Salt Lake City—Recently, Fodor’s Travel, sometimes called the travel “bible” for its 80-year history of travel recommendations, selected Utah as its first-ever top destination in the world. Utah’s beautiful vistas, opportunities for adventure, and excellent skiing have driven the travel and tourism industry to a banner year in 2015, and industry professionals are looking forward to another great year in 2016. Such were the feelings of over twenty travel and tourism leaders from around the state, who met Wednesday morning at Utah Business’ annual roundtable to discuss the growth of the industry, as well as new opportunities and changes.
“These are good times for tourism in Utah. I think we’re all experiencing that in very local ways,” said Vicki Varela, director at the Utah Office of Tourism. “The high-level number is 7.8 billion dollars in tourism spending. That translates into 1.07 billion dollars in state and local tax revenues. That’s money that goes to our schools, to our roads, to all of our local needs. It’s creating a great quality of life for our state.”
A big part of Utah’s success recently has come from marketing efforts such as the Mighty 5 campaign, as well as local efforts to ensure that visitors’ experiences are unique and tailored to meet their expectations. “Perhaps twenty years ago, a traveler was on a bus getting a very generic experience,” said Mark White, vice president of sales at Visit Salt Lake, who moderated the discussion. “[People would] hop off, taking a picture and then getting back on, having the same experience that everyone else had.”
The Office of Tourism measures tourist satisfaction in a number of ways, one of which includes monitoring social media for accounts of individual experiences. “We monitor all of that to measure whether people are complaining or sending accolades,” said Varela. “The social media is almost entirely positive. We see very little in the social media about people experiencing frustrations.”
While Utah is famous for its outdoor adventure experiences, Scott Beck, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake, says the state is making a mistake in not incorporating its urban offerings into its marketing efforts. “There’s a return to urban—it’s a trend that’s not just in terms of where people live and what they want to do, but there’s a return to the urban environment. It’s a trend that’s pervasive in every industry out there,” he said. “…As you look at how we can complement what is going on with the Mighty 5 and other things, there’s one part of our product that continually gets overlooked. It’s never even mentioned.”
Beck mentioned the “burgeoning, monumental” food culture in the Wasatch Front, as well as the lack of transportation, infrastructure, lodging or capacity issues (which burden the outdoor recreation industry) as reasons why the industry should try to capitalize off its urban environments. Part of the issue standing in the way, said Beck, is Utah’s liquor laws.
“We are doing so good right now that it’s easy sometimes to not want to push the envelope to be great,” said Beck. “… Our liquor laws are not just a perception issue. They are an issue. … We have to address them. We need to recognize that responsible consumption of alcohol is not a moral sin, and we need to change that so we can be great, so we can improve things in a way that is in keeping with our authentic, organic [community] and who we are as a community, but recognize that when visitors come, the hospitality element is important.”
Scott George, director of hotel operations at Woodbury Corporation, said that emerging hotel brands are concerned about the liquor laws. “Any of the new hotels that are designed with the Millennials in mindset, they really center around the piece of ‘how can they get a drink?’ [They want to know] how can they activate their common space, their lobby space, so that they have a place to gather. …People are looking for that sense of place to gather and to socialize. In our industry, there’s a lot of pressure. We find it difficult in markets around Utah to be able to apply that in certain markets. As we look around, we need to figure out a way to make that easier for hotel developers and restaurateurs.”
Read the full discussion in the Travel and Tourism Roundtable, appearing in the March issue of Utah Business magazine.