pie.

“We have a tight-knit tourism community in Utah and we’re all committed to sustainably growing Utah’s tourism industry,” she says. “Educational breakouts and peer discussions help local leaders create their own roadmaps to what tourism should look like in their community.”

Tapping into potential

Still, there’s potential for more. Ironically, almost all tourism venues enjoy the duplicity of Utah’s environment—the winters with a dry, fluffy snowfall that creates our “Greatest Snow on Earth,” and the hot but dry summers that allow for avid mountain climbing, hiking and biking. It’s when those respective seasons fall between the cracks that local leaders grapple with how to keep the visitors coming.

“The off-season in St. George is usually the on season in Zion National Park,” says Roxie Sherwin, director of the St. George Tourism Office. “With our weather in the springtime, it’s sports like baseball, softball and soccer who come to St. George for their tournaments. As the weather continues to warm, outdoor recreation—particularly in Zion—is what we focus on. Everyone in the state is seeing tourism up substantially.”

Sherwin says that December and January are the slower months. So her office works at bringing groups into town for conventions or tournaments. And even in the very hot summer months, the Dixie area proves attractive to national organizations. St. George will host the National Horseshoe Pitchers World Tournament next July, an event the city hosted in 2013.

“When we have quiet months, we go after events that fit that time of year. We try to fill holes with events like that,” she says.

Near St. George, but focused on a much different clientele, is the Red Mountain Resort. Its focus is on wellness and adventure, and its demographics are individuals, groups or families seeking or continuing a healthy lifestyle.

“Red Mountain may be a little more unique from the other tourism industry members,” says Tracey Welsh, general manager of the resort. “We have a very strong spring and fall, and our ‘shoulder season’ is summer and a bit in winter.”

Welsh says Red Mountain is not a family-friendly destination in that all activities are restricted to those 12 years old and older. “I’m sure there’s a heat-related impact as well to our slower summers,” she says. “And in December and January, so many people outside Utah think the state is completely covered with snow, which of course it is not. Still, we can’t guarantee that there won’t be snow at times, so many of our clientele opt for Arizona or Southern California during those months.”

She says Red Mountain is “always looking for groups to bring in at those times. We can tailor our experiences to meet the needs of those groups, and there are actually a lot of things that we can do outside when its 50 or 60 degrees. For those months, we also do more in-state promotion to attract those weekend warriors who want a wellness experience.”

Further north, the Cedar City/Brian Head Tourism Bureau also benefits from strong summers and winters—with the Utah Shakespeare Festival at Southern Utah University drawing visitors from around the world, and Brian Head seeing a growing number of skiers and ski days over the past five seasons.

“It seems when one of our areas is slow (like Cedar in the winter), the other is very busy, and vice versa,” says Maria Twitchell, executive director of the bureau. “What’s ironic is that Brian Head is really nice in the summer. The trails have been updated and mountain biking is especially great. Plus, it has a zip line and alpine tubing hill, and it’s a great escape from the heat of Las Vegas, for example. So the word is getting out that this is a great place to come year round.”

As with Sherwin and Welsh, Twitchell and her team also market to incoming groups, working with other businesses in the community.

One thing all three offices are grateful for is Utah’s “Mighty 5,” the state’s five National Parks (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion). State tourism officials have marketed Utah’s “Mighty 5” online, in print and with commercials that have aired largely in southern California, with great success.

“The ‘Mighty 5’ has certainly helped attract visitors to look at our websites and our destinations,” Welsh says. “It’s put Utah on many maps as a destination location.” And visitors remain strong in those parks at least until the snow falls, when “some pull back,” Welsh says.

On the Map

A study the Utah Department of Tourism conducted in 2005 found people generally knew very little about Utah as a tourism destination. Now all that is changing:

  • Fodor’s named Utah the No. 1 global destination to visit in 2016.
  • In 2015, year-over-year visitation to Utah’s national parks increased by 15.5 percent.
  • Visitation to Utah’s 43 state parks grew 18.6 percent to 4.9 million.
  • The $7.98 billion in tourism dollars from 2015 generated $1.09 billion in state and local tax revenue.