ST. GEORGE — For states that rely heavily on tourist dollars to stay above the high water mark fiscally, COVID-19 has become a game-changer.
For the foreseeable future, economists say digging out from the hard times the pandemic brought is going to take steady leadership, the bravery to make hard choices and the ability not to give in to the council of fear.
Although some local businesses have shuttered their doors for good, the state’s universal attraction to its wealth of natural beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities will see visitors return in record-breaking numbers, said Natalie Randall, Utah Tourism Industry Association’s new executive director.
Tourist attractions like Zion National Park, the quaint rural towns and ski resorts that dot the Beehive State and the draw to larger metro areas will bring people to Utah.
“To be able to help people both on a mental and physical level to have access to our open spaces is important,” Randall said. “The visitor economy before the pandemic in 2019 represented $10 billion, supported more than 100,000 jobs and contributed to the state and local tax revenues particularly in the rural areas of the state.”
The Utah Tourism Industry Association is the umbrella organization and advocate for the state’s visitor economy.
The goal, Randall said, is to work hand-in-hand with the Utah Office of Tourism, county destination marketing organizations such as the Greater Zion and Tourism Office, Ski Utah and other industry organizations that represent outfitters, restaurants, attractions and lodging.
“There is a fine balance to bring visitors in to support our economy and contribute to the state’s quality of life elements, while still preserving the small-town feel,” she said.
Southern Utah is becoming much more than a waypoint for travelers to fill gas tanks or grab a quick meal – it’s becoming a destination to plan for the journey, she said.
“Our association is the voice for tourism, which also includes restaurants, hotels and car rental agencies that have been significantly impacted by COVID,” Randall said. “But, it also includes the impact to local and visitors convention bureaus, economic development agencies and key industry stakeholders throughout Utah.”
The number one initiative to move forward, Randall said, is to work collaboratively.
“All voices need to be united with a common goal … not only to recreate in our state but to invest in the economies and communities they are visiting,” she said.
Randall stresses the need not only for visitors to shop, eat and buy locally but for Utah residents as well.
“Maybe we all need to spend a couple of nights at a local hotel or eat at a local restaurant to support them,” she said. “The key element to reinvigorate Utah is to shop locally – at a mom and pop shop who really are our neighbors. Right now, we need to start strategically planning for the future of our visitor economy and how it dovetails into economic development … moving out of COVID.”
A vibrant tourism industry, she added, can be the “welcome mat” for future residential and economic growth.
“What we will need is visitors spending more days in the region … building consumer confidence in the area and investing in our economy,” Randall said. “There is hope for the future. I think we will come out of the hard times and tourism will become a stronger industry because we’ve had to learn to band together, pivot on so many of the norms and get creative with how we do business.”
Randall said she sees more of a collaborative effort needed to nurture conversations between the tourism industry and “traditional” economic development planning.
Kevin Lewis, director for the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office applauded Randall’s direction to sustain and increase the state’s tourism industry.
Randall understands, Lewis said, the political issues, the needs of tourists and how critical all of that is to Utah. She also “lives and breathes” the job she’s doing, he said.
“She’s not too affected by the challenges of COVID,” Lewis added. “She is grounded in the collaborative effort and how communities need to effectively work with state and national organizations to survive.”
The fundamental issue is getting everyone on the same page, which is a “pretty little dance,” Lewis said. “It’s a different type of demographic and a different type of visitor now. For long-term success, we need to focus on visitors who really care about the places they are coming to.”
Tourism is not about just breaking away for the day – although that is still an important component – Lewis added, but “it’s important to send a message to a different subset of visitors of how important our natural resources are and how important it is to have stewardship over them.”
Randall’s career moves have put her in a good position to adapt to the challenges.
Her resume includes a governor’s appointment to the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation and director of San Juan County Economic Development and Visitor Services where she led a re-branding campaign, implemented destination development initiatives and worked with numerous partners to enhance the “positive impact” of the visitor economy.
Born and raised in Falls Church, Virginia, Randall moved west to attend Brigham Young University – Idaho where she graduated with a degree in exercise physiology.
“It was a good change,” she said. “At a young age, I knew I wanted to come out west.”
In high school, Randall had visions of becoming an architect, but life had other designs.
The road to becoming the executive director with the Utah Tourism Industry Association was a “unique career evolution,” she said.
Eventually, she moved to Salt Lake City and accepted a position at the University of Utah in the Neuro Rehab Unit working in adaptive recreation for spinal cord injury patients retraining the use of their bodies through hand-cycling, sit-skiing, kayaking, sailing and mountain boarding.
As her career unfolded, Randall decided Utah was the ideal place to follow her love of everything that nature had to offer so she made another “smart” career move with Monticello City Parks, Recreation, Trails and Community Development Department.
Although she now finds herself a smaller fish in a bigger pond, the responsibilities are the same.
“It is an honor to be selected as the executive director for my new position in Utah,” Randall said. “The tourism economy in Utah is a key piece to the state’s overall thriving economy, and I’m excited for the opportunity to share this message and story of the industry. From rural to urban communities, tourism supports the vibrancy and the many flavors of all our communities. We’re fortunate to live in a state that so many people want to come and visit.”
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.