Wharton: Davis County conference center enjoys success
By Tom Wharton
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Feb 18 2013 12:37PM
Layton • The first time I drove past the Davis Conference Center, I was more than a little surprised.
There in the midst of box stores, the Layton Hills Mall and dozens of restaurants stood a striking modern building. A 147-room Hilton Garden Hotel was attached.
Curious, I wondered what group used this 85,000-square foot facility that opened in 2004. With nearby Ogden and Salt Lake City both possessing convention centers or hotels with large ballrooms, I could not imagine how this center in the midst of what is largely a suburban bedroom community could possibly be successful.
Was I ever wrong.
According to Scott Lunt, general manager of the convention center and six hotels in the area including the Hilton Garden, the facility hosts well more than 700 events a year and operates at a 70 percent capacity rate, considered high for any convention facility.
"It’s purpose was to drive economic impact," explained director of operations Dave Hilliard, who said the original facility had to be doubled in size to include a new 18,000 square foot Expo Building and a second ballroom. "With a small investment in a conference center, the return is sizeable…What’s exciting is that the bulk of the building is paid for out of the TRT (Transient Room Tax). People who visit us pay for it, not the people who live here."
The building cost $22 million to construct and generates about $35 million a year in economic impact.
Perhaps more important, it has become a gathering place for Davis County. In addition to big events, director of sales Connie Harmston says the facility hosts weddings, reunions, 50th anniversary celebrations, Christmas parties and Sweet 16 events. Davis County’s annual September gala draws thousands to enjoy a big party and entertainment acts that in the past have included Sheena Easton or the African Children’s Choir.
It also hosts trade shows, mixed martial arts fights and roller derbies.
But perhaps the conference center’s most important role is its location close to Hill Air Force Base, about a half-mile away. With about 14,000 hotel rooms nearby, it hosts dozens of conferences that are military-related. In fact, about 75 percent of the motel rooms surrounding the facilities are used by people doing business with Hill Air Force Base.
While the facility has hosted a few national events, including the national ROTC civilian marksmanship competition scheduled to be held this weekend, most of its events are local and regional. It hosts four major career-oriented high school club events and a number of smaller educational oriented conferences.
The private-public mix is interesting as well. The center is owned by Davis County, the Hilton Garden is privately owned and both facilities are managed by a private management group. The facility sports its own award-winning catering company.
In touring the center, what struck me is was that it was airy and light. It was easy to picture a barbecue on an outside patio, a wedding reception in the airy solarium with views of the mountains behind it, people enjoying original art that seems to decorate the entire facility, a nice bar where patrons can enjoy an after-meeting beverage and the flexibility to hold both massive or smaller gatherings.
As someone who has planned conferences for my professional organization and attended many others, I especially thought the break stations that allow meeting planners to pay in advance and stock them with chips or provide fountain drinks were an unusual feature I had not seen before.
One unusual signature is that the building has two landmark weather towers at its entrance. Just like the Walker Center sign of old in Salt Lake City, the lights on the towers use color codes that change with the weather.
It turns out that a bedroom community such as Layton can be the home for a highly successful, bustling and successful conference center that can also serve as a gathering place for important local events.