About this episode:
The visitor economy, which is largely comprised of tourism but also includes business travel and every other reason an outsider would come to a community, can be a huge boon for communities, especially rural ones. Scott Beck, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake, talks about how increasing visitors can help other industries in a region, and how communities can tailor their areas to bringing in more visitors. You can read more about the visitor economy and Utah communities in our August issue, or here.
[The following has been edited for grammar and clarity.]
Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine. Tourism is a big business in Utah and its individual communities have a vested interest in drawing people and dollars from both within and outside of its borders. Here to talk about the visitor economy is Scott Beck, CEO of Visit Salt Lake. Hello.
Scott Beck: Hello.
Lisa Christensen: Tell me about the visitor economy. What does it mean when we talk about the visitor economy?
Scott Beck: When we talk about the visitor economy it’s a very broad term. I think a lot of people think that tourism and visitor are synonymous. From a practical standpoint, when people hear the word tourism they think vacation or leisure traveler. The visitor economy is much broader. It includes all reasons for travel: business, visiting friends and family, coming to have a medical procedure at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, whatever that might be.
When we talk about numbers and how large the tourism economy is, what we’re actually talking about is the visitor economy – the whole enchilada and everything that’s involved in it. We feel that the description of visitor is more encompassing and speaks to the scope and scale of this economic engine that operates for communities of all different sizes.
Lisa Christensen: Well yeah, and if you have many different reasons for visiting a place, it’s got to be tricky to target to all of those things. You’re not going to target someone that might be looking at our mountains for vacation in the same way that you’re going to target someone that’s coming to the Huntsman Institute.
Scott Beck: It is sometimes daunting to look at all the various facets of the visitor economy and how you sort of deploy and market and do sales strategies against each of them. I think it really gets down to focus and what you have as a destination. In some destinations the visitor economy is almost entirely leisure tourism.
Communities like Park City have a predominance in their economy of what we call leisure tourism – skiing, mountain biking, hiking, escaping the summer heat, whatever that may be. Most people are traveling there for leisure. They also have a significant presence in the meetings industry because of the hotels like the Montage and the Stein’s that have meeting space.
Then you have communities like Salt Lake, who by the nature of our destination, represent all facets of the visitor economy. We have corporate transient business travel. That is the man or the woman with the suitcase on wheels and the backpack that was selling Motorola radios to the California Department of Transportation yesterday and today is in Utah selling to the Utah Department of Transportation. That business travel is not one that we necessarily deploy against. We don’t spend a lot of time and energy marketing to the business traveler because the reason that they’re here is the economy. When the economy does well, our business travel does really well. For communities like Salt Lake, business travel is nearly 40% of all of our revenues. It’s big. It’s really big.
When you hear “tourism economy,” people think that doesn’t include business travel, but it does. In the hotel numbers, there’s no distinction. When you hear $565 million of hotel revenue in Salt Lake, it doesn’t just mean tourists or just business. It’s all of it together. So you have to look at the markets that each destination has. I think that’s one of the reasons why regional or local destination marketing is so important.
At a statewide level there is an enormous opportunity to brand the top of the funnel, to brand the state. Vicki Varela and her team at the Utah Office of Tourism focus almost exclusively on the tourism and leisure vacation space. But when you get down to a destination like Salt Lake, we can then learn and understand the individual makeup of our visitor economy and then structure programs accordingly to market to those segments. And yet, there is a lot of crossover.
The same reason that someone wants to come here to enjoy Salt Lake from a leisure perspective, whether that’s art and culture, food, dining, nightlife, whatever that may be, those authentic elements of your destination translate really well into a meetings business. It’s the same reason that a convention might choose your location. They’re going to be in the convention center five to eight hours a day. That leaves them with a lot of other time to be outside in your community. They’re going to care about what your restaurants look like, what your art and culture offerings are, what assets you have in terms of museums and attractions and things to do. So those things are very important to both of those segments. It’s really a unique balance to find the right market and then find those assets that fit that market.
Lisa Christensen: How do you find that balance?
Scott Beck: A lot of it is research and a lot of it is understanding who your current clients are. The old saying is if you want more ducks, go to a duck pond and get more ducks. We don’t spend a lot of time and money looking at markets where there’s a big golf presence or where there’s a beach. That type of vacationer isn’t necessarily going to come to our type of destination.
People who vacation are a very important segment because they’ll do three or four things a year and travel to your destination. So 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.” Think Temple Square and the cultural heritage that is represented by the pioneers, that Western movement and Utah’s role in that. We also look at the LDS history in terms of that movement across the West. That’s really significant in terms of reasons why people travel.
Once we’ve identified a topic, we will look in terms of who does cultural heritage tourism? There are tour operators who build packages around cultural heritage tourism, whether that is lighthouses in the East or cowboys and Indians in the West. There are organizations that focus on certain types of travel. For meeting planners it’s really easy to identify the right meetings that would fit the size of our destination. I think the easiest one to talk about is the ski industry. When you have our accessibility to snow and an urban environment that’s within an hour of seven world-class resorts, that’s not a hard one to understand. That’s a market to pursue.
Lisa Christensen: How do you feel out the different sectors of the market? How do you assess what key roles your area and your amenities might have in attracting different kinds of people?
Scott Beck: It’s very product based. What’s really important is understanding your product and understanding where it fits in sort of that lifecycle of competitive products, where it fits in terms of relevancy to the market. We do a lot of research with an organization called Ski Utah. We conduct an annual skier survey and several people partner in it. It’s probably the most comprehensive demographic, economic impact survey of the ski industry. And they do it based on the percentage of the skier days represented by each of the resorts.
So if the pie is one hundred percent and Park City area represents 35% of the skiers, 35% of the survey information is taken in Park City. So it’s really demographically skewed to fit the product that we have in the state. From that we learn that our skier that skis on the front side of the Wasatch skis fewer days but takes more trips. They tend to stay in Salt Lake because of the variation of our product and they tend to stay shorter lengths of time. So we tend to focus on the markets that fit that demographic. We know that Southern California is the number one market. They have easy access via the airport, leave on a Thursday night, get here that same night, ski Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and can be home Sunday night and back to work on Monday. It’s a very typical skier for us.
Park City tends to skew more as a long-term destination – the seven day, ten day type of skier that comes from Florida and stays in a condo. It’s very different than the Salt Lake skier. We learn that through research and then we can find what skiers fit that mix. Another one that surprises people is the Northeast corridor skier who comes from New York, Boston, or Washington D.C. We have a lot of skiers that will come and ski three days a week in Salt Lake several times because they can literally leave their East Coast destination after work, get here before late, ski all day Sunday, and be on a flight at 5:00 PM back home. They can ski a full three days at a cost and an affordability and with diversity that they can get nowhere else. Finding out what that product is and how it aligns is really key in what we do.
Lisa Christensen: Tell me about There’s Nothing To Do In Salt Lake?
Scott Beck: Sometimes marketing is luck. You can do all the research you want, but luck definitely plays a role, especially when you involve something like social media. It’s so hard to predict what’s going to be sticky or go viral. So I was in the car and I was listening to the NPR report about the Golden State Warriors player who said that he wished LA had won because Salt Lake is so boring and all they do is sit in their hotel room at night.
Lisa Christensen: For the playoffs with the Utah Jazz.
Scott Beck: Yes. When they were in the second round of the playoffs. So I got back to the office and said we’ve got to do something about this. I’m going to write this guy a letter. I’m going to personally reach out to this guy. Having a really good staff that understands what social media can be about, they said let’s take it one step further- let’s have some fun with it. We had some video assets that we knew we had and we said, let’s take a shot at making fun of ourselves in a way that’s kind of creative.
We went online and bought the URL: theresnothingtodoinsaltlake.com. We had our phenomenal team at Love Communications edit a video together that was really high energy, fast paced, with quick edits and some great music. We then went to town on involving everyone that we could to tell these people that there was a lot to do in Salt Lake.
It just so happens that we wrote a really creative letter that I sent to the owner of the Golden State Warriors. It got picked up and ran on ESPN and ESPN.com, as well as on the five Bay area stations. I was on ESPN SportsCenter. You just never know how it’s going to happen, but it seemed to really work. It is a perception that a lot of people have about Salt Lake is that it’s just kind of boring. People think Salt Lake is kind of a bland town with no diversity that you can’t get a drink in. So we thought we’d take a chance and did it in a way that was self-deprecating, kind of funny, poking fun at ourselves but it really resonated with people.
I got a really nice email from the director of marketing at Golden State saying well played, well done. They loved it and made it really nice. Steve Starks at the Larry H. Miller organization saw what we were doing and then created a t-shirt that said #Nightlife for the event. That was further validation of how important the visitor economy is and what it can do and be. Those things just don’t happen all the time. It was really fun.
Lisa Christensen: So there’s a sense of collaboration between your efforts and the people who are also players in that visitor market.
Scott Beck: It’s really important. No one has enough resources to do everything that they need to do. We all wish we did – personally, professionally, we always wish that we had more resources. I think having worked in other markets and having been in the industry long enough, we do kind of have a secret sauce in Utah. I think it’s not just in our neck of the woods, it’s statewide. When we go to a trade show in Berlin, we’re in the Utah booth with 13 other destinations. On one level we’re all competitors, but on the other level we’re not. We all want someone to choose Utah before Colorado. So we’re all together.
We often compete against cities and destinations that are three, four, five times our size because we’ve built things like the symphony, the opera and the new Eccles Theater. We have assets for a community our size that no other community in the nation has. I think that shows a commitment to quality of life which is one of the main drivers for any kind of travel – vacation travel, convention travel, even business travel. If you’re a traveling salesman you can choose what city you stop in for the night, right? So that quality of life, that experience that we’ve created here appeals all travel segments.
That ability to look at how you can partner and promote your destination in unique ways with collaborative partners is one of the most enjoyable parts of what I do on a daily basis. I think that makes a state like Utah and a destination like Salt Lake really competitive in a market where normally we are probably outgunned on any level.
Lisa Christensen: One more question, the way that There’s Nothing To Do In Salt Lake works is you hit a button and it plans your night. It gives you some place to get drinks, to get dinner, to find entertainment. Have you used it to find something that you didn’t know existed?
Scott Beck: I have as a matter of fact. When we developed what we call the randomizer, it was separate from the Golden State Warriors thing. The Golden State Warriors thing was a very short little thing. The randomizer was a way to break your trip down into an event for a day. We’re not trying to tell you to come here for a week, but here’s what you can do in one night out in Salt Lake. All of us in the office spun it. And there were a few bars that I didn’t know about! And I was like wow, that’s cool. I’ve been there since and they are clearly locals places. ll the photography is from Instagram. We went out and sourced nightlife. We went out and found places that locals told us about. Again, magic. That’s when collaboration is at its best. The opportunity to do that is fun. We’re actually toying with doing a whole event that way where you show up, you spin and you go. That’s your event. You’re going to have to do it. If you come, you’ll be our guest and you’ll spin it and you’ll go do what it says. We’ll see what happens.
Lisa Christensen: Alright, well thank you so much for coming in today. I appreciate it.
Scott Beck: You’re very welcome. It was my pleasure.
Lisa Christensen: Thanks also to Mike Sasich for production help today. You can read more about the visitor economy in our August issue or online at UtahBusiness.com. You can also reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or through social media at @utahbusiness. Thanks for listening.