Tourism in Utah is thriving
While the national travel data from 2020 has been discouraging, something intriguing has been occurring in Utah in regards to the travel and tourism industry. “Although Utah’s leisure and hospitality sector was far from immune to Covid’s impacts, it has been gradually rebounding since April and has overall performed better than leisure and hospitality nationally,” notes a report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
Unfortunately, despite Utah’s resilience, there have been several long-term shifts in travel caused by the pandemic.
As the first positive Covid cases appeared in the US, government leaders enacted travel bans and placed travel restrictions to slow the spread of the virus. Many travelers viewed air travel as too risky due to prolonged exposure to shared and recirculated cabin air. As a result, both international and domestic air travel suffered.
Nancy Volmer, director of sales and marketing at Salt Lake City International Airport says that once the pandemic hit, SLC’s passenger numbers dropped to a low of around 1,500 passengers coming through security in one day―though now the airport is averaging around 10,000 passengers daily.
Regardless of the numbers, according to Volmer, SLC has been performing better than many other airports in America due to a couple of factors, one reason being the Delta hub where passengers take connecting flights through SLC. Another reason, she says, is our proximity to outdoor activities and national parks, two sought-after experiences during the pandemic.
“SLC is Delta’s fourth-largest hub and has been an exceptional partner with our airport and the community. A few years ago, Delta signed a 10-year lease extension through June 2034, which shows their ongoing support and commitment to Salt Lake City and Utah. Without Delta, Utahns would not have the exceptional access to worldwide markets that we currently enjoy,” says Volmer.
Volmer explains that the airport is a department of Salt Lake City. “We are considered an enterprise fund―which means we are a self-sustaining department― so no local taxpayer dollars fund the airport. This holds true for the $4.1 billion redevelopment program as well.” She says that SLC opened Phase 1 of a brand new airport in September 2020 and Phase II is projected to open at the end of 2024.
People still traveled to Utah in 2020
“In 2020, Americans turned to their cars for travel, seeking out rural areas more conducive to social distancing. This travel mode shift translated into greater numbers of domestic travelers visiting Utah’s rural counties. Outdoor recreation products and outdoor activities also experienced a renewed popularity,” says Jennifer Leaver, senior tourism analyst with the Kem C. Gardner Institute.
Despite uncertain conditions in the travel industry, 2020 Utah state park visitation was actually higher than 2019 visitation in 11 out of 12 months, says Leaver. Utah national parks reported record visitation pre-pandemic and during the last four months of the year. Meanwhile, urban business and urban leisure travel took a big hit throughout the state, she says. “During the fourth quarter of 2020, Springdale’s average occupancy rate was up 18 percent year-over-year, while downtown Salt Lake City’s was down 45 percent from the previous year.”
As far as year-over change in transient room tax revenue (TRT), which is a good indicator of travel and tourism industry trends, Salt Lake County experienced the largest year-over loss in county TRT (-$10.1 million), followed by Grand County and Utah County (each -$1.2 million), she says.
When I asked Leaver which Utah counties bounced back the most during the pandemic and why, she said a handful of Utah counties located near Utah’s national parks experienced the largest visitation rebounds from the start of the pandemic to the end of the year. Specifically, Washington and Grand Counties’ tourism economies were significantly impacted by national park closures in April, but once they reopened to the public in late May/early June, visitation quickly rebounded, she says.
The future of tourism in Utah
Even though Lever anticipates increases in hotel occupancy rates in 2021 compared to those in 2020, she believes we will continue to see lower average daily room rates (ADRs) when compared to pre-pandemic years. “I don’t believe that hotel room rates will return to 2019 levels until both business travel and international travel fully return, which could take several more years.”
The Advenire, Autograph Collection, a luxury hotel located in the heart of St. George, opened in early 2020. With the hotel’s very untimely opening date, occupancy was decimated, says Ashley Dove, director of sales and marketing.
“As a newly opened property, we were forced to lay off over 80 percent of our freshly hired and trained staff, which was heartbreaking. Thankfully, things turned around rather quickly and by May, we started to slowly see an increase in travel, and before long, we were seeing occupancy hit 100 percent and ADR returns to those pre-pandemic,” says Dove.
The Southern Utah market was one of the very few that was positively affected by the pandemic, she says. Because St. George is at the heart of several state and national parks and is such a strong California drive market, they received an influx of guests post-pandemic from both California and Nevada where lockdown restrictions were very rigid, she explains.
Dove says this year has been full of endless surprises and learning after the pandemic turned the world of hospitality upside-down and made them rethink the way they connect with their guests without contact while still offering high-quality guest service.
“The new world of hospitality post-Covid is, not surprisingly, contact-free. It has forced us to think outside the box on how to make our guests feel safe and comfortable during their stay and also enjoy all of the amenities our hotel offers,” says Dove. “What has surprised me most is how big of a part technology has played in this process and how invaluable it has been during this period.”
Mobile check-in and key services have become wildly popular, allowing guests a completely contactless check-in and out process, as well as keyless room entry. “QR codes have become the norm replacing menus in rooms as well as in restaurants and apps are offered to replace remote controls. Event planners are offering virtual tours of the property during pre-planning to avoid any unnecessary in-person visits during the sales process,” she says.
The Advenire is located in Washington County and Dove says she witnessed Zion National Park’s record-breaking visitation numbers this summer and media coverage regarding the long lines, lack of parking, and heavy congestion. In effect, visitors are opting to step outside Zion and experience some of the lesser publicized, yet just as scenic areas and state parks near St. George like Snow Canyon, Sand Hollow, Gunlock, and Kolob.
“These breathtakingly beautiful parks each offer uniquely picturesque views without the large crowds, making them a terrific option for those wanting to experience the parks and social distance. They also are much more budget-friendly with entrance fees ranging only $10-15. Lastly, guests love that our state parks are pet friendly, which allows them to bring their fur babies with them for the day out hiking or on the lake or even ATVing on the sand dunes.”
Leaver thinks we’ll see a surge in travel continue this spring and summer as more Americans become vaccinated and act on their pent-up desire to travel. “If this happens, I’ll be curious to see how it affects current pandemic travel trends. Will Americans continue to explore the outdoors and the natural amenities in the rural and remote corners of our state? Or, will they fly to see family and friends in big cities? Or, take that much-anticipated and long-postponed Disneyland trip?
“Will business travel to attend conferences, conventions, and meetings return quickly, or will people continue to prefer to meet virtually? There are so many unknowns, especially in the short term. It’s difficult to predict which travel behaviors the pandemic has changed for good and which behaviors will return to ‘normal’ once it’s safe to gather in large groups again.”