ST. GEORGE — The Electric Theater in St. George was abuzz with energy Thursday as various members of the Southern Utah tourism industry gathered for the area’s first “Southern Utah Tourism Summit.”
Organized by the managing team behind zionnationalpark.com and co-hosted by Washington County, the event was designed to unite the region’s private tourism sector, build bridges with the Utah Office of Tourism and the Utah Tourism Industry Association and create a space for conversation and a spirit of cooperation between various counties and businesses.
The event was planned and executed in just 50 days. Despite the short length of preparation, registration numbers were just shy of completely sold out. The number of people attending Thursday’s summit came in on par with the average attendance for most statewide tourism conferences across the nation, said Cody Adent, an organizer of the event.
“We were right within a statewide average in our first year and for only the southern region of Utah so I couldn’t be more enthused,” Adent said.
Summit attendees represented a mixture of government representatives from the state and Southern Utah counties, public and private businesses and marketing and media professionals, Adent said.
Speakers at the Southern Utah Tourism Summit also represented different entities of the tourism industry.
- Kaitlin Eskelson – executive director of the Utah Tourism Industry Association.
- Vicki Varela – managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism.
- Glenn Price – founder of Bondir.
- Fynn Glover – CEO of Roots Rated Media.
- Roger Brooks – president and CEO of Destination Marketing.
Brief remarks were also given by Washington County Commissioner Zachary Renstrom as well as Breck Dockstader, another organizer of the event.
Though each presentation was unique, the overwhelming message of the five speakers was how the different business entities and counties can and should work together to elevate and improve the visitor experience so guests want to stay longer, spend their money in the communities and ultimately come back time and time again.
The event provided an opportunity for all of the Southern Utah area tourism industry to gather under one roof and hear and share ideas of how to create a better offering for their guests and how to do it together.
“I think collaboration is big and that’s what this conference was,” Brooks said, “because what happens is, most of these places in Southern Utah are competing with each other and that’s stupid.”
For event organizers, one of the biggest takeaways of the summit – especially given the successful turnout – was that businesses and individuals in the area are eager and willing to collaborate to elevate the visitor experience, Adent said.
Travel and tourism is a vital part of economic development for the state. In 2016 travelers spent $8.4 billion in Utah, Varela said in her address. Of the $8.4 billion, $1.226 billion was tax revenue, which equals $1,226 in tax relief per Utah household.
But increased tourism – driven in large part by the Utah Office of Tourism’s wildly successful “Mighty 5” campaign – is not without its pitfalls. Utah’s national parks, particularly Arches and Zion, have been plagued by overcrowding to the point that both parks may have to consider a reservation system and/or increased visitor fees.
Read more: 2016 St. George News Series “Zion National Park traffic jam”
- Zion National Park traffic jam: A closer look at the overcrowding problem
- Zion National Park traffic jam: A look at official ideas for better parking, access
- Zion National Park traffic jam: A look at busing considerations, shuttle upgrades
- Zion National Park traffic jam: A look at ideas for limiting number of visitors
One of the ways the Utah Office of Tourism is addressing overcrowding and other issues is through a relatively new strategy called The Red Emerald Initiative. The initiative acts as a guiding principal for Utah tourism, focusing on attracting quality visitors who stay longer, spend more and engage more deeply with the local community.
The initiative also looks at ways to distribute traveler visitation throughout Utah and encourages a community-led vision for tourism development, information from the Utah Office of Tourism website said.
Varela said in her address that she wants to be the tourism director who saw the problems and showed leadership and initiative to fix the problems.
“Our challenges are still big enough to see and small enough to fix,” she said.
Kevin Lewis, the newly appointed director of tourism for Washington County, told St. George News that the future of Southern Utah is bright but as of yet still undefined.
“I just think the door is open for us,” he said. “We have so much opportunity, you know, we are a well-known brand, but what we really need to do now is define our future.”
Lewis added that collaboration is going to be the best path to solving the area’s troubles.
“And they are good troubles to have,” Lewis said. “We have popularity … and a community that is energized by nature, inspired by achievement and rewarded through the opportunities in tourism and outdoor recreation.”
Lewis was previously the director of the St. George Area Sports Commission.
“What Southern Utah has, nobody in North America can compete with,” Brooks said. “It is literally that good.”
The high praise came with a caveat that what the industry has to do now is deliver on the high expectations of travelers so that they stay longer, spend their dollars in the communities and come back again.
The Southern Utah Tourism Summit is a proud supporter of the Zion National Park Forever Project, the official nonprofit partner of Zion National Park. Guests registering for the summit had the option to donate money to help support the organization’s many park improvement programs.
Through donations and matching, event organizer’s were able to present the Zion National Park Forever Project with a check for $2,250.
The summit was designed with the intent of becoming an annual event that rotates destinations throughout the Southern Utah counties.
The 2019 conference will be hosted in Iron County.
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