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Relief In Sight For Salt Lake’s Hard-Hit Visitor Economy

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Relief is in sight for the hard-hit visitor economy in Salt Lake City after a year of virtually no in-person events or gatherings.

If you’ve been to Salt Lake City, you’ve likely seen the Salt Palace. The building has been a gathering place downtown since 1996. And the nonprofit Visit Salt Lake has been tasked with bringing visitors to town.

“The whole idea is that we bring people here, they spend their money at our hotels, our restaurants, our attractions. They go away leaving their money behind,” said Mark White, senior vice president of Visit Salt Lake.

But for the last year, it’s been quiet.

“It has been a very big problem,” White said from inside the Salt Palace. “I really don’t recall the last group that was here.”

And it shows. White said they’ve lost about $360 million from canceled conventions, and that doesn’t even include the $971 they estimate each visitor spends on average at hotels, restaurants and attractions during their visit to Salt Lake City.

“2008-2009 was tough,” White said. “But there’s been nothing remotely near this.”

“I think few people are aware of the size and impact of the visitor economy,” White added. He said visitors spent more than $9.5 billion in Utah in 2019.

“It is of key importance that we get this back up and running for all of the folks in Salt Lake and the rest of the state,” he said.

Now, for the first time in a long time, the events, tourism and hospitality industries of Salt Lake have something to look forward to.

“Things are looking up,” White said.

On Thursday Governor Spencer Cox said Utah is on track to lift all restrictions by July 1. Restrictions have already eased in several counties, the spread of COVID-19 continues to take a hit and the vaccine distribution is now open to all Utahns 16 and older.

“I think we have a lot of reason to be optimistic,” White said.

2020 was still a big year for bookings. The first part of 2021 looks similar to 2020, but there are several events scheduled in the coming months and years, including big conventions in June and August at the Salt Palace.

Still, White said they expect a fraction of the number of visitors than they normally get for the scheduled conventions. And even after things return to “normal,” he expects the industry won’t look the same.

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“I believe we will see some permanent changes,” White said.

For years he said convention planners have talked about moving to a virtual format and that the pandemic “put that in hyperdrive.” In other words, they expect conventions will return to in-person gatherings but continue to have a virtual option to attend. But White said the Salt Palace has a new broadcast studio that puts them ahead of other destination cities and in a good position to offer a hybrid experience.

“We want them to come visit of course, but for those who choose not to, we now have a way to communicate with them,” he said.

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