BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK – Hundreds of 2015 Utah Tourism Conference attendees gathered at the rim of Bryce Canyon Tuesday in the chilly October twilight to listen to keynote speaker Gov. Gary Herbert and enjoy a cowboy dinner by the fire.
The governor’s arrival was just a little behind schedule, but that didn’t keep the masses away from the spectacular setting overlooking one of the three national parks that reside on the edges of Garfield County – Bryce Canyon, Capital Reef and Canyonlands.
Shortly before the three-day conference’s opening reception began, the storm clouds that threatened to force the event indoors to a location with a much less fantastic view suddenly gave way to blue skies and sunshine.
Nearly 45 minutes past his anticipated arrival time, the smiling governor made his way to the stage at the canyon’s rim, ready to educate the audience about Utah’s abundant economic growth –growth that is, in part, largely attributed to the flourishing tourism industry within the state.
“We still have pockets of our state that still are hurting for a variety of reasons we need to address and not forget,” Herbert said. “But I appreciate the fact that we’re having great success in tourism and travel, and (it’s) about a $7.8 billion dollar industry that, here in Utah, creates about 130,000-plus jobs.”
The governor went on to tell the audience that Chinese Ambassador Cui Tianki visited with him Monday and assured him that next year would be the year of the Chinese tourist in Utah.
“And he told me why,” Herbert said. “… He did have an appreciation that a third of all of the Mandarin Chinese being taught in America is being taught in Utah.”
The multilingual culture in Utah combined with the spectacular landscapes across the state, he said, make Utah’s tourism opportunities the best in the world.
“It’s good to be No. 1,” he said. “It’s nice to have everybody kind of nipping at our heels, and you have to run to keep up because the competition is keen.”
Vicki Varela, Utah Office of Tourism managing director of tourism, film and global branding, said that since serious industry marketing began in 2005, Utah has seen a 44 percent growth in tourism.
“Other states have grown about 35 (to) 36 percent in that same time period,” she said. “We like to say that Mother Nature played favorites – we’ve got more than our share of amazing natural resources, and so we have a real opportunity.”
One recent campaign, the “Mighty 5,” highlighted five of Utah’s national parks, according to a press release.
Collectively, the campaign has brought more than 7 million visitors each year to the parks, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Interior Department, the release reported.
“As an industry, tourism supports one out of every 10 jobs in Utah and infuses an estimated $7.4 billion into Utah’s economy every year through traveler spending, according to a 2014 study from the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Utah,” the press release said.
The annual Utah Tourism Conference has been a tradition for well over 10 years, Varela said, explaining the event is hosted by the Utah Office of Tourism and the Utah Tourism Industry Association in a different location every year. Ruby’s Inn in Bryce was chosen more than a year ago as the venue for the 2015 Utah Tourism Conference, she said.
The educational retreat is designed to bring together professionals in the field of tourism from all over the state, giving them the opportunity to share tips for success with one another. Drawing employees from hotels, restaurants, regional tourism offices, tour operations, ski resorts and retail organizations, Varela said, the goal is to offer networking opportunities and engaging educational experiences.
“It’s the only time the entire industry gathers to exchange notes on best practices,” she said. “We bring in national speakers. It’s the industry gathering where we solidify the goals that we are working on together and make sure that there’s broad understanding of all the programs that are available to help people achieve their marketing goals.”
Planning for an event of this size is an arduous task, Ruby’s Inn General Manager of Operations Lance Syrett said, explaining that it took six months of consistent planning and an entire committee to host this year’s conference.
“This is big logistically for us,” Syrett said. “You know, we’re a very tourism, leisure-oriented destination, so to put on a big conference, a big event like this, it takes a lot of logistical planning.”
Several years back, the conference took place in Park City, Syrett said, where an event like the tourism conference might be “small beans” to a community that hosts hundreds of thousands of tourists a year in much larger hotels than those found in Bryce.
While at the conference that year, he said, Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock predicted to him that one year it would be at Ruby’s Inn.
“I thought he was nuts,” Syrett said. “There’s no way we could pull this off – because, you know, even back then it was big.”
The weather held out for the duration of the night, as professionals from across the state ate the authentic “cowboy style” dinner and enjoyed the music provided until the sun was nowhere in sight. As the starry night evolved, the crowd quickly began retreating to the warmth of their rooms, full on a night of fun, learning and s’mores roasted by the fire.
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