When Vicki Varela got a cold call from then-Gov. Gary Herbert over a decade ago asking her to take over the state’s Office of Tourism, she was surprised.
“I had never thought about tourism,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune. “In all my many years, I just had not thought about it as something that would call me.”
Little did Varela know that when she accepted the governor’s offer, she would direct the office over some of its most pivotal years and launch its ‘Mighty 5′ national parks campaign in 2013, which transformed tourism throughout the state.
“When we launched that campaign, we thought it was a really good ad. We didn’t understand that it was a really great ad,” Varela said. “We didn’t understand the way it would reframe Utah as an international bucket-list destination.”
“It redefined us in a way that we’re still learning and growing from. I compare it to the Eiffel Tower for Paris, in that it became a defining aspect of who we are,” she continued.
The soaring visitation received mixed reception from local communities, some of which didn’t have the infrastructure or plans in place to deal with the flood of tourists. In response, Varela said, the Office of Tourism began to take steps toward forming strategic plans for local communities and their new visitor economies.
Last week, Varela’s tenure came to an end. Natalie Randall, former executive director of the Utah Tourism Industry Association and former executive director of economic development and tourism in San Juan County, starts today.
There’s a lot on the horizon for the Office of Tourism and its new leader — think the potential of professional baseball and hockey, and even the Olympics.
“We need to be engaging as fellow communities, to interact and learn from how each of us have grown, whether it’s a developing visitor economy or a mature visitor economy,” Randall told The Tribune. “That’s part of our role as an office — to bridge that and to be the convening power for some of those conversations.”
‘I take credit, I take blame’
Varela became the managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism after the Winter Olympics of 2002 in Salt Lake City. Despite the games’ success, Utah still wasn’t on the map.
“If we showed visuals of the Salt Lake landscape with the mountains in the background, people would say, ‘oh, that’s gorgeous. I really want to ski Colorado,’” she said. “Then they’d see pictures of Arches and Bryce [Canyon], and people would say, ‘oh, that is so beautiful. I have got to get to Arizona.’”
The Mighty 5 campaign was an attempt to change that. It reframed Utah’s five national parks — Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion — as must-visit destinations.
It worked. In the following years, visitation to Utah’s national parks skyrocketed. There were more domestic and international tourists coming into the state than ever before.
“It became this defining thing about our state that over time, challenged us,” Varela said. “Because our success was beyond our imaginations, it challenged us to figure out how to pivot to create what I call a perpetual visitor economy.”
One area that has become synonymous with a “perpetual visitor economy” is Moab. When the Office of Tourism launched the Mighty 5 campaign, the former uranium town and gateway to two national parks didn’t have a plan — just unparalleled natural features.
Now, the town is one of the state’s most visited — for better or for worse. Other communities that have expressed an interest in growing their outdoor recreation and visitor economies look at Moab as an example of what they don’t want to become.
Varela’s Office of Tourism reacted to that unintended side effect by trying to work with gateway towns across the state to build out visitor economies tailored to each community.
“One community’s definition of ‘enough’ or ‘too much’ may be very different from another community’s definition,” Varela said.
“We are not just turning on the spigot and counting numbers,” she continued. “We are deeply invested in doing this right for the long term.”
Varela added that there’s also more to be done at a national level to get greater investment in national parks that could help with managing visitation and aiding locals.
But at the state level, it’s clear that Utah’s growth isn’t slowing. People aren’t just coming for vacation; they’re coming to live here — and the Office of Tourism has played a part in both phenomena.
“I take credit, I take blame — there’s no question about it, but many of [Utah’s new residents] are drawn to our natural environment,” Varela said. “Those changes are going to happen one way or the other.”
‘Finding the balance of visitors and Utahns’
As Randall takes the baton from Varela, she says she’s as focused on convincing Utahns to stay in-state as she is on keeping the visitors coming.
For example, she said she wants to take a closer look at Utah’s less busy seasons to diversify the times that visitors come into the state, “finding the balance of visitors and Utahns that are out there recreating as well.”
Her career kicked off in Monticello, where her husband had a guiding business. She learned more about Utah’s visitor economy and how to develop it at a time when there was a national spotlight on public lands in San Juan County.
“If any county could prepare me for this role, San Juan County was it — massive size, the largest county in the state, a dispersed population,” Randall said.
“It’s beautiful, but it’s super complex, how interconnected everyone is there,” she continued. “It led my leadership style and the way that I move forward with any policy discussions or conversations, to pause a little bit longer before we take any action. To take a minute and to listen a bit longer, and then being very deliberate with any outreach and engagement.”
Randall said that this intentionality can generate creative strategies for diversifying outdoor recreation and approaching visitation.
“The Office of Tourism is known for building a powerful brand. I think that’s something we will continue to do, but it’s not just about building a brand that visitors are inspired by and want as a result to come to the state and visit,” Randall said. “It’s also building a brand that builds state pride and pride of community, something that I can be proud of, that my kid can be proud of so so he will want to stay in the state.”