Downtown Salt Lake City businesses look forward to the boost that the fall General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will give them as they shake off the dust from years of pandemic.
After more than two years of COVID-19 restrictions, reduced operations and temporary closures, many businesses are getting back to their typical capacity or even surpassing it.
They hope to see an added rush during conference, though seating in downtown’s Conference Center still will be limited due to the ongoing construction on and around Temple Square. During the pandemic, the sessions were either all-virtual or at greatly reduced capacity.
Conference weekend is “like a Christmas season. … It’s incredibly busy,” said Christa Morgan, the store manager at the nearby Deseret Book in City Creek Center who has been with the LDS Church-owned chain for 18 years. Typically the store sees a jump in visitors for about a week surrounding conference, Morgan said, thanks to longer-distance guests who stretch out their trips to Utah.
“Like the rest of the world,” the bookshop is comparing life “pre-COVID and post-COVID,” Morgan said. The store saw about half the traffic it saw pre-pandemic. “April was our first time being open in a couple of years.”
During the spring conference — after four straight all-virtual gatherings — the church allowed 10,000 tickets for each of the five sessions (half of normal for the in-person event) and “it was fabulous,” Morgan said, but the surge in visitors “still wasn’t the level we had had planned on previously.”
With so many travelers visiting for conferences, the bookshop is something of a “store to the world,” Morgan said. The downtown Deseret Book sports a wall map where visitors can put pins to mark where they’re from, she said, “and it’s very rewarding and exciting” for them to see those pins “all across the country, all over the world.”
As for what that shopping looks like during that time, Deseret Book sells a lot of smaller items that can make it back in a suitcase. Touristy trinkets, Christmas statues and jewelry are popular, Morgan said, because it can be easier for visitors to get books online.
Deseret Book’s flagship outlet also “greatly increase[s] our Spanish titles during that time,” she said, and brings on multilingual staffers that week to accommodate international guests.
Outside of trinkets, conferencegoers often spend their money between sessions on lunch or dinner, making restaurants among the main draws.
“We definitely see increased traffic, primarily after the Saturday [night] meeting but also during lunches,” said Fred Moesinger, the owner of Caffe Molise, an Italian restaurant at 404 S. West Temple, along with the BTG Wine Bar.
Business is steady enough that Caffe Molise staffers don’t necessarily plan for the conference, but “the patronage is always welcome and appreciated,” Moesinger said. Without alcohol sales, he added, the attendees tend to spend less. (Latter-day Saints are taught to abstain from alcohol.)
“We do get a lot of business” during conference, particularly being so close to the faith’s temple, said Giro Messeri, general manager at Spencer’s for Steaks and Chops. The upscale restaurant serves lunch and dinner, and sources its meat locally, he said. He described the restaurant as an area “staple.” And since it’s located in the city center Hilton, many conference attendees are already staying there.
“It’s fun to see people from all over the world coming here,” Messeri said, noting the restaurant was already getting bookings in August for conference time.
So far, the year has been a record for Spencer’s. “We’ve seen more business than ever,” he said. Though rising prices and inflation could blunt that post-pandemic growth, the restaurant is earning about 25% more this year than it did in 2019.
Even when the two days of General Conference don’t mark a big payday for a businesses, they can still pay off in other ways, said Liza Whitehurst, director of marketing for Gourmandise, a cafe and bakery that has served Salt Lake City for more than 30 years and has since added locations in Draper, the Salt Lake City International Airport and American Fork.
That weekend “creates a lot of excitement and buzz around the city,” Whitehurst said. “It brings in a lot of new people who might not frequent downtown Salt Lake City as much, which can bring in new customers and new faces to our restaurants.”
Gourmandise is still running into supply chain and labor issues, but it has recovered from the pandemic to see its best year yet in 2022, Whitehurst said. Gourmandise and other restaurants have noticed that the uptick in demand for dining “hasn’t really slowed down” since the easing of coronavirus restrictions.
Earlier in the pandemic it was “impossible to even get staff,” she said. Now restaurants have workers but sometimes have trouble retaining them. So Gourmandise upped its minimum wage for servers to $15 an hour.
Regardless of why traffic to restaurants has seen such a sustained rise, October’s General Conference will only further bless their bottom lines.
Leto Sapunar is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.