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Greater Salt Lake City: CROSSROADS OF THE WEST

Published: 09/22/2009
John Anderson, Smart Meetings -- We've all heard that flat is the new up, with businesses and meeting planners adjusting to an economy that's more about sustaining revenue than growing it.

Assuming that's the case, then bland might just be the new wow, pleasingly plump the new slim and, if the hotel folks in Utah have their say, Salt Lake City the new Las Vegas. And while no one will mistake "The Entertainment Capital of the World" (as Vegas bills itself) for the capital of the Beehive State-you won't find mammoth casinos, a faux New York City or miles of neon in Salt Lake City-there are plenty of advantages for not being Las Vegas these days.

First and foremost is the negative perception of holding a meeting at a posh resort or a too-fun destination like Vegas. With the eyes of the world (not to mention company shareholders and corporate boards) trained on meetings and events like never before, many meeting planners are looking for locales that are perceived as being more about business than pleasure. And while there is growing pushback to that sentiment, with the federal government recently dropping its blacklist of certain destinations for meetings, the tide has yet to turn.

Enter Salt Lake City. Perceived as a quieter city in a conservative state, the area has all the airlift and infrastructure to handle meetings and events of almost any type and size, without the over-the-top flashiness of a resort or vacation destination that some planners are currently wary of. The city took a big leap forward by playing host to the 2002 Winter Olympics, and now has more hotel rooms, revamped meeting space and an expanded world-class venue in the 675,000-square-foot Salt Palace Convention Center.

"We haven't had that problem, we've had the opposite problem," says Scott Beck, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau, when asked how the negative perception of meetings has affected them. "We have the sense that we're the non-boondoggle destination. Most of our hotels, the Marriotts and Hiltons, haven't felt the big effect. Because of the market and who we are, we've been insulated from it-we haven't had to address it head on as if we were a beach location or Las Vegas."

Of course, implying that the Greater Salt Lake area is anything less than fun will lead to an earful on the many diversions, attractions and activities available in the area for keeping attendees busy and entertained outside of their meetings. The Wasatch Mountains provide a stunning backdrop to the city, and are close enough for half-day excursions to one of four world-class ski resorts, including Alta Ski Area, Brighton Ski Resort, Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort and Solitude Mountain Resort. Mountain golf abounds in the area as well, with nearby city courses such as Wingpointe and Bonneville, while combining ski and golf in a single day is not uncommon during the shoulder seasons.

"The mountains offer a nice opportunity for people to get up into them," and take advantage of the many activities, says Shawn Stinson, director of communications at the Salt Lake CVB, who lists the upcoming Oktoberfest at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort as a popular mountain event. "We kicked off a new Golf Salt Lake Super Pass. Salt Lake is not known as a golf destination (like Orlando), but it's a nice amenity to a meeting here. You can get a Super Pass for $47 for a round of golf. And you can book tee times 60 days in advance as opposed to typically one week. So if planners want to plan ahead they can get the Golf Salt Lake Super Pass and their attendees can play any one of 10 courses around Salt Lake County," Stinson says. The pass also comes with golf cart rental, a small bucket of range balls and a discount on golf club rentals.

Besides the many outdoor activities found in the area, Greater Salt Lake, along with the rest of Utah, is slowly shedding the concept that getting a drink in the city is fraught with difficulty. In March, the Utah state legislature passed sweeping changes to the state's long-time liquor laws, doing away with the private club system that required all patrons, including out-of-town visitors, to purchase a membership to enter a bar. The new laws took effect in July. It was a quirky system that left many visitors confused, and gave the impression that the state wanted to put a damper on having fun.

"It's incredible. The change on some level has been small and insignificant, but that's from an operational level," says Beck, of the Salt Lake CVB. "It's something that everyone has wanted to talk about, from Smart Meetings to the New York Times. The one part that is monumental is for the people coming to visit, this has really opened their eyes that Salt Lake is a much more urban destination, and not so dry, white and Mormon. That's a story that's hard to tell without the right voice for it."

Stinson agrees that it now makes Salt Lake a typical destination in the eyes of visitors. "I think as more visitors come to Utah they will appreciate that our liquor laws are normal. A bar is a bar, and now there's no need for private club memberships. It's more a perception hurdle than a reality hurdle, but it's nice to have it done away with," he says.

At MPI
Salt Lake City played host to MPI's World Education Congress this past July, and took full advantage of the opportunity to showcase the area to the 2,300 meeting industry professionals in attendance. From the opening reception at Library Square and Project Bandaloop's acrobatic performance on the side of a downtown building, to featured speaker Ben Stein, jazz in the park and closing ceremonies at Red Butte Gardens with the band Smash Mouth, the conference was by all measures a success.

"Without beating our drum too loudly, every component from our perspective could not have gone better; the weather even cooperated," Stinson says. "I think we did a nice job of showing off Salt Lake. We had rave reviews from all the attendees we came in contact with. We were thrilled with it, and it'll be interesting to see how Vancouver [next year's host] does after the Olympics. Everyone was proud of how Salt Lake pulled it off."

As far as any residual effect from the event, the CVB estimates the direct economic impact to be more than $2 million, but with even greater results to come. "It was an investment in the long-term business of Salt Lake's meetings. It strengthened the perception and put Salt Lake on the radar for many planners and attendees. Attendance was right around 2,300, not the 4,000 that Vegas garnered last year, but that was to be expected with the economy. But it was well received," Stinson says.

Salt Lake City
The capital and largest city in Utah, Salt Lake City is the business and cultural center of the state with a metro area population of more than 1 million. Located in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains in the northeast corner of Utah, Salt Lake is also known as the Crossroads of the West for the first Transcontinental Railroad that was completed nearby in 1869, turning the area into a boomtown fueled by its profitable mining industry.

A more recent surge came as a result of the Olympics in 2002, which besides the expanded hotel stock, boosted the convention center's ability to handle a large and computer savvy crowd-serving as the media headquarters during the games for 10,000 members of the press. As a result, the center was the first in the U.S. to offer wireless Internet throughout its facilities, with the ability to run up to 6,000 computers concurrently.

The Salt Palace is also silver LEED-certified after a $58-million expansion in 2006, and has 515,000 sq. ft. of contiguous event space, including a 45,000-square-foot ballroom. The games also spurred construction of the TRAX light rail system that has 28 stations and 19 miles of track in and around downtown. There are another 19 stations currently under construction, as well as an additional line to the airport that is expected to open in early 2012. "That'll be a nice development, so people can go from the terminal to their hotel," says Mark White, vice president of sales for the Salt Lake CVB.

Once downtown, attendees will find that Salt Lake's convention district is well-suited for meetings groups. A 10-minute ride from the airport, with hundreds of flights a day and nonstop service to 90 cities, the area boasts 6,975 hotel rooms and more than 170 restaurants, cafes and nightspots. And the future of the district looks even brighter with talks heating up on the construction of a large convention center hotel, according to Stinson. "From our perspective, it's the next evolution in our meeting and convention mix," he says. "We now have the convention center-a very large one for a city this size-so a convention center property makes the most sense."

For the 2,200 members of the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who held their convention at the Salt Palace in July, the convenience was a big selling point. "They had two or three hotels connecting or right across the street from the convention center that we used, and since our median age is around 60, walking distance is very important," says Linda McKinsey, director of meeting planning for the group, who praised the CVB's help and cooperation on everything from marketing to catering and the many side trips organized for attendees. "I'd go back, absolutely. I don't feel that way about every city. I really did enjoy working with them."

The city also offers a number of attractions, some of which also function as event venues, such as the Clark Planetarium in the Gateway District that can accommodate private groups up to 800.

Located on the campus of the University of Utah, the Utah Museum of Fine Art is the state's premier art museum and is available for groups up to 300, as well as housing the 263-seat Dumke Auditorium. Also on campus is the Utah Museum of Natural History, which can be used by groups up to 900, while construction continues on a new facility-the Utah Museum of Natural History at the Rio Tinto Center-to be completed at the end of 2010.

Meetings Venues
Besides the Salt Palace, the city also offers the South Towne Exposition Center located in the South Valley area of the city, with 243,000 sq. ft. of contiguous exhibit space and nine meeting rooms. Downtown has a number of large properties, including The Grand America Hotel, the only Five-Diamond hotel in Salt Lake, featuring 775 guest rooms and 80,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Across the street from the Salt Palace is the Hilton Salt Lake City Center, with 499 guest rooms and 24,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. And for a boutique hotel experience, the historic Peery Hotel offers 73 guest rooms and 4,200 sq. ft. of meeting space. There are two Marriotts in the city, including the Salt Lake City Marriott Downtown across from the Salt Palace, with 515 guest rooms and 22,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Ogden
A 40-minute drive north of Salt Lake City is the city of Ogden, a one-time railroad hub known in earlier times as a rough-and-tumble place that was too wild even for Al Capone. These days, the main attraction is historic 25th Street, lined with popular restaurants and shops, as well as the Ogden Amphitheater and the Utah State Railroad Museum.

For meetings venues, the most prominent is the 50,000-square-foot Ogden Eccles Conference Center and adjoining 850-seat Peery's Egyptian Theater, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Ogden also has several meetings hotel options, including the 292-room Marriott Ogden Hotel with 16,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and the Wolf Creek Utah with 27 guest rooms and event space for up to 700.

Davis County
Just to the south of Ogden is the city of Layton in Davis County, represented by the Davis Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. With the Great Salt Lake immediately to the west, the area is a popular destination for visitors to Antelope Island State Park, which features free-roaming herds of bison, antelope, big horn sheep and mule deer. The county is also the location of the Davis Conference Center, the largest such facility in the area with 70,000 sq. ft. of event space, including a 12,562-square-foot ballroom.

"Our conference center is still very new-we just did a $10-million expansion that opened last year in May," says Kathi Dysert, director of sales and marketing at the Davis Area CVB. "This area has been one of fastest growing areas of Utah for the last decade. We're relatively unknown, but once we get people here, they're amazed at the beauty and with everything Davis County has to offer. They're biggest problem is how they're going to do everything that we have to offer here."

Park City
If Salt Lake City gets a bad rap for being a less-than-sizzling destination, no one can blame Park City for doing its part to rev up the fun factor. The famed ski area and town, located a short drive from downtown Salt Lake within the Wasatch Mountain range and represented by the Park City Chamber & Visitors Bureau, has been attracting skiers to its world-class slopes for decades, including such resorts as The Canyons, Deer Valley Resort and Park City Mountain Resort. A primary venue for many of the events of the 2002 Olympics, the city is also home to the Olympic Winter Sports Park, which is available for tours and offers a 225-seat theater and the Quinney Conference Room for groups up to 70.

Meetings properties in the area include The Yarrow Resort Hotel & Conference Center, with 181 guest rooms and 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, as well as the Stein Eriksen Lodge, which offers 180 guest rooms and 6,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The latest news for the area is the July opening of the Dakota Mountain Lodge, a Waldorf Astoria property, which features 175 guest rooms and three boardrooms for meetings, with 15,000 sq. ft. of meeting space still to come. Another property on the horizon is the 181-room St. Regis Deer Crest Resort, which is set to open this fall with 8,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Utah Valley
Just south of Salt Lake City along Interstate 15 is Utah Valley, represented by the Utah Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau. While Provo is the largest city in the valley, the most well-known property is the Sundance Resort, with 102 guest rooms and suites, seven mountain homes and 10,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space. The resort is owned by actor Robert Redford, and also shares its name with the famed Sundance Film Festival, which takes place in the area every January.

Other significant properties in the valley include the Provo Marriott & Conference Center, which has 330 guest rooms and 28,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The hotel will eventually sit next to the coming Utah County Convention Center, which is set to break ground in early 2010 and will offer 50,000 sq. ft. of function space.

Getting There
Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) has more than 900 flights a day with nonstop service to 90 cities. The airport is a 10-minute drive from downtown Salt Lake City and serves as the primary transport hub for northern Utah. From the airport to Layton in Davis County is 20 minutes, to Ogden is 40 minutes and to Park City is 45 minutes.

Not To Be Missed

* The 135 species of birds at Tracy Aviary in Liberty Park in Salt Lake City
* Swimming in the super saline waters of the Great Salt Lake in Davis County
* A visit to the Shooting Star Saloon, founded in 1879 and Utah's oldest continuously operating bar, just outside of Ogden
* A Flying Aces show at the Olympic Winter Sports Park in Park City
* Dinner at Sundance Resort's Tree Room Restaurant in Utah Valley, Zagat Survey's top-rated restaurant in Utah

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