Tough times in Salt Lake County's hospitality industry are hitting the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau in the pocketbook.

The bureau, which is funded primarily by a 2 percent transient room tax in Salt Lake County, expects its public sector budget to fall by 1 percent in 1999 after increasing by 22 percent in 1997 and 6 percent in 1998.Richard E. Davis, bureau president and chief executive, said during a Wednesday presentation of the CVB's 1999 Marketing Plan that a downturn in the hotel industry has translated into a drop in room tax revenue.

"We're tightening our belt for the remainder of this year and for all of next year," Davis said.

According to the marketing plan, total public sector expense for the CVB's operations is expected to fall to about $5.27 million for 1999, after hitting $5.34 million in 1998.

The bureau's salaries and benefits also will drop about 2 percent next year, and funds available for convention and tourism marketing will drop about 1 percent.

Davis said the bureau expects to get about $1.68 million in revenues from its "Salt Lake To Go" gift shop and other private sector operations next year, but expenses for that portion of its budget will hit nearly $1.83 million.

That $150,000 decrease in net assets will be covered by a cash balance of about $450,000 in the private sector fund, Davis said.

In addition to falling revenues from hotel room rentals, he said, the local tourism and convention industry is suffering from I-15 and light rail construction and expansion plans at the Salt Palace Convention Center and Salt Lake City International Airport.

All of those projects inconvenience incoming conventions, group tours and visitors, Davis said, and at least a few of them will continue for years to come.

But even with the industry's problems, he said, the bureau's activities should have a $222 million economic impact on the county next year.

Davis said the bureau has a 1999 goal of booking 350,000 convention room nights, with an estimated economic impact of about $165 million. And it wants to book 145,000 tourism room nights, with an impact of about $57 million.

The bureau also plans to improve its presence on the Internet, "aggressively" promote a toll-free hotel reservation number for the area and increase awareness of Salt Lake among national tour op-er-a-tors.

To help with the last goal, Davis said, Salt Lake City will host the National Tour Association's annual convention and marketplace in 2000.

The bureau will put special emphasis on attracting group tours during the traditionally slow months of November, December, January, April and May and develop strategies to prevent a drop in visits to Salt Lake during the months just before and after the 2002 Winter Games.

"The best way to sell Salt Lake is to bring people who plan conventions here to see our hotels and our restaurants and our convention facilities," Davis said.