Tourism Leaders Talk Utah’s Branding, Challenges as Recreation Draw

Salt Lake City—It’s of surprise to no one who’s gone down to Zion National Park and seen the crowds in the summertime that Utah’s tourism industry is booming like never before. In 2015, the Utah Tourism Industry Association says that in 2015, the total tourism-related tax revenue was nearly 1.15 billion, and that there was $8.17 billion in spending by tourists in the state.

A group of nearly 25 industry professionals and leaders met on Monday morning at Holland and Hart to discuss the state of travel and tourism in Utah. Topics ranged from the progress of the airport renovation and the construction of a convention hotel to the rise of international travelers and the challenges of the unconventional liquor laws.

The perception of Utah as a state and tourism destination was also discussed. Despite the quality of its snow or the beauty of its red rocks, in the days before the 2002 Olympics, the perception of the state was not poor—it was nonexistent, said Nathan Rafferty, president and CEO of Ski Utah. Since then, Utah’s perception to outsiders has gotten far better, but still has a lot of room for improvement.

“It’s worth reflecting that you don’t advertise your way out of reputation problems. There are a handful of ways of changing reputations [and] stigmas,” said Vicki Varela, director of the Utah Office of Tourism. “One is for people to have that Utah experience. We want to remind ourselves of the beauty of our industry. We call it the halo effect.”

Breck Dockstader, president and GM of Cliffrose Lodge, which is located near Zion National Park, said he has seen people with a poor perception of the state visit and have their minds changed.

“I see a lot of international travel. At Zion, Springdale, we have a tremendous amount of international tourists that don’t know what Utah is,” he said. “There’s always stigmas with it. It’s changed dramatically, for the better, over the last 10 years. People are realizing that Utah is an incredible state. … Every day people are blown away by how different Utah is than they expected.”

Still, some challenges doggedly remain for Utah—the liquor laws, for one, and the air quality. The beginning of 2017 has seen poor inversion conditions, with levels of air pollution in the Salt Lake, Utah and Davis counties all in the red range in the past two weeks. Without a meaningful push to solve the air quality problem, Utah’s tourism industry could suffer, said Jim Crowder, director of sales for Enterprise Rent-a-Car.

“We’ve talked about our reputation as a state and a tourism destination. When people come in and ski here, and they have a bad perception of us because it’s an inversion day, that message goes back with them. That’s something our industry needs to be very mindful of and help find solutions. It’s our industry that can be impacted even more than other industries, because those people won’t come back,” he said.

Air quality is no less of a problem for the ski industry and destinations above the inversion elevation, said Rafferty.

“Let’s say you go and stay at Deer Valley or Sundance or wherever, but you’re in the airport and you’re up in the mountains, and you don’t even think about it, but it’s the first and last thing that every person sees in this airport,” he said. “They leave and say ‘how do people live here?’ when the air is as bad as it has been—and it doesn’t seem to be getting better any time soon.”