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Conventions come to Utah: attendees return as tourists.


Attendees Return as Tourists

Tourism and the convention business in Utah are inextricably intertwined in a uniquely symbiotic relationship. As cities throughout the U.S. become increasingly competitive for lucrative convention dollars, Utah's scenic wonders and recreational opportunities have played a major role in attracting national conventions and conferences to the state.

Convention business in the Salt Lake area alone has increased fivefold over the past six years, and this summer the city will host two of the largest conventions ever held in Utah, with a combined expected attendance of more than 36,000. According to research conducted by the United States Travel Data Center, fully 26 percent of those visitors can be expected to return for a vacation within the next 12 months.

The upcoming $60 million expansion of Salt Palace facilities should have a dramatic impact on the state's ability to lure larger conventions, according to Rick Davis of the Salt Lake Convention/Visitors Bureau. While Salt Lake currently ranks high among criteria used by association executives and meeting planners to assess a city's suitability, the condition of the Salt Palace has been a major drawback, he said.

What Makes a Good Site

Convention planners consider five primary factors when choosing a site, Davis explained. Location is important because typically 50 percent of attendees come from the geographic area where a convention is held. National associations usually move around the country to different regions for their meetings, and some are required by their constitutions to do so. Salt Lake's central location as the "Crossroads of the West" is an advantage and a vital selling point over other cities, particularly those on the Pacific Coast, Davis said.

The city's ease of accessibility also rates high marks in convention criteria. "The principal is that if they can't get here, no one will come," according to Davis, who said convention business in Utah grew substantially when Delta Air Lines established one of its three national hubs in Salt Lake. With service from seven other major airlines, visitors to the city have no difficulty in making travel arrangements.

As working couples have less leisure time, they are more prone to combine business with vacations and pleasure trips, and a state's tourist attractions are highly influential with convention planners. "Many groups receive up to 50 percent of annual operating revenues from their conventions, so the availability of pre- and post-convention activities is critical in that it increases attendance and registration fees. With skiing at nine resorts within an hour's drive six months of the year and 11 national parks within one day's drive the remainder, Salt Lake is stellar in this department," Davis said.

Salt Lake is also a good value when costs are compared to those of other cities. Room rates are 10 to 15 percent below the national average and considerably less in comparison with those of other major western cities. Restaurant and entertainment costs are lower as well.

The Salt Palace Factor

The availability of adequate facilities is the single most important factor planners consider, and while Salt Lake's 5,600 hotel rooms within walking distance of the Salt Palace is a plus, the condition of the convention center itself has been a definite obstacle, Davis said. "Because of inadequacies at the Salt Palace, we've lost 50 major conventions in the past several years that would have spent $100 million in the state," he noted.

But with the Legislature's approval of a $60-million funding package for Salt Palace improvements, that hurdle should be eliminated. A new 400,000 square-foot ballroom that can also be used for banquets will be constructed, as well as 60,000 square feet of new meeting space and a 50,000 square-foot exhibit hall. Construction will begin early next year and is targeted for completion in fall of 1993.

"This will allow us to attract larger conventions and others that have shunned Salt Lake because of the inferior quality of meeting space and inadequate banquet facilities," Davis said.

The new exhibit space will also accommodate a growing trend for larger and larger exhibit areas at conventions. Companies have discovered that sending a sales team to a convention with an effective exhibit can provide exposure to several thousand potential clients and is more cost efficient than sending them out in the field. Trade shows are growing in size and the amount of exhibit space needed as well.

"Second-Tier" Convention Cities

Another emerging trend is for trade and professional associations to form more sub-groups as they become increasingly specialized. This opens the door to greater opportunity for "second-tier" cities like Salt Lake to attract medium-sized organizations that don't need the larger accommodations found in cities like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, or Dallas.

Formerly a department of Salt Lake County government, the Salt Lake Convention/Visitors Bureau was reorganized and privatized in 1984. The non-profit organization's budget this year includes $3 million derived from members and room-tax revenues, and another $4 million in in-kind services. Room nights, a measure of convention sales, have increased from an average 38,000 just four years ago to 200,000 booked in 1990.

Large groups which have recently met in Salt Lake include the Society of Decorative Painters, the American Industrial Hygiene Convention, America Japan Week, the National Association of Counties Convention, and the American Society for Health Care Human Resources.

This summer, the city will host the two largest conventions held here to date. In June, the National Square Dance Association brought an estimated 20,000 visitors to the state, many of whom were expected to vacation in Utah's national parks and recreational areas afterwards, Davis said.

August will bring the Gospel Music Workshop of America to Utah, with some 16,000 to 20,000 participants. The 24-year-old convention boasts 184 chapters in the U.S. and abroad which meet annually to exchange ideas and new music.

According to spokesman Ed Smith, Salt Lake wasn't the Workshop's first choice for host city this year. The group had originally planned to go to San Francisco, but its plans were stymied when a large convention was scheduled during the same period by Ford Motor Co., and room rates correspondingly skyrocketed.

"I'm a member of the Coalition of Black Meeting Planners, and we had been courted by the Salt Lake Convention/Visitors Bureau for some time," Smith explained. "We came to them with some specific conditions--that they hire someone black in sales, that we receive the same niceties afforded other groups, that they genuinely wanted us here, and that they would investigate the possibility of us performing in the Tabernacle. "They came through with flying colors in every category," he said, noting the bureau was indeed successful in arranging for a concert with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Other Popular Sites in Utah

In terms of attendance, most conventions held in Salt Lake are from out of state, with some 50 percent originating in states west of the Mississippi. But other convention and visitors bureaus in Utah are generating a thriving business from concentrated marketing to groups within the state and to smaller-sized national organizations.

In Park City, almost all convention business in the winter months comes from other states, but in the summer upwards of 50 percent derives from the Wasatch Front area, according to Kathy Murray, director of sales for the Park City Chamber/Bureau.

Like its Salt Lake counterpart, the Park City bureau's marketing effort centers around attending trade shows, advertising in publications geared toward meeting and convention planners, sales blitzes to other cities, and sponsorship of familiarization tours for planners, Murray said. "We have to sell Utah first, then Park City, and finally individual properties."

The city's quaint, small-town atmosphere, accessibility to the airport, and broad range of entertainment choices support premiere skiing at three resorts as major attractions for convention participants. Park City's convention facilities are limited to those within individual hotel properties, so the average group ranges from 100 to 150 in size, Murray said.

"Business is going up every year, especially in the summer months when golf and special events are a big draw. We also have a lot of repeat conventions that have made Park City their home, or will return in the summer along with their winter meetings," she noted.

St. George hosts around 350 conventions each year, most of which draw 500 or fewer participants. The sun is the big seller here, with the main season for meetings and conventions occurring January through May, according to Penny Shelly, executive director of the Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "When the rest of the state is having nasty weather, people like to come to sunny St. George," she said. "The bulk of our business comes from groups within the state of Utah."

Shelly indicated the average person attending a convention in St. George stays 2 1/2 days and typically spends $250 in the city. With an average of 35,000 delegates participating each year, conventions provide the county with an important source of revenue.

Convention marketing is left up to the city's three major hotel properties and the Dixie Center, a convention center and all-purpose arena that seats 5,200. The Washington County bureau provides support with printed materials, sales packets, and other promotional items.

Dixie Center sales event coordinator Pam Hilton said one of the largest events held at the four-building complex each year is "Wow Weekends," sponsored by members of Amway. Attended by 8,500 to 9,000 annually, the event spans three weekends, Hilton said.

The Dixie Center is best suited to small trade shows with up to 50 exhibits and is frequented by many Utah state association meetings, Hilton said. Larger events held this year include the Governor's Conference on Tourism, the U.S. Forest Service Intermountain Regional Conference, and the Utah Hotel Motel Association convention.

Utah County, although home to corporate giants like Novell and WordPerfect, has yet to develop an active convention marketing program. That will change in the near future, however, with construction of a new special-events center on the campus of Utah Valley Community College, according to Michael D. S. Mack, director of the Utah County Travel Council.

"We really don't have the accommodations for large conventions here," he said. "There are only 1,300 hotel rooms in Utah County, and so far marketing has been left up to the hotel properties themselves, although we do provide promotional information." The new facility will bridge the gap between the county's smaller convention rooms and the large Marriott Center at BYU.

The Utah County Travel Council does, however, work closely with some of the large conventions held in Salt Lake to promote activities, events, and locations in Utah County. "For example with the national Square Dance Convention which Salt Lake hosted in late June, some hotel properties were booked and we cultivated overflow business. We also sponsored a |Trail-In Dance' at Utah Valley Community College two days before the convention in Salt Lake," Mack noted.

Even with a limited convention business, the council's annual budget, which rises and falls according to revenues from the transient room tax, has increased 11 percent annually for the past four years, according to Mack, who said operating revenues for 1991 are approximately $300,000.

Utah's newest convention and visitors bureau was formed under the umbrella of the Ogden Chamber of Commerce in July of 1990. The fledgling Chamber Ogden/Weber Convention and Visitors Bureau has posted a 66 percent rate in its convention bids this year, with virtually 100 percent of new business coming from out of state, director Sandy Ward said.

With facilities at Union Station, Weber County Fairgrounds, Weber State College, and various hotel properties, Ogden is a good market for conventions, Ward observed. "We don't go after the big guys, but we believe Ogden is a great choice for smaller associations, conferences, and executive retreats."

While the bureau is still forming its agenda, it has identified small Chambers of Commerce within a six-hour drive of Ogden, as well as groups in Wyoming and Idaho as the best prospective marketing targets. Funding, provided through transient room tax and the Ogden Chamber, is projected at $183,000 this year; $34,000 of which will go directly to promotions, Ward said.

Major events scheduled for this summer include The Great Race, an antique car race; the Triple Crown Softball Series; and the American Chambers of Commerce Executive Communications Council Conference.

With an increasing number of trade groups and associations seeking new venues for their annual meetings, the prospects for Utah's growing convention business appear bright. As Ed Smith of the Gospel Workshop of America put it, "every large convention has been to the major cities of the country. Utah is a fine place to open up new frontiers."

PHOTO : A new ballroom and exhibit hall will allow the Salt Palace to accommodate larger conventions.

PHOTO : With facilities like the Dixie Center and pleasant year-round temperatures, St. George is becoming a popular site for small regional conventions.

Teresa Browning-Hess specializes in writing about business topics.
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Author:Browning-Hess, Teresa
Publication:Utah Business
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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