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At 25, Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau masters a sustainable brand

Published: 05/02/2009
Perhaps there is no better way to mark the 25th anniversary of the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau than to gain the global housekeeping seal of approval from Meeting Professionals International (MPI), the world's largest association for the event and convention industry, which will hold in SLC its annual World Education Congress this summer.

And, while the 2008 MPI meeting in Las Vegas drew more than 4,500 representatives from 33 nations, it is anticipated that the SLC gathering will even be larger as convention industry professionals focus more deeply and broadly on the economic and social rationales of corporate responsibility and environmental sustainability in their activities.

And, building wisely upon the legacy of the 2002 Winter Olympics, the bureau's explicit commitments to sustainability define what undoubtedly is shaping the future of the area's convention and tourism industries, according to Scott Beck, bureau president and CEO. More so, especially in a metropolitan area surrounded by spectacular scenery and venues for outdoor recreation suitable for every season of the year, Beck makes it clear that sustainability "is not a fad" but an indispensable ingredient in the convention and tourism culture in Salt Lake City.

That sense of commitment also extends to visiting convention planners and attendees increasingly mindful that community service projects are a gracious and effective way of thanking their host cities. Attendees, for example, at the July MPI meeting will participate in a community service project along the Jordan River Parkway as part of Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon's 10-year, 1-million tree planting program - in cooperation with TreeUtah - as part of a larger carbon offset initiative which the bureau already has activated.

Beck and his staff have taken the lead, getting the word out to virtually every sector of the convention and event industry that must deal more frequently with the challenges of planning an environmentally responsible association-wide meeting. "We feel it's critical to not only offer such programs for our visitors, but to actively participate and show our stewardship for the environment and our future, particularly in Salt Lake where we're literally surrounded by nature," Beck explains. "For just $5, you can purchase a seedling that will help offset half a ton of carbon. Imagine the impact 1 million trees will have over time, not only to the atmosphere, but to our community as a whole."

Undoubtedly, good karma also leads to significant economic benefits. For the bureau, this means convention business traffic keeping a respectable pace, especially given current economic conditions, with 2008, the 2nd-biggest year in the quarter century history for booking future conventions. The spending impact for conventions current and future in 2008 was an estimated $325 million, the best since the two years immediately preceding the Winter Games. The totals were up more than 40 percent from the previous year and two and a half times from 2003.

From a modest start in 1984 with $11 million convention revenue and 38,000 booked hotel nights, the bureau has gained a distinguished reputation, thanks first to the leadership of Rick Davis and, then, Dianne Nelson Binger, who died in 2005 of cancer, and now Beck, who came from the hotel industry.

Most significantly, though, the bureau is engendering the right type of branding exercise, bringing together various dimensions of internal and external perceptions and cultivating a breadth and depth of perspective leading to genuine, smartly positioned messages which inform and entertain. Beck and his staff - with the richly informed counsel of an executive committee and board who are community and business leaders in their own right - are capitalizing upon a promising portfolio of strategic advantages.

Some are simply straightforward. The proximity of the airport to downtown - an easy short taxi ride comfortably coming under $20 for fare, tax and tip - remains an important fundamental, Beck notes. Recently, the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Expo, which had scheduled its meeting in Reno for 2011, switched to Salt Lake City and may do so again in 2013 and 2015. Many who were traveling into Reno were connecting through the SLC airport and the city's advantage became immediately apparent.

Add in the $58 million expansion to the convention facilities from a few years ago which now affords more than 675,000 square feet of space. With a rapidly growing list of major conventions that garner widespread media attention not just locally but also nationally and internationally, Salt Lake City is proving it can readily accommodate gatherings of 10,000, 15,000, and 20,000 or more, Beck explains.

Of course, the Outdoor Industry Association has long held its two shows annually in SLC. As an example of the impact, the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research studied the outdoor retailer winter market in 2008 which had nearly 17,400 participants. The impact for the four-day event is impressive on all levels: 15,703 visitors coming from outside of Salt Lake County, commercial room nights totaling 41,272, total spending more than $13 million, earnings equivalent to more than 260 jobs, and tax effects of more than $1.3 million.

The capacity to carry the logistics for the large-scale outdoor retailer shows has been extended to other meetings as well that reflect the state's capacity for a diverse, innovative economy. In late March, one of the largest science gatherings in the U.S. for 2009 was held in SLC for the American Chemical Society, which brought in more than 11,000 scientists and 7,200 presentations. The facilities expansion also came at a particularly opportune time for the Rotary International Convention when it switched its 2007 location from New Orleans, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, to Salt Lake City, which had originally been slated to host the more than 20,000 attendees in 2011. Press reports consistently indicated that Rotary officials were impressed how Salt Lake was able to be organized on short notice.

The most recent changes in the state's liquor laws - frequently described and explained in The Selective Echo as an essential step to normalizing the liquor culture surrounding the Utah hospitality industry and to reformulating perceptions about the availability of liquor - provide yet further impetus for building organically the city's and county's capacities to be the Intermountain West region leader for the convention industry.

"The most astute visitors have always known that our liquor laws were a barrier to the perception about getting a drink in Utah," Beck explains, adding, however, that the perception had stuck so persistently with many professionals in the meeting and event planning industry. This, Beck says, occasionally took SLC and the state out of serious consideration as an effective destination.

Another far-reaching advantage has been the bureau's capacity for integrating the area's long-standing strengths of tourism into its services. Tens and tens of thousands of skiers and snowboarders have taken advantage of the bureau's Ski Salt Lake Super Pass for a dozen years now and these passes are good for Alta, Snowbird, Brighton or Solitude. The bureau also offers a Visit Salt Lake Connect Pass, which allows locals and visitors a streamlined way to enjoy many of the area's top attractions in both urban and natural settings.

No doubt, all of these elements comprise an appealing brand. However, a video presented by Beck at last year's MPI meeting in Las Vegas zeroed in on the heart of the SLCVB brand with just the right humor, information, and, yes, flamboyance. Following a cue from the popular "The Office" series, the video features an almost-excessively bubbly, efficient, sassy yet friendly receptionist - who effectively plays up all of the familiar perceptions about Utahns - and a tired, jaded convention planner who's desperate to find the appropriate venue for his meeting. The video epitomizes the "surprisingly different" experience of Salt Lake. Indeed, a refreshing take on an essential engine of economic development whose management staff members undoubtedly are poised to write the next great chapter of the bureau's history.

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