Mighty 5 campaign brought an extra half-million visitors to parks; now Utah wants to steer them to other places

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hikers at Hickman Natural Bridge in Capitol Reef National Park on Friday May 10, 2019.

Wilshire Boulevard is among Los Angeles’ busiest streets, traveled by millions in cars, on foot and on bikes. For two months in 2013, a composite image showing several iconic Utah landforms — think Delicate Arch and the Great White Throne — soared above the equally iconic street connecting Beverly Hills with L.A.’s commercial districts.

From the side of a 20-story building, the redrock scenery beckoned passersby to visit Utah’s “Mighty 5.”

That 238-foot-high “wallscape” was the start of the now famous and much-copied ad blitz touting southern Utah’s five national parks. The campaign’s spring 2013 launch — placed in television ads, building wraps, digital billboards, magazines and social media at a cost of $3.1 million — coincided with a steep increase in park visitation that has continued unabated ever since.

It was widely assumed that “Mighty 5” had a lot to do with that, and a new study by Utah State University economists confirms it: The campaign attracted an additional half-million visitors on average during each of the three years after the appearance of these ads in major Western cities within a long-day’s drive of Utah.

Although Utah’s park tourism had been rising since 2008, the state Office of Tourism initiated the aggressive multimedia push promoting Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks. These destinations are strung across southern Utah, each capturing different aspects of redrock country — from high-elevation plateaus to canyons incised through sandstone to bridges, towers, hoodoos and other gravity-defying formations.

(Photo courtesy of Utah Office of Tourism) This "wallscape," depicting Utah's national parks, towered over Los Angeles' Wilshire Boulevard for two months in 2013. This was the start of the state's famed "Mighty 5" ad campaign, which new research shows helped drive the big visitation surges at some of the parks.

But the campaign likely did little to push soaring visitation at Zion and Bryce Canyon, Utah’s two most crowded parks, according to the study’s senior author, Paul Jakus, a professor in USU’s Department of Applied Economics. Still, the study proves Mighty 5 was a huge success, for better or worse, and highlights the imperative for the state to adjust messaging surrounding Utah’s increasingly crowded redrock gems.

“At the same time Arches National Park is dealing with issues of congestion, the [Utah] Office of Tourism is saying, ‘Go to Arches,’ with that fabulous campaign of theirs,” Jakus said. “I think the Office of Tourism is cognizant of both the need to promote tourism but also to not wreck the resource that is bringing people here. No one wants to wait in line for 45 minutes to get into a park and then not be able to find a parking spot.”

That describes most fall and spring weekends at Arches, where park managers are crafting a congestion-reduction plan that initially proposed a reservation system. Responding to an outcry from the state’s political leaders and some Moab business leaders, higher-ups at the National Park Service have directed the southeastern Utah park to sideline the reservation idea, and reevaluate a shuttle system and new access roads, options that previously had been rejected.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Castle at Capitol Reef National Park, seen through a sign indicating the campground is full, on Friday May 10, 2019.

Meanwhile, Grand County relentlessly promotes Moab’s scenic treasures, using revenue generated from ever-increasing hotel receipts, even as congestion mushrooms and affordable housing evaporates in the outdoor recreation hot spot.

Jakus believes the time has come to “demarket” southern Utah’s premier destinations in an effort to spread around visitation.

State tourism officials already have begun testing this idea with the “Red Emerald” initiative, a campaign to encourage visitors to explore Utah’s scenic wonders that abound between the parks, places like Grand Staircase, Escalante Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Glen Canyon and numerous state parks. These are places tourists often drive past on their way to the marquee parks.

But overcrowding already is overwhelming some of these spots. Thanks largely to social media, people flock to the likes of Kanarraville Canyon outside Zion, Little Wild Horse Canyon near Goblin Valley State Park and Horseshoe Bend, just across the Arizona line, in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in such large numbers that new parking lots have to be built and limits imposed.

Owning redrock

(Franciso Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Bryce Canyon Dark Ranger Kevin Poe leads a group of visitors on full moon walk and the rare treat of experiencing a blood moon during a lunar eclipse in a location famed for its dark skies in 2014.

“We were super pleased [Jakus] documented what we experienced," said Vicki Varela, the state’s tourism czar who oversaw the Mighty 5 liftoff. “He could see with some objectivity and distance that Red Emerald was the next logical step. It was kind of uncanny.”

Since 2013, visits more than doubled at Bryce to 2.7 million last year and climbed by at least 50 percent at the other parks. In what could be a spillover effect of Utah’s redrock promotion, visits more than doubled at four state parks focused on geological features: Dead Horse Point, Goblin Valley, Goosenecks and Kodachrome Basin, which combined for 2.2 million visits last year.

National parks have been intensely promoted since the inception of “America’s best idea,” starting with railroads that built an industry delivering high-end passengers to gateway towns like West Yellowstone and West Glacier and to grand hotels they built inside parks. The National Park Service continued this tradition with the “Mission 66” program marking the service’s 50-year anniversary and the “Find Your Park” program marking its centennial.

Park visitation flattened and declined through the 1990s and into the 2000s. But for Utah parks, visitation already had resumed climbing by 2013, when the state Office of Tourism hired two Salt Lake City ad agencies to develop what became Mighty 5.

Marketing research had stumbled upon the sad truth that many people, when shown pictures of Utah’s national parks, thought they were looking at Arizona.

“They credited Arizona for having spectacular redrock,” Varela said. “We knew we needed to own that brand.”

Love Communications, which handled media strategy, and the creative agency Struck worked together to orchestrate a campaign that sought to connect redrock with Utah, first in the eyes of Westerners, then across the globe. Using the five majestic parks to invite tourists to the Beehive State was a no-brainer.

The ads were timed to drive visits in the spring and fall, to build tourism during periods that were then “shoulder” seasons to Utah’s busy summer and winter travel seasons. The campaign was designed to connect with people within driving distance of Utah because research indicated people vacationing at national parks tend to drive, rather than fly.

Struck’s artists and copywriters developed the composite images that were featured on urban structures in San Francisco, Denver, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Phoenix and Las Vegas. The campaign’s signature image stitched together geological features from each of the five parks, such as Zion’s Great White Throne, Bryce’s Thor’s Hammer and Arches’ Delicate Arch, along with the Mighty 5 and “Life Elevated” logos and the visitutah.com web address.

‘You will not forget this’

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Canyonlands National Park as seen from Orange Cliffs Overlook Wednesday August 24, 2016.

The wallscape on the Wilshire building was assembled from 90 hand-painted panels, offering a rare example of large outdoor advertising that beautified a city instead of just adding to the clutter of commercial messages that bombard most urban dwellers.

Another wallscape re-created Arches in a pedestrian tunnel — used by 2 million people a month — at San Francisco’s Montgomery Street BART station.

The campaign’s video ads first were run on broadcast television, then in subsequent years on cable networks such as CNN, ESPN and National Geographic.

One ad, viewed more than 800,000 times on YouTube, gives a flash tour of the five parks, each getting a 12-second treatment, shot with wide-angle lenses. Crepuscular light bathes trails that a family hikes and rides, gazing in awe. The conspicuously repetitive narration sounds like haiku and places the viewer squarely in these landscapes, opening with Zion Canyon.

“You’re walking. The ground rises. The ground drops. The ground becomes water,” the narrator says. “Next Bryce. You’re riding a mule, you’re riding a mule under giant drip orange castles. You are not dreaming. You will not forget this.”

Nor will you forget that ad, especially if you are unfamiliar with the Colorado Plateau’s otherworldly wonders sculpted in sandstone. The Office of Tourism’s own marketing analysis concluded the campaign was exposed to 5.75 million in its first year and drove up visitation by 375,000 at the parks.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Using a different methodology, Jakus’ USU team, which included Tatiana Drugova an Man-Keun Kim, drew a nearly identical conclusion, but was able to provide numbers for each park.

Visitation at each of Utah’s five parks began accelerating in 2013, as was the case across the national park system as a whole. Jakus’ team sought to “disentangle” the effect of Mighty 5 from other factors that propel park visitation, namely gasoline prices, weather, distance from a metropolitan area, the park’s budget and the year it was established.

Their method predicted what the Utah park visitation would have been in the absence of the Mighty 5 campaign, then compared that with actual visitation for the three years after the campaign’s launch in 2013. They based their predictions on a complex comparison with recorded changes in visitation at the other 49 national parks.

“Over the three-year post-intervention period, our models predict an annual average of roughly 500,000 additional visits to Utah’s national parks as a direct result of the Mighty 5 promotional effort,” the team wrote in the study. “A more interesting result is the response of tourists to the Mighty 5 campaign: Two of Utah’s most congested national parks (Bryce Canyon and Zion NPs) did not have a statistically significant response, whereas two of Utah’s more remote and lightly visited national parks did (Canyonlands and Capitol Reef NPs).”

In this regard, Mighty 5 accomplished exactly what tourism officials also had hoped — raising the profiles of Utah’s more famous parks and leveraging those gains to boost the profiles of the lesser-known parks.

Utah’s ‘Eiffel Tower'

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Hikers rest on the Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park in 2009.

Celebrating its park centennial this year, Zion not only is Utah’s oldest national park, but also its most well known and closest to a major metropolitan area, only 159 miles from Las Vegas. Jakus said these and factors outside Mighty 5 explain Zion’s 59 percent climb in visitation since 2013.

But the campaign did far more than draw attention to the parks, according to Varela, of the state tourism office. “The Mighty 5 helped people understand southern Utah is a destination where Mother Nature played favorites,” Varela said. “People don’t need to come here just for the Mighty 5 parks. There are wonderful places in between."

In the face of park crowding, Utah’s promotion of redrock country is undergoing an overhaul that emphasizes quality of experience over quantity of visitors.

“It is such an important evolution,” Varela said. “Mighty 5 was like the Eiffel Tower. It created a brand about Paris, but it is not the reason people go to Paris anymore."

Highlighting the “Road to Mighty,” the Red Emerald campaign directs visitors to other places that are worth a prolonged stay and support a variety of enriching activities.

“We now have the luxury of targeting our customers more carefully. That’s what the ‘between’ ads do,” Varela said. “We want people who will come back repeatedly, spend more money, get off the beaten path, and treat our public lands with respect.”

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Visitors take pictures and hike around Delicate Arch in Arches National Park Saturday March 5, 2016.