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2019 travel & tourism roundtable

Utah Business

2019 travel & tourism roundtable

Travel & Tourism Roundtable

Every month, Utah Business partners with Holland & Hart and Big-D Construction to host roundtable events featuring industry insiders. This month we invited the top travel and tourism specialists to discuss the government shutdown, the 2030 Winter Olympic bid, and Utah’s brand promise. Moderated by Jay Kinghorn, associate managing director at the Utah Office of Tourism, here are a few highlights from the event.


Can you give us a brief overview of the state of travel and tourism in Utah?

Vicki Varela | Director | Utah Office of Tourism

Last year, tourists spent $9.2 billion in the state, and that translated into $1.3 billion in state and local tax revenues. That’s money that Utah households would’ve had to generate in some other way, if not for the $1.3 billion that tourism is putting on the table. The household relief of that is $1,375. Every household would have to have paid that much in additional taxes if not for tourists.

Joel Racker | President & CEO | Explore Utah Valley

We’re seeing something similar down in Utah Valley. Our occupancy was down almost three percentage points, but we were up nine percent in rooms. So we’re seeing a lot of hotel growth, and a lot of that is around the business travel side.

Mike Cameron | CEO | Christopherson Business Travel

Business travel tends to be a leading economic indicator. People tend to invest in travel [when they] are optimistic about the future, so that is a bit of an indication that things are good. We had our best year ever last year. And all indications are that we’re already off to a really strong growth year this year as well.

Ryan Starks | Executive Director | Heber Valley Tourism

In Wasatch County, I think optimism is as high as it’s ever been, and we have two specific developments which I think are telling of that level of optimism. The first is MayFlower Mountain Resort by the Excel Development Company near the Jordanelle. 388 new rooms with 100 of those being dedicated to service men and women. We also have another development in Black Rock Ridge. It’ll have three ice rinks in it, with a niche specialty [to attract] the professional hockey players for training.

And what we’re hearing from our industry is that they’re waging on continued strength within the tourism economy, because our groups are not just coming one or two years out, but they’re coming four and five years out.

Matt Wirthlin | Partner | Holland & Hart

Multi-family development is as strong as it’s ever been. They can’t build fast enough. The demand is much higher than the growth. So I think it’s optimistic with some caution built in, knowing that things will slow down at some point.

Braden Moore | Director of Development | Big-D Construction

Here in Utah, we’re fortunate to have some big, mega projects. Obviously, the Salt Lake City airport was huge for everyone in this room. The biggest problem we’re having is finding people, because there are some big projects and a lot of outside capital are bringing in some mega projects into the state. So it’s huge for Utah. It’s huge for our employee base here, but we have a struggle in that we don’t have enough people to build everything that’s coming in.

Nancy Volmer | Director of Communications & Marketing | SLC International Airport

We saw 25 million plus passengers this past year, so that’s a 5.6 percent growth. And the airport’s built for 10 million passengers, so we are seeing more than double that. When you go out there and there’s a lot of congestion, there’s a reason why. Salt Lake City ranks as the third-fastest growing large hub airport in domestic passengers in the country, and we’re the fourth-largest hub for Delta Airlines. We just can’t get this new airport on board soon enough.

2019 Travel & Tourism Roundtable

What impact did the government shutdown have?

Kevin Lewis | Director | Washington County Office of Tourism

With help from the state and the partners, they all pitched in to keep the parks open and the visitor services running at a base level. So from a business perspective, I don’t think it had that much impact. The visitors were still coming. The trouble that we have, really, is with the park itself. One of the biggest issues is that they conservatively estimate $700 thousand lost in fees alone, and then you put back the time that they had off. So you know how it is when you go away from work for a week and come back, and everything is left waiting for you. So anything that they had planned for the busy season is now backlogged, and there’s already a backlog of maintenance. I think we were lucky. The timing of it was in the slower season, but there were still 10,000 people a day coming to that park.

Dee Brewer | Executive Director | Downtown Alliance

Salt Lake City is a gateway community to the national parks. In addition to the Mighty 5, you’ve got Teton and Yellowstone. That’s about nine million people for which Salt Lake City is a gateway, and so that has a tremendous impact on the economy here through the airport, the restaurants, the hotels, City Creek Center, the additional opportunities at the natural history museum. There is [a product] here that is attractive to that audience, whether it’s international or domestic.

In this vein of considering the possibility of a slowdown or recession, people make different choices about how they travel, and for the domestic audience, we become a more affordable option to travel here, to enjoy those parks, and to augment that with an urban experience that is growing and continues to surprise and delight those who haven’t been here. People always say, “I had no idea.” And it’s not a tagline, but it’s an experience that people have, that they are surprised and delighted when they come to Salt Lake City.


How are conventions affecting our tourism economy?

Mark White | Senior Vice President | Visit Salt Lake

The Outdoor Retailer show, after 20-plus years, moved to Denver. The winter market had grown to about 25,000 people, and the summer market, 28,000 people. And so these folks spent lots of money. They had an impact in ways not immediately apparent, for example, storing their booths here in the Salt Lake City area and spending lots of money on warehousing. And a lot of the big exhibitors would take people out to entertain them and buy out upscale restaurants.

Our team was very successful in finding other conventions and other meetings that were held at that time and find lots of other, smaller conventions that would fit in throughout the course of the year and dovetail or marry into other groups at the convention center. So we ended up, even despite Outdoor Retailer going, having more successful years for stuff in the market. And we had more successful years for putting stuff on the books for future years.

Danny Wheeler | General Manager | Utah Valley Convention Center

It’s incredible to have a good partner like Utah Valley Convention Center, and when that facility opened seven years ago, just the interest that’s continually grown. And it’s amazing what’s in the pipeline right now. I mean, we’ve already had some site tours this year that are just really big, impactful groups for us. I mean, one’s 22 to 2800 room nights during the course of four to five days. That’s big when you consider the number of rooms we have and the impact on our community.

Sara Toliver | President & CEO | Visit Ogden

Outdoor Retailer was a great example of how our meetings in the convention world overlap with the leisure product that we offer. The historical significance of Union Station and the meeting of the trains coming on the railroad is being highlighted this year with the sesquicentennial celebration in May. And with the partnership with all of these historical society groups, our rooms have been sold out for over a year. And we expect a couple hundred thousand visitors to be in downtown Ogden over a three-day period, so it’s all those pieces coming together, too.

How do we create awareness of the urban corridor as a destination?

Dee Brewer | Executive Director | Downtown Alliance

THE BLOCKS are a relatively new initiative. This is an investment by the county and the city to promote the cultural assets of downtown Salt Lake City. You can draw a circle 300 miles around for which this is the destination for the symphony, opera, ballet, performance art, performance artists, and visual artists. Within a five-minute walk of where we sit on Main Street right now, there are over 80 performances this month. 100,000 people will see Wicked at Eccles Theater this month. The Utah Symphony is playing this weekend. There are multiple things every night, including free concerts every Wednesday at the Gallivan Center.

Mark White | Senior Vice President | Visit Salt Lake

Blueprint Salt Lake is an effort to create a common vision and narrative about Salt Lake City. There are many entities that are promoting Salt Lake City in some form. We’re promoting it as a great place to bring skiers, meetings, conventions, amateur athletic events. But we’re all telling slightly different messages. So how do we create some sort of common narrative that describes that in a compelling, accurate way that we can all get aboard? It’s a big ask. We’re trying to get all of these entities to buy in, to some degree, to say “this is who we are, this is where we’re going, and this is the story we all tell,” with variations of the story that align with what our entity is.

What could drive increased visitation in the lower season?

Carrie Kooring | Assistant Director of Sales | Hilton City Center

Our peak periods downtown are Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Our real challenge is to fill Sunday and Monday. Those are our nights and days that groups are not really interested in coming into Salt Lake City, and a lot of that reason is that there isn’t a lot that’s open on Sunday. We offer great rates, great incentives for groups that are willing to come in on Sunday or even come in on Monday.

Wade Alexander | Director of International Programs | Wren International

We have partners and operators that come in to visit us, and we cater to them and provide them a unique Utah experience while they’re here in town. I was in the humanitarian world for many years and saw how several companies in recent years are jumping on board with social responsibility and social impact. And so we were catering to them with humanitarian travel. And that’s on the rise, especially with CSR being a trending issue with companies across the US and elsewhere.

If we win the bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics, what effect would that have on Utah?

Coleen Reardon | Director of Marketing | Deer Valley Resort

We could have nothing but a positive impact. And I couldn’t imagine why they would consider not coming here. But it’s an amazing thing because it’s the one time the entire organization touches those events, so there’s a lot of pride in what we do. It’s not just an event team or an ops team. And it showcases exactly what we have here in Utah.

Braden Moore | Director of Development | Big-D Construction

The biggest benefit would be if you get awarded the Games, it’s seven years out. You have seven years of intense community pride, and it’s what everybody talks about for those seven years. And when you host the big New Year’s Eve party at your house, if you were ever going to paint the walls, you’re going to do it before that party. New carpet, the new face comes on, and we saw that before 2002. Anybody that was going to add a new lift or whatever happened before those Games. Light rail, all that good stuff. So there’s some serious opportunity there.

Mike Cameron | CEO | Christopherson Business Travel

We saw so many benefits in 2002 in addition to all the venue infrastructure that was built. We really benefited from all of the transportation infrastructures. It put a deadline and brought in a lot of outside funding to build our freeway systems and to improve all the transportation in a way that has benefited us, just as employers in the state, with a lot of employees that have to move around every day.

How do you see the infrastructure in Utah changing?

Mark White | Senior Vice President | Visit Salt Lake

There’s been lots of discussion about a major convention hotel for the past 20 years. And that is the missing piece in the puzzle for hosting large, upscale conventions in a city like Salt Lake. Our airport capacity is up here. Our convention center capacity is up here. Our inventory of full-service hotels within walking distance to the convention center is down here, so that limits us to groups of the size that can fit within that. A big hotel would not only accommodate more attendees but will help us attract higher-spending groups. It also provides the social meeting place at the end of the day where everyone goes to network.

Jody Jones | Director | Windermere Commercial Real Estate

They’re just going to go high-rise. We’re going to see more and more of that because there’s only so much land left. And it’s cheaper to stay with the wood construction, which is what most of the buildings around here are. And people are going to start going to steel and figuring out ways to make that happen.

Dee Brewer | Executive Director | Downtown Alliance

Next year at this time, there will be four cranes in the air. The CCRI is building the towers. Cowboy Partners is building residential. Brinshore is building more residential on State Street, and then the convention center hotel. That’s a lot of new construction in this city.

How is this industry focusing on sustainability?

Mark White | Senior Vice President | Visit Salt Lake

We need to measure our success, not in the number of visitors that come, but the amount of money they leave behind. The convention hotel helps us do that. There’s a vast disparity in the amount of money that various convention delegates bring. Some people spend $150 a day, others are spending almost $1,000 a day, just based on the income that they make.

Nathan Rafferty | President & CEO | Ski Utah

When it comes to sustainability, it’s really easy to build a skyscraper, invite more people, and get so many more people to come. You have this incredible experience, but the part of the experience that is really deteriorating is getting to and from our resorts. And in terms of sustaining many things, A) the environment, and B) the quality of the experience, that’s the part that tends to lag. And it’s amazing how quickly you can build some of these things, but how long it takes to improve the infrastructure going to and from these places. I have heard numbers as high as 30 percent of single-occupancy vehicles going up to Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon. That’s not sustainable.

Kaitlin Eskelson | Executive Director | Utah Tourism Industry Association

We have done a wonderful job of marketing, but it is that visitor experience and delivering on the brand promise once they get here. I think that in our imagery, we’re portraying these beautiful clear skies, this open-air, nature. That’s where our target market is, and we do have ongoing air quality issues, so they’re sort of the elephant in the room.

And we show these ads where people are engaging in nightlife. You can’t want one thing and then when they get here offer another, and so there has to be that delivering on the brand promise. Because we all know that the true experience that they’re going to re-share on social media it is is going to be what they receive in the market.

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