Are you ready for Convention Summer 1991? It's being billed as the largest and most lucrative influx of tourists that Salt Lake City has ever seen. The Chinese call 1991 the year of the sheep. In Utah it's the year of the conventioneer.

Beginning this week with the opening of the Society of Decorative Painters, which has drawn about 3,000 attendees through Saturday, the Salt Palace will host a total of 71,000 people attending 13 major conventions through Oct. 3 when 2,500 members of the American Mining Congress say their goodbyes.Most awesome of all with be the influx June 26-29 of 27,000 participants in the National Square Dance Convention, the largest convention of any kind ever held in Utah and one that has sold out all the rooms in 57 hotels and motels in the area.

"We've been meeting with the local square dance committee on a weekly basis," said Richard E. Davis, president of the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We are considering rooms in Ogden, Park City and Provo as well as the option to place people in private homes."

Davis notes that the last time the square dancers came to town, in 1974, local restaurants ran out of food by noon the first day. He assumes they will be better prepared this time.

Adding to the crush during the square dance convention will be the Utah Arts Festival and the Gina Bachauer Piano Competition, also scheduled for the last week in June.

Although many of those attending the Bachauer and Arts Festival are local and will not require rooms, the traffic and parking problems will be fierce, said Davis. Many of the square dancers will come to Salt Lake City by car, using the occasion to tour the state's national parks following the convention.

"It will be crowded, but it will also be great for our economy," said Davis. "We hope everyone will warmly welcome them to Salt Lake."

Why such a big turnout this summer? Davis credits the "cumulative effect" of the past six years of selling conventions in the city since the Convention and Visitors Bureau was reorganized in 1984.

Large conventions book their groups three to seven years in advance and "we're just beginning to fill the pipeline," said Davis. Since 1984, he said, the number of conventions has grown every year, and he sees no sign of that abating.

In 1984, the bureau booked 38,000 room nights per year; last year it was 200,000 room nights, more than a five-fold increase.

There have been a number of positive articles about Utah in national publications recently, and Davis believes they help sell conventions. Conversely, there have been some negatives, such as misunderstanding of state liquor laws and controversial issues such as cold fusion and the state's new abortion law.

Those issues often cut both ways, said Davis, positive with some and negative with others. In any case, he believes the professional people who book conventions are less interested in local political issues than they are with those that will help them have a good convention. They include:

1. A central location that is easily reached by air and highway. Salt Lake City scores high in this category as the "Crossroads of the West" and 55 flights a day.

2. Attraction of the city is important because today's conventiongoers typically combine leisure travel with business. Often they will bring a spouse or children, and the proximity of ski resorts and national parks is a big selling point.

3. Adequate hotel rooms are obviously high on the list, and 5,600 rooms within a mile's walking distance of the Salt Palace is a plus.

4. Value for the dollar is also looked at, and Salt Lake City compares well since the city ranks below the national average in the cost of food, rooms and local transportation.

5. Size and quality of meeting rooms is listed last here but probably should be first, said Davis. For smaller groups, local hotels have good meeting space, he said, but the lack of a really large banquet hall has been a big drawback for drawing the largest conventions.

That, said Davis, should finally be alleviated since the Legislature has agreed to fund a renovation and expansion of the Salt Palace that, by fall of 1993, should have a new banquet hall and meeting rooms in place.

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(Additional information)

What's going on . . .

Convention Dates Attendance

Society of Decorative Painters May 6-11 113,000

American Industrial Hygiene May 17-24 8,000

America Japan Week May 25-June 1 2,000

National Square Dance Convention June 26-29 27,000

Epsilon Sigma Alpha July 1-7 1,200

National Association of Counties July 13-17 5,000

Amateur Athletic Union July 13-21 1,500

American Society of Healthcare July 19-25 1,000

Gospel Music Workshop Aug. 9-17 16,000

Huddle West Aug. 21-26 1,000

USA/China Economic Council Sept. 19-23 1,000

Lions Clubs International Sept. 26-29 1,900

American Mining Congress Sept. 29-Oct. 3 2,500