Doug Robinson: Vicki Varela — Utah's No. 1 salesperson

Published: Sunday, March 30 2014 8:55 p.m. MDT

Vicki Varela, managing director of Utah Office of Tourism, Film and Global Branding, poses at the Council Hall office in Salt Lake City, Friday, March 28, 2014.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — For nearly 30 years Vicki Varela has made a career out of public persuasion while taking on some difficult assignments.

She guided successful campaigns to thwart proposals to cut taxes.

She led successful efforts to raise taxes and spend public money on everything from education to the Olympics to light rail.

She helped convince the public that a mining company could be an environmentally sound land developer.

So pardon Varela’s reaction when she was offered (and accepted) a job as managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, Film and Global Branding, which is a long way of saying her job is to convince people to recreate in Utah.

“It makes me giggle,” says Varela. “I mean, how hard can it be?”

It's got to be an easier gig than selling a tax increase.

The way Varela sees it, Utah got back in line several times when Mother Nature was divvying up spectacular landscapes and natural resources. It’s widely agreed that Utah’s got it all — desert, red rock, mountains, waterways, high plains and world-famous snow — making it an outdoor mecca for skiers, hikers, boaters, fishermen, hunters, mountain bikers, cyclists and campers. Most of it is readily accessible to city dwellers, as well. As a finishing touch, Mother Nature set up a large inland sea and an adjacent mountain range to work together to create the state’s famous dry, powdery snow.

“Mother Nature plays favorites,” Varela likes to say. "No other state can claim our spectacular landscapes.”

Decades removed from a journalism career, she can be forgiven for engaging in a little cheerleading.

Varela believes it wasn’t until the past few years that Utah really began to seek tourism and view it as a major driving force in the economy.

“We didn’t invest much in tourism and marketing,” she says. "That has changed. The governor and the Legislature really believe in us and are willing to invest in what we do."

Tourism is generating $960 million annually in state and local taxes. Varela's goal is $1 billion by the year's end.

“My charge is to take it to the next level,” she says.

Varela was raised in Denver and came west to attend BYU, where she studied journalism. She had been working for The Associated Press for 18 months with stops in New York; Cheyenne, Wyo.; and Denver, when she returned to Salt Lake City for her sister’s wedding. She had some time to kill one day and on a whim went to the Deseret News offices and applied for a job. She was hired immediately and worked there for six years. She became a Utah convert along the way.

“Salt Lake City is the Denver promise fulfilled,” she says. “Denver takes a lot of pride being close to the mountains, but the truth is it’s a long haul to get to the ski resorts, and then once you get there the snow isn’t that great.”

While working as a reporter, she decided her real calling was what she calls "the persuasion business" — marketing, branding and taking on "community campaigns." Apparently, others agreed. The Utah Board of Regents for Utah’s colleges and universities offered her a job, unsolicited. She was tasked with stopping a tax rollback movement to increase education spending.

During her six years in the board’s employment, she took a leave of absence to campaign for the Olympic referendum and win public support to build Olympic facilities that laid the groundwork for winning the bid for 2002.

“I like promoting causes and issues I believe in more than selling bars of soap and telephones or products like that,” she says. “I am much more on the community engagement side of things.”

She left the regents when Gov. Mike Leavitt, who had worked on several projects with Varela, hired her as his communications director and spokesperson and, eventually, his deputy chief of staff.

Eight years later she become a partner in a consulting firm called Wilkenson, Ferrari and Varela. They guided the effort to promote and market Daybreak, a 4,000-acre, master-planned community in South Jordan, owned by Kennecott Land. It was marketed as a self-contained neighborhood built on the themes of water conservation, open space and energy efficiency, with more walking, more mass transit and less driving, among other things. Wilkenson, Ferrari and Varela was tasked with creating that brand, but to get the project off and running they had to persuade various communities to put up money, organize a referendum for a sales tax increase and expedite construction of a light rail project.

Varela started her own consulting firm eventually — Vicki Varela Strategic Communications — essentially doing the same work she had been doing. She moved on again five years later after she was asked by Gov. Gary Herbert to take charge of the state’s tourism.

“I was immediately intrigued,” she says. “I had never thought of it, but as soon as it was presented to me I was absolutely interested. It made sense as the next chapter, from being a Utah convert to loving community engagement and branding and marketing and selling a product I love.”

Among the projects she has launched is “The Mighty 5,” a 60-second video that boasts of Utah’s five national parks — Zion, Arches, Bryce, Capitol Reef and Canyonlands: “I’ve seen it 300 times and every time I see it it stirs me,” says Varela.

She is working on an ad campaign for next winter to promote skiing. She has enlisted help from former Deseret News writers Ray Boren and Ray Grass and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers Larry Price and Mark Osler to help sell the Utah brand.

“This it the most fun I’ve ever had,” says Varela. “It’s a privilege to promote Utah."

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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