Utah pulls some tourism ads in reaction to the coronavirus spike

(Image courtesy of Utah Office of Tourism, via YouTube) An image from one of three 30-second ads sponsored by the state of Utah to promote tourism in key Western states, part of a campaign dubbed "Here, We Heal." Officials said Wednesday they were cutting back on portions of the campaign in light of a surge in COVID-19 cases since Memorial Day.

Utah is dialing back its advertising aimed at attracting tourists and boosting travel to the state in light of the state’s rapidly rising cases of COVID-19.

After going quiet in early March in light of coronavirus lockdowns, state tourism promoters have been placing ads since April in select markets across 10 nearby states, promoting car travel to Utah.

Some of the spots encourage future trips once health restrictions ease, while others more explicitly encourage visits to Utah’s redrock and alpine treasures now. Different ads have been delivered to viewers in different markets, officials say, depending on the status of local stay-at-home rules.

Utah has since made “surgical changes” to that mix to soften its overall call to travel here, the state’s top tourism official said Wednesday. The state has also temporarily pulled a national cable TV campaign promoting Utah’s splendor.

The moves come in light of a recent warning from Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist, over steep coronavirus case increases since Memorial Day, said Vicki Varela, managing director of the state Office of Tourism.

“We are cutting back our advertising to protect the safety of our residents and our visitors,” Varela said, noting that the revised strategy would be reviewed weekly.

Many in Utah’s vital tourism sector are eager to welcome back visitors for these peak summer months. State officials also have been handed up to $12 million in federal coronavirus aid to boost tourism to national parks and nearby communities — money officials must spend by year’s end.

Varela’s boss, Gov. Gary Herbert, said the state continues to seek a balance in promoting visits to Utah’s one-of-a-kind attractions with worries some might bring the virus with them.

“It’s an opportunity, yet it could also be a concern for us,” the governor said during his weekly COVID-19 briefing, noting state officials are encouraging more “stay-cations” by local residents, particularly in light of plummeting international tourism.

And with infection risks likely lower outside, particularly for smaller groups, “outdoor recreation actually is not a bad place to be during this pandemic,” Herbert said. Yet while some Utah communities are urging further opening of tourism, he said, other localities “are saying not so fast, not as much.”

“So there’s no one good or right answer,” he said. “It’s probably going to be a combination of being careful, but still having tourism and travel.”

Said Varela: “The worst thing would be for us to be welcoming people here if the state was at risk for hospital bed capacity.”

‘Here we heal'

From early April to late May, Utah began reaching cable television viewers in nearby states with two “Small, But Mighty” ads, praising their personal sacrifice of staying at home and “helping build a safer world for everyone.”

(Image courtesy of Utah Office of Tourism, via YouTube) An image from one of two ads sponsored by the state of Utah to promote tourism in key Western states as part of a campaign dubbed "Small, But Mighty." Officials said Wednesday they were cutting back on portions of the campaign in light of a surge in COVID-19 cases since Memorial Day.

“It’s a small thing, but it’s mighty,” the ads intone, in a play on Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks, over images of its beautiful landscapes. The goal there, Varela said, has been to plant the idea of traveling to Utah without “a direct call to action.”

Those spots had been gradually replaced in markets where COVID-19 restrictions have eased with three 30-second spots that make up what the state is calling its “Here, We Heal” campaign.

“Now we emerge,” one of those ads says, again with gentle narration over stunning pictures of southern Utah’s vistas. “The desert is the color of hope, the color of healing.”

The marketing approach, said Varela, seeks to capitalize on a longing for the restorative benefits of outdoor activity for those who’ve been cooped up.

A third campaign, launched around early June for some markets within driving distance, encourages travel to Utah more directly, she said.

With changes this week, more viewers will see the “Small But Mighty” ads if they see any at all, Varela said.

Evidence from recent surveys suggests visitors have begun to return, with hotel occupancy now hovering in some locales around 35% or more, up from below 10% in late March and early April. Over time, Varela said Utah even hopes to expand its market share for domestic and foreign tourists.

There is still so much work that needs to be done,” she said Tuesday. “We’re trying to do it very responsibly to make sure we don’t get ahead of what’s reasonable for local communities.

But for now, those campaigns will take a milder tone, as health officials press Herbert to consider returning the state’s coronavirus restrictions to an “orange” level of perceived risk if the new cases of the virus don’t decline soon.

A surge began 12 days after Herbert loosened those restrictions by moving nearly all of the state to “yellow” or low-risk status. On Wednesday, the state reported 484 new cases — the 28th consecutive day exceeding 200 new cases.

Officials in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, meanwhile, announced on Tuesday their states plan to impose a 14-day quarantine on visitors from at least eight states, including Utah, due to their spiking infection rates.

Varela said Tuesday tourism officials have not received “broad direction” on the prospect of quarantining visitors to Utah “unless they have demonstrated problems,” including overt COVID-19 symptoms.

Use it or lose it

Early in the pandemic, Summit and Wasatch counties experienced higher than expected per-capita rates of COVID-19. At the time, health officials attributed that partly to the flow of visitors and second-home owners; their initial health decrees ordered nonresidents to leave.

In late May, Herbert lowered the perceived risk level in those counties to yellow, or low risk, based on declining case rates and hospital utilization.

As of last Friday, the Republican governor has moved the state’s southern rural counties of Beaver, Millard, Piute, Wayne, Garfield and Emery and high-mountain Daggett, Duchesne and Uintah counties to “green” risk level — at least though July 3. Kane County had been moved to “green” the week prior.

Under the state’s recommendations, the green level is its least restrictive, allowing for widespread business openings and large public gatherings.

Elected officials and private-sector leaders view a resumption of business for thousands of Utah hoteliers, tour operators, guides, outfitters and restaurateurs — and a return to work for their employees — as critical to the state’s overall economic rebound.

Meeting in a special session last week, the Utah Legislature targeted nearly $62 million in federal money toward wide-ranging COVID-19 relief and recovery efforts, including nearly $12 million specifically for tourism.

That cash is to be directed toward promoting visitors to Utah’s national parks and solving persistent transportation problems for some of those top attractions.

While the assumption is that it is easier to social distance for those recreating or sightseeing outdoors, Varela said state officials are working to address key bottlenecks of congestion and overcrowding, as in the case of Zion National Park.

Longer term, state officials have also said they envision a large infusion of economic recovery cash to be pumped into improving many gateway communities, state parks, bike paths, trailheads and campgrounds to better withstand and encourage more usage.

The Governor’s Office of Economic Development oversees the state tourism office. Its executive director said Friday the agency was still detailing where and when the federal cash will go out.

“We have until the end of the year to literally spend hundreds of millions of dollars the federal government has given us,” Vale Hale said. “If we don’t spend it, we lose it.”