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Ex-Leavitt aide Vicki Varela named Utah tourism chief

Published January 11, 2013 9:39 pm

Appointment • Ex-Leavitt aide is taking over reins of agency that has enjoyed success.
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Vicki Varela, the former deputy chief of staff for Gov. Mike Leavitt who later formed her own public relations firm, was named Friday to direct tourism efforts in the state.

Varela will be the managing director of Tourism, Film and Global Branding at the Utah Office of Tourism, it was announced during the department's monthly Board of Tourism Development meeting. She will replace former tourism director Leigh von der Esch, who retired late last year after seven years in the office.

"My career has been in the persuasion business," Varela said Friday. "I've been lucky enough to find things I believe in and persuaded people to enlist or enroll or vote in something that would create real benefits. So to persuade people to come to Utah — it doesn't get any better."

The announcement is part of a slew of cabinet replacements being announced by Gov. Gary Herbert as he begins his first full term after winning election in November.

In 2008, Varela formed Vicki Varela Strategic Communications Inc., a public relations consulting firm that includes clients such as Zions Bank and Salt Lake Community College. Before that, she was spokeswoman for Leavitt and deputy chief of staff from 1993 to 2007. She also was an assistant commissioner of higher education for the state's Board of Regents from 1986 to 1992.

Prior to working in the public sector, Varela was vice president of Kennecott Land, where she promoted the development of the Daybreak community of homes and was a partner with Wilkinson, Ferrari & Varela, a public relations firm. She also was a reporter for the Associated Press and the Deseret News.

"We are very pleased that Vicki was willing to step out of her successful career in the private sector; it speaks to the love and passion she has for the state of Utah," Spencer Eccles, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, said in a statement. The Office of Tourism is a department within GOED. "Her extensive strategic communications and branding experience will further enable us to unify the state under a global marketing and branding strategy."

While von der Esch was head of tourism efforts, visitation increased from 19 million to more than 22 million, and tourism-related jobs grew to more than 124,000 positions.

In her new role, Varela will aim to develop strategies to boost Utah as a brand and top-level destination for vacationers. She also will oversee the Utah Film Commission, a department charged with attracting film projects to shoot in the state. Such productions can help strengthen the local economy when crews spend while in the state.

"One of the many great things is I'm building on an incredibly strong base," Varela said. "If you look at the snow today (Friday), for example, you look at 22 million visitors last year - clearly there's been a great strategy. My role will be to understand it better and bring it to the next level."

Varela said she will be shutting down her public relations firm, which had no other employees besides herself, and will assume her new duties by the end of the month.