The Visitor Effect: Rural Utah communities spruce up to attract tourists

A few years ago, Uintah County found itself in a tight spot: its dominant industry was floundering, and there wasn’t a strong enough secondary industry to take up the slack. Enter the visitor economy.

“With the total crash of the oil and gas industry, it was time to diversify,” says Lesha Coltharp, director of tourism for Uintah County.  While today that temporary tailspin is in the past, the lessons they learned from it aren’t. The county has been vigorously building up other sectors to promote a more balanced economy, and one of their brightest stars is promoting tourism to create a more comprehensive visitor economy.

“Tourism will never take the place of oil and gas—there’s just not that kind of money generated—but we have a lot of hotel rooms,” she says. “It’s all to help drive our economy in a downturn of oil and gas, but also make it so when oil and gas do come back, tourism has such a presence that they work hand-in-hand instead of [tourism] falling off.”

The visitor economy as a category of industry encompasses tourism like a rectangle as a category encompasses a square—just as all rectangles are squares, not all facets of the visitor economy are tourism. Tourism is a big part of the overall visitor economy, to be sure, but there’s more to it than that, says Scott Beck, CEO of Visit Salt Lake.

“On some level, tourism and visitor are synonymous, but I think just from a practical standpoint, when people hear the word ‘tourism,’ they think ‘vacation.’ They think leisure travel. The visitor economy is much broader. It includes all reasons for travel: business, visiting friends and family, coming to have medical procedures at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, whatever that may be,” he says. “When we talk about numbers and how large the tourism industry is, what we’re actually talking about is the visitor economy, the whole enchilada, everything that’s involved in it.”

In Uintah County, that means the oil and gas industry and the tourism industry are working together for the same goal. Uintah County is currently in the process of building more hotel rooms to accommodate the influx of tourists along with the steady stream of people in town for oil and gas work—Vernal hotels have had an occupancy rate of more than 90 percent 365 days a year. Coltharp says in 2014, the hotel room shortage was such that it damaged tourism, forcing the area to choose one industry or the other rather than helping both to grow.

Now, there are enough rooms and the oil and gas industry has shrunk enough that occupancy rates are about half, meaning hotels have to compete more with each other. The same room that might have gone for $250 is now $89. “We’re in a good spot,” Coltharp says. “We just didn’t have hotel rooms for so long it was hard to have a robust marketing campaign.” Tourism is up 26 percent since those new hotels started going up in 2014, and the county has been busily drawing people to Dinosaur National Monument, as well as its three state parks.

“Tourism will never take the place of oil and gas—there’s just not that kind of money generated … It’s all to help drive our economy in a downturn of oil and gas, but also make it so when oil and gas do come back, tourism has such a presence that they work hand-in-hand instead of [tourism] falling off.” – Lesha Coltharp, director of tourism, Uintah County

Serious money

The visitor economy is big business. Last year alone, visitors accounted for $8.7 billion in spending, which translates to $1.15 billion in state and local taxes, says Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, translating to roughly $1,300 per household. Visitors, whether from out of the state or country or just from another part of Utah, are particularly good for local economies because they bring in money but don’t need to be educated or—usually—incarcerated, or any of the other services that governments provide for its citizens.

“The tourism economy is grown to be a huge part of the Utah economy, one of our top 10 industries just over the last several years. It’s because we have an amazing product that people are hungry to experience our red rock country, our spectacular mountains in the north, the increasingly interesting urban settings, ski country … we have so much to offer that way. It ends up translating to really serious money,” Varela says.

Conducting research to find out who comes from where for what is vital for communities looking to target their marketing campaigns to just the right people. Beck says his office knows better than to compete for the attention of those looking for sandy beaches or expansive golf-course vacations—while there’s nothing wrong with Utah’s golf courses or waterways, those people likely have someplace else in mind.

“We look at our assets in terms of what we have and what we know people want to see. An easy one to pick out is what we call cultural heritage tourism, so think Temple Square, think that cultural heritage that is represented by the pioneers and what that Western movement was and what was Utah’s role in that and what the LDS history has in terms of that movement across the West. That’s really significant, in terms of why people will travel,” he says.

“For meeting planners, it’s really easy to identify the right meetings that would fit the size of our destination,” he adds. For example, when you consider Salt Lake’s proximity to seven world-class ski resorts, it’s pretty easy to see that’s a market worth pursuing.

Utah is known far and wide for having, well, the greatest snow on Earth. But even the powerhouse of a ski industry would not be able to survive were it not for a steady influx of visitors taking part in it, says Varela.

“Without tourists, we wouldn’t have a ski economy. Ski resorts couldn’t afford to operate. If you love your ski days, thank a tourist,” she says. “We get really great reviews from skiers. We frequently hear that once people have had the Utah ski experience, it is their long-term, year-after-year ski destination.”

But skiers differ even from ski resort to ski resort. Skiers hitting the slopes along the Wasatch Front are more likely to stay only for a weekend, but will probably come multiple times during a season, Beck says, whereas skiers going to Park City are more likely to come just once but settle in for a week to 10 days.

“Without tourists, we wouldn’t have a ski economy. Ski resorts couldn’t afford to operate. If you love your ski days, thank a tourist.” – Vicki Varela, managing director, Utah Office of Tourism

Best foot forward

To pique potential visitors’ interest is one thing, but creating a place where they’ll want to stay and return to can be a challenge, particularly for smaller communities. Striking a balance between keeping those small towns comfortable for locals and making them attractive to outsiders can be tough. In Uintah County, the county and Vernal City have worked with local businesses and community organizations to form partnerships and put on collaborative events to help make the whole region more vibrant, says Coltharp.

“None of our businesses are open late at night. Tourists go out in the day and explore, but there’s really no nightlife. Getting the community behind [understanding that] between 6 and 10 at night, that’s when we’re there to serve tourists,” she says. “Trying to get people to realize that has been tough.”

Varela points to Emery County and Kanab as places that have made positive changes with tourism in mind. “Years ago, it was hard to find a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning. That’s changing. … It’s all in close proximity to fantastic outdoor recreation,” she says of Emery County. And in Kanab, the town’s Main Street is being revitalized as the town begins to craft an identity for itself as a year-round destination.

Box Elder County is also in the midst of a push to further tourism, touting draws like Willard Bay—one of the most-visited places in the state—or City of Rocks National Reserve, Crystal Hot Springs, Golden Spike National Historic Site or the Sun Tunnels, as well as its thriving Bear River Migratory Bird Reserve. The county has also seen significant visitorship to events held at its various fairground facilities, including concerts, 3-D archery competitions, rodeos and indoor snowmobile shows, says Box Elder County Commissioner Stan Summers. Its biggest single event by far is its annual county fair, which last year had an estimated 250,000 people attend, Summers says, with an economic impact of between $6 and $7 million in that week. By contrast, the county’s population is roughly 53,000, according to a July 2016 Census estimate.

As rural as the area is, it does find itself curiously convenient for a lot of places. “Everybody loves it because we’re not in the middle of a big city. It’s easy on, easy off—we’ve got I-15, I-84,” he says. “It’s just a good place. You could come from the Canadian border in 12 hours if you wanted to, or California, or almost Mexico, or North Dakota.”

Its centralized location and the acres of wide-open space have made it a haven for manufacturing facilities. Big names like Procter & Gamble and Autoliv, along with a slew of smaller companies, give Box Elder County one of the highest rates, per capita, of manufacturing employment in the West. But Summers says the county is striving for more economic diversity both to bolster the local economy for outsiders and to make sure it remains a good place for residents and their children for generations to come.

“One of the biggest things we as commissioners are looking at is quality of life. We think between our trails and our open spaces and our plans is what’s going to bring companies and people,” Summers says. “We’d like to keep the jobs here so we can keep our kids close to us. We don’t want to export that. We’ll export corn and commodities and all that, but we’d like to not export our kids,” he adds.

That focus on improving overall quality of life is a sort of secret ingredient to growing every facet of the economy, both in terms of attracting more visitors and bringing in and retaining businesses.

“If you improve your downtown, your wayfinding, your restaurants, your retail, that also improves the quality of life for the people who live there, makes it more attractive for businesses looking to move into the area,” Varela says. “We basically call tourism a welcome mat to the community. Sort of like when we clean up our houses for our visitors, and then we like living there better.”

Companies consider how difficult it would be to bring in talent to their new prospective headquarters; traveling salesmen or truck drivers might push through to the next town or call it an early night. The importance of quality of life and the effect it has in drawing people for many reasons is apparent at trade shows, Beck says, when Utah more than holds its own against larger areas.

“We do kind of have a secret sauce in Utah, and I think it’s not just in our neck of the woods, it’s statewide. When we go to trade shows in Berlin, we’re in the Utah booth with 13 other destinations. On one level, we’re our competitors, but on another, we’re not—we all want someone to choose Utah before Colorado, so we’re all together, and I think that sort of sense defines our culture, and I think it goes way back,” he says. “We have assets for a community our size that no other community in the nation has, and I think that shows a commitment to quality of life, which is one of the main drivers for any kind of travel.”