Outdoor recreation, ‘bleisure’ and how they impact tourism in Utah

Recent county reports and a dashboard from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute show tourism jobs and visitor spending had largely recovered to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, though some counties lagged behind.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) A worker changes a corner room's linens at the AC hotel on Friday, April 20, 2018. Jobs at hotels and other tourism-related employment were still recovering in some Utah counties in 2021, according to data from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

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Vicki Varela describes the current state of Utah’s tourism and travel economy as a “rollercoaster recovery.” Jobs and spending have returned in some parts of the state and lagged in others.

Utah is working through the bumps of recovery but is headed “generally in a good direction,” said Varela, who oversees strategy and execution of the state’s tourism and film economies as managing director of the Utah Department of Tourism.

Recent county reports and a county dashboard from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute show visitor spending, tourism jobs and other metrics largely had recovered to pre-pandemic levels in 2021.

There were some exceptions — Salt Lake and Davis counties lagged slightly behind in visitor spending, and hotel occupancy rates hadn’t recovered in a handful of counties as of 2021.

Job numbers also have room for improvement amid a competitive market, Varela said.

But the recovery has continued in the past two years.

For example, Visit Salt Lake booked a record number of hotel room nights through future meetings, conventions and sports events last year, said Mark White, chief sales and experience officer. The organization is on pace to surpass that this year, he said.

Varela added while the industry is using 2019 as a benchmark, it’s not a metric of what’s normal now.

The state tourism department, also known as Visit Utah, is tracking new trends like “bleisure” — a combination of business and leisure travel — and growing interest in outdoor recreation.

Six counties lost 20% or more of their tourism jobs

Visitor spending, tourism job numbers and hotel occupancy and rates took a hit during the first year of the pandemic.

Utah’s 29 counties saw visitor spending decreased by 13.5% on average, even with five smaller counties pulling in more dollars.

Counties lost 6% of their tourism jobs, on average, and six lost more than 20%.

Hotels took a hit across the state, with occupancy rates decreasing about 21% on average and average daily room rates dropping an average of 10%.

But by the second year of COVID-19, most counties were back to pre-pandemic levels for the metrics on the Gardner dashboard.

Industry faces rough competition for workers

While some areas have rebounded, others continue to recover.

Varela hears anecdotally that there are continued increases in jobs but not yet enough.

“It’s tricky because we just don’t have enough workers,” she said.

There was a lag in visas for temporary, non-agricultural workers and for exchange visitors, who help fill out the visitor economy, she said.

While tourism job wages have increased, they’ve also gone up in other industries, Varela said, making for rough competition.

Job numbers vary by county. They increased between 2020 and 2021 in every county but San Juan and were up 7.4% on average compared to 2019.

Seven counties — Davis, Garfield, Salt Lake, San Juan, Sanpete, Summit and Weber — were still below pre-pandemic employment levels for tourism in 2021.

Meetings, conventions lagged in 2021

Visitor spending was up 14.3% on average from 2019 to 2021 and only lagged in Salt Lake and Davis counties.

Varela said that likely was due to conventions in Salt Lake County, with Davis County echoing its southern neighbor.

Meetings and conventions were slower to come back, White confirmed, as business leaders worked through concerns about liability over possible COVID-19 transmission.

Technology also had started filling in some gaps before people started to realize it couldn’t replace face-to-face interaction, he said.

While meetings and conventions aren’t yet back to pre-pandemic levels, the business Visit Salt Lake is putting on the books far exceeds where they were in 2019, White said. He credits that to keeping sales staff in place throughout the pandemic — meaning they never lost contact with clients — and adaptations like building a media center to help clients go hybrid during events.

The new Hyatt Regency hotel also filled a missing puzzle piece when it opened in late 2022, he said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Hyatt Regency Salt Lake, pictured on June 12, 2023, helped fill a missing puzzle piece in the city's ability to attract convention and generate tourism dollars.

Visit Salt Lake booked 198 meetings, conventions and sports events for future dates in 2022, White said. That’s the equivalent of 890,000 hotel room nights, an all-time booking record that sales staff is on pace to surpass this year, he said.

The organization is starting to hear from clients that the city is the “next big thing” in the convention world, White said.

Varela agrees the Hyatt Regency is a game changer and said Salt Lake City is becoming a legitimate convention destination.

Passion for outdoors ‘came alive’ during pandemic

Leisure travel rebounded quicker than business trips because people were making decisions for themselves, White said.

Interest in the outdoors was and continues to be a big driver for Utah tourism, Varela said.

“People’s passion about outdoor recreation came alive during COVID, and I think that just keeps building,” she said.

Ski resorts and national parks drew record numbers as people flocked outside amid warnings about close contact and gatherings, particularly indoors.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A steady line of hikers make their way up Walter's Wiggles on the trail to Angel's Landing in Zion National Park, the most sought-after bucket list hike for visitors, Sept. 25, 2021. June 2021 was the busiest month ever for the park, which is on course to have its busiest year ever, surpassing 2019's 4.5 million visitors

The outdoors and other attractions are positives for the future of the state’s tourism industry, including so-called “bleisure.” That industry terms refers to business travelers who extend their trips for leisure — and around half of them did so in the first four months of 2023, according to a report Visit Utah received from Love Communications.

People are recognizing that if they come for a convention they can arrive early or stay late and extend their travel budget, White said, thereby experiencing a “bleisure” trip.

Visit Salt Lake also is pushing that idea, he said.

The organization actively promotes the Salt Lake Connect Pass, which is similar to CityPass in Seattle, Denver and other large cities.

Connect Pass is generally cheaper than the CityPass and includes more attractions — 18 across 14 venues. The pass includes the Dome and IMAX theaters at Clark Planetarium, the Natural History Museum of Utah, the Snowbird Tram, Utah’s Hogle Zoo and more than a dozen other attractions.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The new baby Zebra born on June 2 to mother Ziva at Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, on Wednesday, June 7, 2023. The zoo is included in the Salt Lake Connect pass, which features tourist spots across the area.

In addition to combined business and leisure travel, the city also is benefiting from business travel that then leads to leisurely vacations, White said.

About 25% of convention delegates who visit Salt Lake City without knowing much about the city go home intending to come back within 18 months for a vacation with friends or family, he said.

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