Utah tourism industry has been dodging blows

Published: Thursday, Oct. 8 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

LAYTON — A number of industries in Utah have been hit especially hard by the economic downturn, but the state's travel and tourism industry has been able to dodge some of those blows.

According to local industry leaders, some areas of the state have fared well even during the recession, while other areas are trying to stay afloat.

Leigh von der Esch, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, attributed some of the former to the debut of the Ken Burns documentary "The National Parks."

"Our gateway communities to the national parks … have brought more interest," von der Esch told the Deseret News on Wednesday at the Utah Hotel and Lodging Association annual conference. "Our state parks are up because people are looking for value (for their vacation dollar)."

While the areas around the state's five national parks have experienced growth recently, the same cannot be said of other parts of the state that rely more on business travel to bolster their economic fortunes.

"You've got areas like Salt Lake City … that are heavily reliant upon business travel and a lot of business travel has been cut," Michael Johnson, the association's executive director, said. "(Businesses) are sending less people to conventions … (they) are sending less employees on travel (and) doing more (video and phone) conferencing."

Johnson said that Salt Lake City, Park City and Midway have seen significant declines in bookings over the past year. Generally speaking, however, Utah has not been hit as hard as neighboring states in the Rocky Mountain region, some of which have seen 10 percent decreases in lodging business, he said.

He told the Deseret News that in northern Utah, hotel bookings have mostly fallen in the 7 percent to 15 percent range. But those figures may be misleading, he added.

"For the last three years, they were booming so much and doing so well that (with the decline) … they are probably about level (with where they were in 2005)," Johnson said.

Both Johnson and von der Esch said the state is working on a strategy to enhance the state's profile through increased marketing.

Recent out-of-state marketing has resulted in significant increases in tourism and business travel, they said. But how that strategy is implemented will depend upon how the Legislature decides to fund the marketing effort.

Over the next two years, Johnson said, he expects to see the local lodging industry to rebound as the overall economy improves, allowing businesses to eventually hike their travel expenditures to pre-recession levels.

"Most of the travel will come back as (business) budgets come back," he said.

e-mail: jlee@desnews.com

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