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Salt Lake convention business strong despite recession

Published: 03/11/2009
This is a big year for the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau.

It's celebrating its silver anniversary, 25 years of marked growth that includes a prominent supporting role in securing and staging the 2002 Winter Olympics.

But like everyone else, the bureau is trying to withstand the onslaught of the recession -- something it has been able to do thus far.

Its prospects of continuing to do so will be enhanced greatly if it succeeds this July in impressing thousands of visitors from Meeting Professionals International (MPI), the people who decide where companies, groups and trade associations hold their future conventions.

Collectively, those meetings generate $14 billion worth of spending each year. With a good showing July 11-14, the Salt Lake CVB hopes to increase its share of the national meeting market beyond the $243.6 million worth of business brought in last year.

"This is a great opportunity to bring the best and the brightest of our industry here and to show them what we are and what we're becoming," said Bureau President Scott Beck, citing ongoing construction projects that are reshaping downtown Salt Lake City. "I'm always amazed by the looks on people's faces when we go to the 16th floor of the Marriott hotel and show them what's going on."

At the bureau's annual meeting Tuesday night, Beck said 2008 was the second-best year ever for booking future hotel-filling meetings, surpassed only by the year when rooms were secured for the Olympics.

The CVB staff booked meetings that, in total, are projected to produce visitor spending of nearly $325 million, he said.

Efforts to promote skiing at Salt Lake County's four resorts -- Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude -- also grew last winter. The bureau sold $3.2 million of "Superpasses," good at each of the four, a 2.5 percent increase over the previous year.

Free publicity about Salt Lake-based skiing in national publications also increased 95 percent, Beck said.

But there is no doubt, he acknowledged, that the recession is making everyone antsy. Attendance at events is down -- last month's Outdoor Retailer Winter Market slipped 5 percent from 2008 -- and Salt Lake City will face more competition for future bookings from convention-city heavyweights such as Las Vegas.

MPI President Bruce MacMillan, in town to address the bureau meeting, said he believes Salt Lake City is well positioned to flourish in this age of heightened competition.

"The [Salt Palace] convention center is fabulous. You have the hotels. Any city that can host the Olympics and that has put money into the infrastructure will do well," he said. "Strong meeting and event destinations will get stronger, and those on the periphery will fall away. You can't just be good. You have to be great."

MacMillan also emphasized that government officials and politicians should stop criticizing companies for holding meetings in the wake of government bailouts, contending these gatherings spur innovation within the assembled groups and create legacies for the communities in which they are held.

"Making it harder for people to get together is not the answer" to the current economic problems, he said. "Keeping your eye on the long term is the way to go."