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Greater Salt Lake and Beyond: Where meetings, mountains and the arts merge

Published: 10/01/2011
By Joan Christensen, Smart Meetings -Back in July 1847, when legendary Mormon leader Brigham Young pronounced "this is the place" to the group of determined pioneers who followed him out west, he certainly wasn't talking about meetings and conventions. And yet, 164 years later, that pronouncement is just as apt for meeting planners and convention attendees as it was for those worn-out men, women and children who had traveled halfway across the United States.

What the early settlers envisioned as a sanctuary has now become a vibrant and sophisticated destination boasting a diversity of attractions for visitors. Avid skiers and snowboarders were flocking to the famously powdered slopes of Utah long before Salt Lake hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics-an event that expanded the state's reputation to an international audience. With seven major ski resorts in the Wasatch Mountains that flank the east side of the city, the slopes remain a primary magnet for winter visitors. But Salt Lake is also home to a wealth of options in arts and culture, including the Utah Symphony, Ballet West, Utah Opera and art galleries galore.

THE OPTIONS

Meeting planners have an appealing choice of regions, venues, settings and attractions when they set their sights on a Salt Lake-area meeting. Five lively destinations, all within an hour of Salt Lake City International Airport, are notable for the variety of meeting spaces and types of lodging. Plus, all the venues offer a broad cross section of dining options from casual to high end, a strong line-up of visual and performing arts throughout the year and a rich diversity of outdoor recreation in the stunning natural environment. For details and ideas about meeting options along the Wasatch Front, visit meetinutah.com. Every locale also lays claim to easy access to at least one of Utah's most beloved treasures-a full-service destination ski resort with year-round activities.

PAST & PRESENT

Native American tribes were the first residents of the Salt Lake Valley, but when Mormon pioneers arrived in 1847 they were determined to "make the desert bloom." Crops and trees were planted and the city was carefully laid out in a perfect grid with thoroughfares wide enough for a team of oxen to turn around at the end of every street. Residents are also justifiably proud of their more recent history that includes the successful hosting of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, which was the impetus for adding a light-rail system, Trax. This popular form of transportation includes a free-fare zone in the downtown area and convenient service to the University of Utah, with stations as far south as suburban Sandy, and service as far north as Ogden. A new arm linking downtown to the Salt Lake City International Airport is planned for 2012.

MYTH BUSTER

Complicated liquor laws were a frustration and challenge to visitors for decades. But in 2009, significantly revised laws went into effect eliminating the temporary private club memberships required to enter a bar or restaurant serving mixed drinks. Gone are the days of carrying mini bottles and pre-purchased wine into a restaurant. Not only is it easier to buy beer, wine or mixed drinks in Utah, the state has emerged as a hot spot for fans of handcrafted beers and ales. There are now more than a dozen microbreweries scattered throughout the state including two of the most popular-Salt Lake Brewing Company and Wasatch Brew Pub in Park City.

SALT LAKE CITY

Surrounded by two mountain ranges and the Great Salt Lake, downtown Salt Lake City is just six miles from the airport, giving it compelling bragging rights for access and convenience. Currently in the final phases of construction, the $2 billion City Creek Center will open in early 2012 on 23 acres that will completely redefine downtown. Anchored by retail giants Nordstrom and Macy's, it will have 80-90 retail shops and between four and six restaurants mixed into the residential and office space.

"It's been a long time coming," says Shawn Stinson, director of communications for Visit Salt Lake. "It will be a real renaissance for downtown with meandering walks and large outdoor areas, and by incorporating City Creek into the complex, we'll have a stunning natural water feature."

The granddaddy of conference facilities is the Calvin L. Rampton Salt Palace Convention Center in the core of downtown. The L-shaped structure is the largest meeting facility in the state with 675,000 sq. ft. that include 67 meeting rooms and a 45,000-square-foot ballroom. The center offers 515,000 contiguous sq. ft. of exhibit space.

For sheer opulence, it's tough to beat appropriately named The Grand America Hotel, the only Five-Diamond property in the city. Inspired by European craftsmanship, the charming hotel is decorated with English wool rugs and hand-cut chandeliers. It offers 775 guest rooms and more than 16 boutique-style meeting rooms covering 75,000 sq. ft. A full-service spa provides a luxurious retreat, and there's on-site dining and upscale shops. The Hilton Salt Lake City Center has 24,000 sq. ft. of newly renovated meeting space with 19 rooms that can handle up to 1,080 participants. Whimsical, sophisticated Hotel Monaco occupies a former office building in the city center within easy walking distance of shops and restaurants and a half block from a Trax station. The personality-packed hotel has 3,900 sq. ft. of meeting space and a total of 225 guest rooms with complimentary wireless Internet access in all rooms and spaces.

The Marriott City Center remains a popular choice with its 15,000 sq. ft. of conference space, 342 guest rooms and complimentary high-speed Internet access throughout.

"We were looking for a central location in a very walkable city that is also affordable with good airlift," says Lisa Hayden, the director of conferences and meetings for the

College & University Professional Association for Human Resources, which met at the Marriott in July with 125 attendees. "[We] loved the location of the hotel next to Gallivan Park, and I have never received so many compliments on a hotel's food before. Attendees could walk to area restaurants, shopping and pubs and feel very safe."

Top restaurant choices within walking distance of most downtown hotels include Squatters for the brewpub experience or Market Street Grill for the freshest seafood in town. The new Natural History Museum of Utah at the Rio Tinto will open next month on the University of Utah campus. The spectacular building will house the museum's vast collections and several distinctive meeting spaces.

Not surprising given its attributes, Salt Lake City enjoys repeat meeting business. The Association of State & Territorial Public Health Nutrition Directors met there in 2004 and returned in June 2011 because the city easily accommodates the group's needs. "Our members are registered dietitians and nutritionists and travel on limited budgets, so we seek out restaurants that not only are reasonably priced but also serve nutritious food that is grown or sourced locally," notes Cynthia Atterbury, director of operations for the association.

This year, the group met with its sister organization, the National Society of Physical Activity Practitioners in Public Health, and both were pleased. "Restaurants meeting our needs were easily found and participants commented on the ease getting from the airport to the hotel, the cleanliness of the city and the friendly locals," Atterbury says.

Visitors with extra time should consider the Visit Salt Lake Connect Pass that offers discounts of 40-85% on top attractions, such as Clark Planetarium and The Leonardo at Library Square-a unique science, tech and art museum near downtown.

Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon is one of Salt Lake's most popular quick alpine escapes. The complex has 500 guest rooms and 50,000-plus sq. ft. of meeting space. Up the road at the top of the canyon is the town of Alta with two classic properties-Alta Lodge and Rustler Lodge for smaller groups. The dramatic granite-walled canyon is a draw for planners seeking an inspirational setting.

PARK CITY

What was once a major silver-mining operation has evolved into one of the top ski and summer destinations in the country. Historical Main Street retains much of its Victorian architectural appeal in several blocks crammed with restaurants, bars, shops and art galleries. Only 45 minutes from the Salt Lake airport, the town of Park City sits at the base of Park City Mountain Resort and between two other popular ski resorts-Deer Valley and The Canyons. The town is literally packed with hotels, condos and lodging that run the gamut from family friendly to glamorously glitzy.

Newpark Resort & Hotel, just off I-80 and a 10-minute drive to downtown Park City, has more than 6,000 sq. ft. of conference space for meetings and functions and 150 guest rooms. It is within easy walking distance to a movie theater, entertainment center, bowling ally and the Newpark trail system.

With years of conference experience, and located right in town, the recently renovated Park City Marriott has 199 rooms and more than 10,200 sq. ft. of space. For a top-tier experience in Deer Valley, the Five-Diamond Stein Eriksen Lodge has 180 elegant rooms and 9,713 sq. ft. of space, plus a newly renovated 20,000-square-foot spa. And just down the road, the Canyons Grand Summit Hotel & Conference Center has 358 rooms and 12,000 sq. ft. of space. The Four-Diamond ski-in, ski-out property features a spa, fitness center and childcare services.

Adrenaline junkies should visit Utah Olympic Park, site of the 2002 Olympic Nordic jumping and bobsledding events, where visitors can experience the thrill of a bobsled ride in winter or summer. The Kimball Art Center in Old Town Park City at the foot of Main Street has three galleries featuring local and national artists, special exhibits and nearly 8,000 sq. ft. for private events.

DAVIS & WEBER COUNTIES

Just north of Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties offer top-notch meeting facilities. In Layton, the recently renovated Davis Conference Center provides 70,000 sq. ft. of meeting space with integrated presentation amenities and Wi-Fi. The center is connected to the Hilton Garden Inn Salt Lake City/Layton, which has 147 rooms and 43,000-plus sq. ft. The "Hospitality Zone" has additional hotels close to the center including a Holiday Inn Express Layton with 102 rooms and 660 sq. ft. of space and the 100-room Courtyard by Marriott Salt Lake City/Layton with 3,100 sq. ft.

Nature lovers should check out Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake, reached via a six-mile causeway. An iconic herd of bison still roams there, along with the island's bighorn sheep and namesake antelopes. A small visitor center has exhibits on geology and island history. The amusement park Lagoon just minutes south of Layton has been a family favorite for decades and offers the usual thrill rides as well as beautifully maintained gardens.

OGDEN

Located 40 minutes north of the Salt Lake airport, Ogden is well positioned as a metro-to-mountains meeting locale. The Ogden Eccles Conference Center, in the heart of downtown, offers planners more than 50,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and is adjacent to the Hampton Inn with 124 rooms. Renovated in 2008, the Ogden Marriott has an adventure motif with seasonal outdoor displays, 292 rooms and 14,000-plus sq. ft. of meeting space.

Ogden was a former railroad hub, and Union Station, the old train station, is available for private groups of 20-400.

Strolling and shopping on historic 25th Street is a popular free-time option for visitors, especially for art aficionados, who can browse in 15 independent art galleries. High-energy groups should check out the Salomon Center. A 55-foot climbing wall and indoor skydiving wind tunnel are just two of the adventures. Skiers and boarders meeting during winter months in Ogden are in luck. There are three ski resorts within 30 minutes of the city: Snowbasin, Powder Mountain and Wolf Creek Utah.

UTAH VALLEY

Well known for Robert Redford's Sundance Resort, 15 minutes from downtown, Provo is a thriving community bordered by Utah Lake and the Wasatch Mountains and is on the cusp of a dramatic expansion of its meeting and conference space.

In spring 2012, the Utah Valley Convention Center in downtown Provo will debut with 52,000 sq. ft. of meeting space that swells to 83,578 sq. ft. when garden space is included. This state-of-the-art facility is the first of its kind in Provo and will boast more than 19,000 sq. ft. in the Exhibit Hall and 5,553 sq. ft. in the open rooftop garden. In this LEED Silver-certified building, design, construction, operation and maintenance will be environmentally friendly and economically sensible.

Currently, the Provo Marriott Hotel & Conference Center with its 330 guest rooms and 29,572 sq. ft. of meeting space offers expected amenities and in-house A/V services. Sundance Resort up Provo Canyon beckons with the new Redford Conference Center that opened in summer 2010. It provides 3,375 sq. ft. of geothermal heated and cooled meeting space, giving the mountain resort a total of 12,826 sq. ft. A unique setting is Thanksgiving Point, midway between Provo and Salt Lake with 10,626 sq. ft. in the Show Barn and a total of 13,100 sq. ft. of meeting space. The sprawling outdoor complex has 55 acres of themed gardens, a golf course and the dinosaur-centric Museum of Ancient Life.

Summer hikers can climb the paved path to explore Timpanogos Cave, winter visitors can ski and ride at Sundance Resort and art lovers can check out the BYU Art Museum.

HEBER VALLEY

The Heber Valley serves up a taste of Switzerland on the east-facing side of the Wasatch Front. An hour from the Salt Lake City International Airport and 20 minutes from Park City, The Homestead in the town of Midway has been welcoming visitors for 125 years. The hotel is built around a limestone rock crater filled with warm mineral water that was discovered in the 1880s by a Swiss immigrant. The "Hot Pot" became the focal point of the fledgling resort, and still attracts crowds-including scuba divers. The campus-style property is dotted with cottages and a state-of-the-art conference facility with 13,000 sq. ft. of flexible space. Golf, horseback rides, pools and "The Crater" top the summer recreation list while four world-class ski resorts-Sundance, Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort and The Canyons-are within a 20-minute drive.

The newest conference center in this alpine-esque valley is Zermatt Resort. Across from The Homestead, Zermatt has 38,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 345 guest rooms. The European-style property has a spa and wellness center, a carousel for kids, golf, a restaurant and bakery, all flanked by up-close views of the Wasatch Mountains.

Heber Valley Railroad, once known as the "Heber Creeper," offers specialty train trips, including a holiday Polar Express. The Jordanelle gondola delivers sweeping mountain and water views just 12 minutes from Midway.

GETTING THERE

All 5 regions are served by Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) with 750 daily flights to more than 100 cities with nonstop service. The airport is 5 miles northwest of downtown Salt Lake. Beginning in March 2012, there will be a direct connection on the Trax light-rail system between the airport and the downtown station, an 8-minute ride.

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