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The coronavirus crisis has Utah’s top tourism boosters striking a different theme these days.
Instead of “Visit Salt Lake!” it’s more like, “Stay home for now! We’ll see you later this summer!”
With ski resorts and at least two of Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks closed until further notice, widespread travel restrictions in place and stay-at-home decrees affecting many of the state’s top sightseeing hotspots, visitors are way down and Utah’s tourism, hospitality and travel sectors are hurting badly.
Many hoteliers, tour operators, guides, festival organizers, outfitters, restaurateurs and thousands of their workers are idled by social distancing, leading Utah’s Office of Tourism as of two weeks ago to pull back from its usual advertising blitz promoting the state’s wonders to the world.
“We had to recognize that we should stop mass marketing,” said the office’s managing director, Vicki Varela. “We're not out there promoting travel right now. It wouldn't be responsible.”
A $9.7 billion industry that typically pumps up to $26 million per day into Utah’s economy is “at 10% of that at the very best right now,” said Varela. “So we're innovating. We're trying to do all that we can in every sector to try to get through this and to try to help protect public safety.”
A recent survey conducted on behalf of Visit Salt Lake, the chief nonprofit promoter of Utah’s capitol city as a convention and travel destination, has documented some of that economic carnage — while also offering hints of what a recovery could look like.
Nearly two-thirds of the nearly 140 tourism-related businesses in Salt Lake City that replied said they expected to lose 75% or more of their revenues in the next 30 days.
A similar share of respondents said they were eyeing COVID-19-related layoffs among their combined 7,800 full time workers, according the poll, conducted by Salt Lake City-based Entrada Insights between March 18 and 26 — just as public-health measures aimed at slowing the pandemic were being enacted.
Half of tourism-related businesses, according to the poll, predicted they would run out of cash within 60 days, with only 12% saying they could sustain business operations for five months or more. Many of those on the sharpest financial edge, too, are smaller, so-called mom-and-pop operations with five workers or less.
“The results are kind of dire and it’s hard to hear,” said Kaitlin Eskelson, the new president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake.
But the data, Eskelson said, also give tourism boosters a base line “for us to know what we need to do to bring that recovery forward and make sure we know when we’ve really started down that road.”
Evidence suggests conditions have worsened in the days since the poll was conducted.
Popular touring bus company Le Bus in Salt Lake City — known for its charter trips to Wendover and ferrying 2002 Olympics fans to venues — had sidelined 102 of its 104-bus fleet as of last Thursday. By Tuesday, Le Bus’ main phone line offered only a recorded message, saying its remaining trips to Wendover were shut down, too.
And Nathan Rafferty, CEO of Ski Utah, said that while the state’s mountain resorts usually start winding down their winter season come April, “it’s a mistake to think the ski industry is slipping away unscathed in all of this.”
Health-related closures fell on some of the resorts’ busiest days and took a painful bite out of March, one of the industry’s biggest months of the year for revenues, he said. Hundreds of resort workers have since been sent home, some with a week or two of extra pay, Rafferty said — and usually busy slopes are now quiet and pristine.
A third-party consultant now estimates Utah’s ski sector has lost at least $232.4 million to the COVID-19 crisis, he said, part of nearly $2 billion in losses for the industry nationwide.
But some of Visit Salt Lake’s latest analysis also suggests that if the worst effects of the pandemic start to lift in the next three months — as projected in the state’s latest economic recovery plan — the sector could bounce back.
Cliff Doner, the group’s chief financial officer, said analysis of prior viral outbreaks such as SARS and MERS and of China’s emerging recovery from the COVID-19 crisis indicated that significant pent up demand for travel may kick in as health restrictions begin to ease.
“What you see is it sort of looks like a tennis ball that’s been hit and is bouncing up almost as high as where it was,” Doner said of the projected trend.
Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, said he sees “the very real likelihood of a strong comeback.
“People who will be more eager than ever, I believe, to get back to having fun again,” Miller said Tuesday. “They’ll be going to places like City Creek or taking that trip to Moab or taking that delayed spring break or graduation vacation.”
With this in mind, Varela said the state is already planning its advertising strategy “for how we will get back into market when it’s the right time” — while also recognizing the world is likely to be forever altered by COVID-19.