Why Utah’s new tourism director says there are ‘big things ahead’ as the industry grows

Feb 12, 2024, 4:53 PM

Natalie Randall, new managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, center, speaks with Nancy Vol...

Natalie Randall, new managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, center, speaks with Nancy Volmer, director of communications and marketing for the Salt Lake City International Airport, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s tourism industry reached unprecedented levels over the past decade under Vicki Varela, who most notably implemented the state’s “Mighty 5” campaign promoting Utah’s five national parks.

It was so successful the Utah Office of Tourism and Film had to make adjustments, creating a plan to advertise other outdoor attractions or ways to experience the parks at different times of the day or year so the state could spread out all of the rising visitation. Those efforts also seem to be paying off, as more people have now visited state parks than Utah’s five national parks over three of the last four years.

Tourism in Utah “evolved significantly” under Varela, says Natalie Randall, who officially took over as the executive director of the Utah Office of Tourism and Film on Monday, replacing Varela after she announced her retirement last month.

“She evolved the ‘Forever Mighty’ approach, which are all these pillars of how to build that perpetual visitor economy and an enduring visitor economy,” Randall said. “And then, internally within the office, started building out a strategic plan that outlined those key pillars, such as being community-led, listening to the community, hearing what the needs are then building a powerful brand that can build community pride.”

When adding other components like events, business conferences and other recreational activities, Utah’s tourism industry reached a record $12 billion in economic impact in 2022, per the University of Utah Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. Researchers there are compiling 2023 data for a report to be released later this year, but the industry seems to be as strong as ever as Randall takes over.

Her goal is to build on Utah’s successes moving forward.

Randall told KSL.com on Friday she believes it starts with understanding the “tricky balance” between the benefits and drawbacks of tourism, which can vary from community to community. But she’s also thinking big, especially as Utah seeks to finalize its bid for the 2034 Winter Olympics.

“I think about where we’re going to be in the next 10 years,” she said. “We have some big things ahead of us and I hope as an industry we can continue to coalesce and unite. I think, as Utahns as well, we can work to build that pride around a power brand.”

State of tourism now

Gardner Policy Institute researchers on Friday provided a small glimpse at 2023 tourism trends after a record 2022. They report transient room tax revenue — taxes collected from every hotel or short-term rental stay — is projected to increase by 5.2% between 2022 and 2023. In Salt Lake County’s case, it rose by more than $2.2 million from 2022 based on the first 11 months of the year.

It also notes Utah’s ski industry pulled in an estimated $2.64 billion in spending during the 2022-2023 ski season as people capitalized on the state’s record snowfall. That’s on top of the 22.6 million visits to state and national parks combined. Salt Lake City International and Provo airports also reported record passenger volumes in 2023.

An inflatable arch is displayed at the annual Tourism Day on the Hill at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Jennifer Leaver, a senior research analyst at the institute and the report’s author, said Utah’s travel and tourism industry remains on a “positive trajectory” despite challenges like inflation and recession fears.

“All key areas of Utah’s tourism and hospitality sectors experienced positive performance over the past two years, including transient room tax revenue increases, employment growth, ski industry success, park visitation stability and a rebound in urban travel,” she wrote.

The future of the tourism office

Randall is optimistic about where tourism is headed as she takes over the state’s top tourism role.

She enters her new job after serving as the director of the Utah Tourism Industry Association and in a similar role for San Juan County. Those jobs helped her gain a better understanding of the tourism sector economy and first-hand experience of what it’s like to live and work in a rural Utah community boosted by tourism.

Tourism impacts all parts of the state; however, it may be more important in rural communities. Private leisure and hospitality sector jobs accounted for about one in every five private jobs in San Juan County in 2022, according to the Gardner Policy Institute. The industry accounted for one-third to nearly half of all jobs at four of its five neighboring Utah counties.

The institute also notes rural counties have some of the highest transient room tax collection per household revenues in the state, helping alleviate some of the tax burden in those areas. But Randall said the power of tourism can go beyond, inspiring residents to stay and creating businesses to cater to both residents and tourists. That helps residents reinvest in their community.

“Tourism is really interesting because I think it’s the lifeline for a lot of our rural counties throughout the state,” she said. “We have amazing landscapes throughout our state and that happens to occur in a lot of those rural communities, so these communities are able to find ways to build on those natural assets that they have.”

Raelene Davis and Tim Hendrickson of Ski Utah attend the annual Tourism Day on the Hill at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Randall said she plans to work on ways to ensure tourism isn’t a “boom-and-bust” industry in rural Utah, working with communities to understand their needs and help them get the necessary resources to make sure the industry offers a healthy balance to a place’s economy.

Her plans also involve finding ways to capitalize on the 2034 Winter Olympics, which would put a global spotlight on Utah for a second time.

She has the support of Utah leaders like Gov. Spencer Cox as she takes over. Cox said last month that he thinks Randall “has the vision and drive to take everything to the next level,” which will help maintain the “quality of life for residents and visitors alike.”

Meanwhile, Ryan Starks, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, added that Randall was an easy choice to replace someone as impactful as Varela.

“Natalie’s experience in destination marketing and management, along with her proven ability to navigate complex policy issues, makes her uniquely qualified to assume this role,” Starks said in a statement last month. “She will also play a vital role on our executive leadership team to advance the nation’s best economy and quality of life.”

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Why Utah’s new tourism director says there are ‘big things ahead’ as the industry grows