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'Great openings' fuel interest in Salt Lake tourism

Published March 9, 2012 7:13 pm

Visitation • Officials cite debut of museums, the increase in room taxesand media interest.
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The opening of the Natural History Museum of Utah and the Leonardo museum, as well as the March 22 debut of the City Creek Center downtown mall, are helping to fuel optimism among tourism officials in Salt Lake County.

Visit Salt Lake issued its 2011 annual report this week, and it showed an increase in transient room taxes, a big jump of revenue per available room in local lodges, major jumps in what the media are covering in Salt Lake City and huge increases in social media hits.

"There is a great sense of optimism for 2012, not the least of which are our great openings," said Keith Griffall of the Western Leisure tour company, who chairs the board of Visit Salt Lake, the convention and visitors bureau.

"City Creek will add a great deal to the downtown experience. A lot of people are looking forward to that and to getting rid of construction. We have two world-class museums and a lot of strong bookings for 2012. It's giving people a sense of optimism."

Scott Beck, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake, said the addition of new award-winning restaurants and recognition of existing ones, coupled with the museum openings, more light rail connections and completion of the downtown shopping center, generated $9.5 million in earned media.

Earned media refers to favorable publicity gained through editorial stories that appear in the mass media, including newspaper, television and the Internet.

The use of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr by Visit Salt Lake also has helped promote tourism. In 2011, Visit Salt Lake's Facebook "likes" jumped from 3,500 to 87,000, while Twitter followers went from 1,800 to 9,500.

Though no figures were available, there also was an increase in traffic to Visit Salt Lake's website, http://www.VisitSaltLake.com.

Two key indicators point to big increases in visits to Salt Lake City.

There was a 10 percent increase in transient room tax collections from hotel and motel owners. That showed more rooms were filled and higher room rates charged in 2011. In October, for example, the revenue per available room increased from $47.38 per night in 2010 to $62.22 per night in 2011.

October is typically a slow month, but three major conventions in 2011 — the American Health Information Management Association, Novell and Nu Skin International — brought thousands into Salt Lake City.

The treasurer's report indicated that there were 144,817 convention delegates and another 29,533 people who attended meetings at hotels or resorts in 2011. They spent $169.4 million. Total direct visitor spending in Salt Lake County in 2011 was estimated at $1.3 billion, generating more than $131 million in tax revenue.

Beck likes what he sees on the horizon, and Griffall credited enhanced marketing for helping fuel interest in Salt Lake tourism.

"We've done a great job changing the image in the last five years," Griffall said. "A lot of states around us pulled back on marketing due to issues with funding. Utah has been able to take great advantage of that."

wharton@sltrib.comTwitter @tribtomwharton