Craig Stephenson remembers the first misconception he had of Utah when headed to the state for a convention—that he would find a western desert state with dirt roads, strange liquor laws and most likely a dilapidated transportation system. That was five years ago, when he came to his first Outdoor Retailer Summer Market at the Salt Palace.
“I was wrong, very wrong,” he says with a smile, “at least about the roads and transportation. Not so wrong about the liquor laws, however.”
Even those peculiar laws haven’t driven Stephenson to drink, pun intended, when he returns for Retailers each summer and winter; but even if they had, he’d have no compunction about “driving” anywhere in the state in the future.
“Quite honestly, your roadways and your transportation system here is the best of any city or state I visit,” he says.
An Ounce of Preparation
That’s just what Utah tourism and transportation officials want to hear. Long ago, the importance of the intersection of those industries became clear, sparking efforts to create an efficient and thoughtfully planned transportation system that proves inviting to tourists and convention business alike.
The system involves much more than just highway networks, as Stephenson is quick to point out. “When I first came here in 2006 for the show, I really didn’t know what to expect from the moment I landed,” he recalls. “But I’ve never had a hiccup in getting around the city for these shows—not a problem at the airport, when renting a car, taking a cab, riding light rail—nothing at all. That’s far from the case in many cities.”
In fact, Stephenson overcame his anxiety about coming back to Utah for his first snowy winter show, and one year even brought his family along with him for a post-market ski trip.
“Look, I had no desire to rent a car and drive up a canyon through snow to ski,” he says. “I’m from Texas—we don’t have mountains and we certainly don’t have snow. But then I learned about taking a bus right from our hotel and then connecting with another to Snowbird, and I was hooked. We had an amazing couple of days extra in Utah after the show to enjoy skiing in Utah powder.”
That kind of testimonial is music to the ears of Utah’s tourism office—especially the part about “a couple of days extra.” Extended visits of a day or two—either by tourists or even locals looking for a getaway close to home—are huge goals of tourism officials, and money in the bank for the hospitality industry.
“We like to tell our tourist friends that if they can stay for another day, they’ll be amazed at what they can see and do,” says Leigh Von der Esch, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism.
A visit, for many tourists, starts at the airport, and Von der Esch labels Salt Lake International Airport as being “one of the finest facilities” in the business.
“Salt Lake International is close to town, clean and well laid out,” she says. “When passengers land here, they see a great panoramic view of our mountains, something they can enjoy when they’re in the terminal as well. They can retrieve their luggage easily and ground transportation is readily available. Airline passengers consistently make positive comments about our airport—and that’s a great introduction to their experiences here.”
The airport has “great proximity to our resorts,” she says. “Some visitors might be nervous about snow, but they can have confidence in our roads being plowed and our canyons being open.”
She credits the state’s preparations for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games for “our great freeway system. We certainly had leaders who looked into the future and helped make the I-15 and I-80 corridors so efficient. We’re delighted to have the good roads we enjoy.”
Von der Esch also praises Utah officials for being “road ready” when federal stimulus money became available last year. “One of the reasons for so much construction and improvement on our roads today is that we were prepared to start work as soon as the federal money arrived. We have stayed on top of the game.”
Add to that the TRAX system, Front Runner and UTA’s bus routes, and tourists find easy accessibility to just about anywhere they want to travel.
Another recent site on Utah’s roads—motorcyclists. In fact, Von der Esch says international visitors, many of whom are used to traveling in motorcycle caravans in their native countries, have brought that tradition with them to Utah.
“Our secondary roads are in great condition,” she says. “Visitors find them well striped and well marked and maintained. That is particularly important to motorcyclists.”
Von der Esch experienced a different type of travel adventure recently when she went to California. Driving on Interstate-10, which traverses the Golden State from north to south, became “a combination of rebar and potholes. It was truly awful in some places.”
When tourists come to Utah, many frequent the southern half of the state, something that will be made easier when the new St. George Airport opens east of the city in January. The first flight is expected to land at the new airport on Jan. 13, 2011.
“It’s going to be a great footprint for opportunities in the future for this part of Utah,” says Kevin Lewis, director of sports events and adventure marketing for the St. George office of convention and tourism. “The thing this new airport does is it takes away the limitations we’ve had at our existing airport. As the demand rises, the new airport can handle larger passenger aircraft. We’re already seeing a lot of interest and inquiries about the area as anticipation grows about the new airport.”
Lewis says the new facility will bring improved business and commerce, particularly in the area surrounding the new terminal.
“Once you get a facility, the area around it is going to develop rather rapidly,” he says. “The speculation is that a lot of that growth will be tourist-related—hotels, restaurants, shopping. We know we’ll still have to build this market, but with the opportunity there, we have great potential.”
Even the site of the existing airport, located on the top of a bluff overlooking St. George from the west side, could be developed into a shopping center. Lewis says there’s a great deal of history attached to the city’s first airport site, a logical place for new commerce.
Southern Utah has long been a favorite of filmmakers as well. In the heyday of Westerns, Kanab was known as “Little Hollywood,” when stars like John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and even director John Ford used the backlot of sets east of the city, not to mention the red rock formations surrounding it. Even though Westerns pretty much died out in the 1960s, the state still attracts Hollywood.
In August, Walt Disney Studios finished the filming of “John Carter of Mars,” a full-length feature film that shot in Utah for 120 days, employed more than 300 and spent $21 million in the Beehive State. Filming was primarily done in areas of Big Water, Kanab, Hanksville, Delta and Moab. The film is set for release in early 2012.
“There were huge production trucks, vans, trailers and all the support vehicles necessary to make a film,” Von der Esch says. “There was never a problem or a moment of hesitation by the filmmakers about access to locations or quality of the roadways. The cast and crew were well satisfied with our transportation network.”
By the Way
Tourism officials often tout the state’s National Scenic Byways as the best way to truly experience Utah, from the northern mountain region to the southern red rock region. The tourism office’s website, accessible at www.utah.com
, has a link specific to some of the state’s most popular “driveable” getaways.
One of the most travelled is Scenic Byway 12. This is the road that passes through Red Canyon, Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and over Boulder Mountain. It finishes near the entrance to Capitol Reef National Park and passes through small communities filled with Utah heritage.
Others byways include the road between Brian Head and Panguitch, the Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway, the road up Logan Canyon, the Nebo Loop and the Trail of the Ancients that includes the Four Corners area of Southeastern Utah.
Add to that the state’s other scenic byways, roads such as those up Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, the Alpine Loop, Trappers Loop, Provo Canyon, the Mirror Lake roadway and many others—all well maintained (seasonally) and heavily frequented by the state’s travelers.