Utah’s large-scale events industry is booming
Just two months into the year, Salt Lake City has already checked three major events off of its list. The 72nd annual NBA All-Star Weekend, which took place at the end of February, is projected to have made roughly $280 million in economic impact—a number much higher than initial projections and a record amount for any All-Star Weekend ever hosted. The Outdoor Retailer Snow Show returned to Utah after five years, an event that was reported as making the state at least $45 million per tradeshow. The 2023 Sundance Film Festival also returned to an in-person format for the first time since 2020, an event that left a total economic impact of over $182.5 million in 2019.
Combined, these three events alone are projected to have brought $500 million to the state of Utah. That’s a slam dunk no matter how you look at it.
“To see three of these [events] stacked this closely together, it certainly is exciting,” says Ryan Mack, director of media and communications at Visit Salt Lake.
It’s been said time and again that the 2002 Winter Olympics put Salt Lake City on the map, and the capital city—along with the rest of the state—has grown massively in popularity in the two decades since.
This kind of growth comes with some major pain points for residents and local government officials who are tasked with figuring out how to meet the demands of increased population. While there remains much to be solved for, there is a lot of good that comes with hosting events of this scale—and that largely comes in the form of money.
Proximity is key
Visit Salt Lake has seen a dramatic increase in the number of events being hosted in Salt Lake City in recent years. In 2022, its sales team booked 870,000 room nights for future conventions—a record for the organization that represents a serious amount of visitor dollars being spent.
“We anticipate that number to continue,” Mack says. “Every convention delegate that comes here, on average, spends $971. You multiply that by how many delegates are coming to a convention and that sort of gives you your economic impact of the convention. That is felt in restaurants and hospitality sectors at the hotels. And if people want to stay and go skiing another day, that’s just an added bonus for us.”
While these higher numbers are exciting, they shouldn’t be too surprising.
“The 2002 Winter Olympics were responsible [in helping] fuel and create the Salt Lake that you see today,” Mack says. “We’ve proven that we can host these types of events and host them successfully. And I think more and more people are becoming familiar with that.”
That track record is partially what keeps event organizers coming back.
The Outdoor Retailer Snow Show’s decision to leave Utah in 2017 was sparked by political tension between outdoor industry companies and the Trump administration, which sought to reduce several areas of Utah’s federally protected lands. While boycotts by some of the industry’s biggest names (think REI and Patagonia) are ongoing, Outdoor Retailer hopes to be more effective in pushing for protection of these lands through bringing its events back to Salt Lake City.
“In reality, leaving after 2017 has not brought the change we had hoped for, so we will push back, not pull back. We firmly believe that staying engaged and collectively contributing to the ongoing discussion, no matter how difficult, is far more constructive,” the company stated in a press release announcing its return to Salt Lake in March of 2022.
In securing its return, Outdoor Retailer has signed a five-year contract with Visit Salt Lake to host three events in Utah per year, creating the potential for an even greater economic impact on the state.
“The only constant is change. We can’t always help growth, or we can’t always change what’s happening, but we can learn to adapt to it. We can try to problem-solve and figure out solutions. But it’s good to remember that visitors and tourism helps locals and local businesses thrive.”
“We were super excited to be back this last January show. It felt really good. I mean, [Utah] had the best snow it’s had in 20 years,” says Marisa Nicholson, SVP and show director for Outdoor Retailer. “I like to think that Mother Nature did that on our behalf—but that has a lot to do with why we chose to come back to Salt Lake City. The ease and access for our community to recreate is an important factor.”
This year’s Snow Show took place at the Salt Palace Convention Center January 10–12. The National Centers for Environmental Information reports that the Alta Ski Area received an average of 11 inches of snow per day over the course of those three days—something that convention attendees took full advantage of.
“Some people snuck up for a few hours in the mornings, where they actually could have meetings on the chairlifts, get a few turns in and be back at the show, and still get business done at the event over the next three days,” Nichols says. “That’s an incredible opportunity, and we really haven’t had that in the last five years. It was something the industry really missed.”
The proximity to those chair lifts from the Salt Palace Convention Center is exactly what prompted Outdoor Retailer to bring its fall and winter events back to Salt Lake City. The myriad activities that summer in Utah’s mountains offers also led to its hosting Outdoor Adventure X at Snowbasin, a two-day mountain festival that is open to consumers and debuts this June.
Salt Lake City’s access to outdoor recreation is arguably unrivaled, and the city itself is developing at an incredible rate to offer world-class amenities to travelers from around the globe. Many locals have traveled through the new international airport and have experienced the latest and greatest upscale dining establishments popping up around Salt Lake. New buildings are scraping the sky and there is always something under construction, promising more access to a metropolitan bursting at the seams to sparkle in the national spotlight.
Tourism as tax relief
While new developments can feel painstaking to locals, they do serve a purpose.
“It’s sort of easy to lose sight of [the excitement] as a local because we’re surrounded by it every day,” Mack says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, there’s another building going up.’ But for someone who’s had a break from Salt Lake in that five or ten years, it almost looks like a completely different city now. It’s the hotels, the bars, the restaurants, the people living downtown—which is set to double in the next 20 months—that’ll create a whole new scene in the downtown area. It makes it a lot more appealing for people who want to host their events or conventions here. When you have more offering to provide them, they’re more likely to come.”
Nichols says that flying into the airport and arriving to stay at the recently opened Hyatt Regency downtown felt like entering a new city after being away for five years.
“Building up that infrastructure to accommodate all of our customers coming into the city and the proximity of them to the convention center and the convenience of that has been incredible,” she says. “There’s been a lot that has changed so much that has really helped to make Salt Lake City a great destination for our community.”
Keeping that community of event and convention organizers and attendees invested in returning to Utah is, in fact, an investment in Utah. Despite the inconveniences that a developing city brings with it, there are silver linings for locals to consider—perhaps the brightest being in their own pockets.
“It’s important to understand that not only is the tourism industry in Utah creating or supporting over a hundred thousand jobs, but also, visitor spending contributes to the tax base. We create a significant amount of tax revenue because of all the different sales taxes we have,” says Jennifer Leaver, senior research analyst at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah.
Leaver and her team analyze data to produce economic reports, many of which are about the state of Utah and how it is affected by factors such as tourism. In over a decade in her role at Kem C. Gardner, Leaver says that she has seen a major upward trend in money brought into the state as a result of tourist activities like skiing and visiting national parks. Aside from those, the annual 10-day Sundance Film Festival has 45 years of accounting for sizeable tourist spending.
The numbers are not yet out for the 2023 Sundance festival, which marked the return of an in-person event after two years of being online. But according to Y2 analytics, a market research and data analytics group located in downtown Salt Lake City, the 2019 non-resident Sundance Film Festival attendee spending supported an estimated 3,053 jobs and generated a total economic impact of $182.5 million—data Leaver included in the State of Utah’s Travel and Tourism Industry 2019 report released in September of 2020.
Leaver points to Sundance as an example of how locals can identify the benefits of the influx of visitors to both Summit County—since the festival largely takes place in Park City—and in surrounding areas like Salt Lake City, where attendees can catch film premiers at various venues. “It’s going to bring in a lot of revenue for our hotels, our restaurants, our stores, our retail shops,” Leaver explains. “Sundance is going to bring money into the ski resorts up there at the time, or the businesses in the area. It’s going to then feed into our tax base and support jobs.”
An ever-evolving hub
It will be exciting to learn the final numbers from the two-month event blitz that Salt Lake just experienced and find out whether the three big events did in fact bring in $500 million in a mere 59 days. And if current trends are any indicator (let’s face it, they are), Salt Lake isn’t likely to slow down any time soon—though, Leaver cautions, we are facing a potential recession in 2023. “We know that [with] talk of a recession, one of the first things that’s going to go is tourism budgets for people,” Leaver says. “Overall, I don’t see any major changes to the upward trends.”
That means good things to come for the local economy. Hopefully, as the city continues to evolve, Utahns will work together to address some of the challenges that arise along the way.
“The only constant is change,” Leaver says. “We can’t always help growth, or we can’t always change what’s happening, but we can learn to adapt to it. We can try to problem-solve and figure out solutions. But it’s good to remember that visitors and tourism helps locals and local businesses thrive.”
While the inconvenience of longer waits at downtown restaurants and congested traffic leading into national parks and beloved ski destinations is certainly frustrating, Mack hopes that locals will find some consolation in the possibility of what these inconveniences mean for employees, taxpayers and businesses.
“It means money in their pockets,” Mack says. “In Salt Lake County, [tourism] represents our eighth largest industry and supports hundreds of thousands of jobs. It provides $1,238 in yearly household tax relief directly coming from tourism. It means more awareness of businesses, more awareness of our destination and a higher likelihood of people coming back—not just for business, but for leisure travel—because they have a great experience when they’re here.”