When he looks at the Ashley National Forest that blankets the Flaming Gorge environs, Uinta Mountains and High Uinta Wilderness of Utah, Brian Raymond, Daggett County’s director of economic development, thinks about the opportunities people are missing. Raymond, and local business owner Mark Wilson, president of Red Canyon Lodge, see great potential to build new tourism assets and improve the economic base of rural Daggett County—potential as large scale as a plan for a ski resort.Alex Nabaum
Even with more than 20 million visitors that annually come to the state, some of Utah’s 29 counties have some challenges in maximizing their tourism business opportunities. In recent years, productive dialogue suggests momentum is building that can help the business community overcome challenges to tourism growth that range from public land restrictions to a lack of available revenue. Tourism has a major impact on the Daggett County economy, employing around 29 percent of its workforce. Many of Utah’s rural counties face similar challenges as they work to create sustainable growth and business development.
Many of Utah’s renowned scenic vistas are found in Utah’s rural counties, from the fiery canyon walls of Flaming Gorge to the white Navajo sandstone of Capitol Reef National Park, and every iconic arch, hoodoo and monolith in between. Consequently, the tourism industry is a major contributor to the state’s overall economy not just in the populated northern counties, but especially in the rural counties, which are seeing an ever-growing interest from foreign visitors.
Tapping the business potential of Utah’s scenic places is a harbinger of economic growth, which translates to new jobs on the one hand, and enhanced quality of life on the other.
The University of Utah’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research estimates that approximately one in 10 jobs is directly or indirectly tied to tourism statewide. Where the tourism economy is a disproportionately large part of a county’s overall economy relative to the state, as in Daggett, both the industry’s opportunities and challenges are amplified.
Foremost among the challenges is the seasonality of tourism.
On the top end of the spectrum, more than 40 percent of Garfield County’s workforce is employed in tourism, which is where Lance Syrett and his family own and operate three hotels near the rim of Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce Canyon City is a small town that has not seen much population growth in the past 30 years, so Syrett says it can be hard to find, retain and house the workforce needed to staff a growing business, let alone one that sheds two-thirds of its staff for the winter. Yet Syrett’s business has grown, and the fourth-generation hotelier has endeavored to stay ahead of the trends.
“People used to make their reservations with postcards,” Syrett notes. “Now we do a lot of international business. We were the first hotel around here to really embrace international tourism and it became a catalyst for growth.” Now visitors call, text and email sometimes the day before they arrive.
International business can also come with added, unexpected challenges that may not at first seem directly connected to Utah, such as when thick volcanic ash from the eruption in Iceland grounded European air traffic in 2010 and when the powerful Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan in 2011. These events affected bookings to Utah by foreign visitors around the world.
“We’re always trying to hedge our bets because we’re so exposed on the international scale,” Syrett says. It is a multipronged marketing approach that reflects that of the Utah Office of Tourism, Film and Global Branding, which is conducted by the Utah Office of Tourism (UOT) as a part of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED).
The State of Utah is committed to growing Utah’s tourism economy as Utah’s outdoor assets gain visibility in the national and global spotlight. UOT targets major markets on both the West and East Coasts, as well as internationally, showcasing The Greatest Snow on Earth®, particularly the 11 of 14 resorts found along the Wasatch Front within an hour of Salt Lake City International Airport, and The Mighty 5® national parks—Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion—all in Southern Utah.
Delivering On a Promise
Utah’s tourism industry is a key, measurable contributor to Utah’s statewide economic success. The Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) estimates the outdoor industry component contributes $12 billion of economic activity in Utah. Meanwhile, tourism research firm D.K. Shiflett and Associates calculates visitor spending at $7.4 billion in 2012, which pumped $960 million into state and local tax coffers. Though a shutdown at the federal level caused a break in the revenue stream while federally owned destinations were shuttered, 2013 appears anecdotally to have been a strong year, not the least because the State of Utah stepped up and negotiated an opening of the national parks in Utah, funded at state expense. Opening the parks was clearly a prime demonstration of the collaboration between Utah government and the private sector that, because of a longstanding cooperative working relationship, rapidly came to agreement on a plan that convinced the federal officials that allowing Utah to open the parks was in everyone’s best interest.
UOT executes its mission to grow the economy through increased tourism with the Tourism Marketing Performance Fund (TMPF), which is legislatively mandated for out-of-state marketing.
TMPF is funded by increases in state sales tax revenue, funds appropriated by the legislature and interest. According to UOT, the formula for determining the TMPF is directly tied to tax revenue derived from the retail sales of tourism-oriented goods and services. In short, increases in tax revenues over previous years dictate the state treasurer’s calculations for TMPF funding, closing the loop between increased tourism business and increased tourism marketing.
“The key measure of success is what tourists are spending and that it translates into tax revenues,” confirms Vicki Varela, managing director of UOT, highlighting the office’s visitor spending figure, which has been growing since the Great Recession. “As Governor Herbert stated really well in his budget proposal this year, tourism is one of the only places in state government that you invest money to yield a huge return, where you can get a measureable tax boost from the investment.”
Varela says the office is constantly measuring the effectiveness of its marketing and communications not only to improve the messaging, but to improve the traveler experience.
Among Varela’s top goals are enhancing partner relations to deepen collaboration and establish Utah: Life Elevated as an integrated global brand that engages Utah residents as ambassadors of a brand they are already living. Varela’s goals are aimed at enhancing the user experience, which in the tourism industry translates to the best vacation possible. For that reason, Varela defines her top priority as improving customer service, “from the time people see our great marketing to the time they arrive in our state, which means making sure our welcoming statements reinforce the brand promise in our ads.”
As to delivering on the brand promise, Varela points to some long-term case studies and more recent success stories from around the state, including the 30-year transformations of Moab and St. George to top traveler destinations and Bryce Canyon City, where tourism comprises virtually its whole economy. Varela also says to take a close look at Park City in the last five years.
“Through the years of the Great Recession, Park City expanded its capacity from a really great second-home destination and ski town to a luxury destination,” says Varela. “It’s amazing to think that during the recession, high-end hotels chose to invest the money to establish a presence in Park City: Montage, St. Regis, Waldorf Astoria. All that construction and investment at a time when most businesses were just hunkered down I believe demonstrates, and I think the data confirms, that Utah had branded itself and marketed itself as a tourism destination that was worth the investment. That’s a remarkable way that the overall marketing strategy of this office has translated into concrete spending by private businesses.”
Like Varela, Daggett County’s Brian Raymond looks with admiration on Moab and imagines a future where the Flaming Gorge area attracts a similarly diverse tourism crowd.
“We haven’t been aggressive in the past. Look at Moab and how they’ve grown and where they were 30 years ago. We’re closer to Salt Lake than Moab and we have some incredibly beautiful areas that we can have trails on and some really nice river running on the Green River. … We certainly see the potential and want to address it.”
Varela remembers staying in converted apartments for lodging at a time when “you couldn’t find a decent cup of coffee in Moab.” Today, Moab retains its diverse outdoor recreation opportunities and reputation but has folded into the mix luxury accommodations, among other destination improvements, increasing the breadth of its visitor demographics.
Raymond tempers his enthusiasm with Utah’s well-articulated desire for balanced growth: “We don’t want to grow huge but we need to grow a little so there’s more of an economic base.”
Varela says the community of Flaming Gorge “is such an interesting area of opportunity because we have spectacular natural resources there including some of the best fishing in the world, but very limited accommodations or restaurants. That’s going to be a fascinating area to watch and participate in their growth in the next 20 to 30 years.”
Red Canyon Lodge’s Mark Wilson is bullish on the potential, which the ski industry veteran has seen since buying the lodge and moving to the Flaming Gorge area in 1991. Wilson expresses gratitude for recently deepened collaboration with the Ashley National Forest to enhance trail development, but recognizes some important decisions will have to be made.
“During the high point of our season from Memorial Day to Labor Day, a lot of the guest lodging and auxiliary services like dining and boat rentals are at capacity,” says Wilson. “So how do you handle that when you want to grow your tourism revenues? You either add more, which can directly compete with those that are already here, or extend the season.”
Aside from tourism, Daggett County’s economy is primarily agrarian.
“The mantra of a rural county often is to let things happen organically,” says Raymond. “And that’s fine because some of it does happen organically.” Raymond acknowledges he is not in his position strictly to catalyze change, but he feels that he can help nurture a forward-looking dialogue that is inclusive of existing business plans and opens up opportunity for new, potentially competitive growth.
Support for Growth
“The hardest thing both from a state and county level is how to provide incentives for existing businesses to continue to grow to meet that demand,” says Wilson. “In the past, it was probably easier for a brand-new player to come into an existing area and get assistance in a variety of levels to build the tourism infrastructure. There are some new incentives pointed at the hospitality industry that are meant to help existing businesses grow. We’re very excited about them.”
Indeed, GOED’s Rural Development Office has extended its post-performance Rural Fast Track grants to businesses falling within tourism-related NAICS Codes (the 1997 North American Industry Classification System) in counties that meet three criteria: fewer than 30,000 people, average household income less than $60,000 and hospitality employment of 125 percent or greater than the state’s average as a percentage of the county’s private sector employment. Daggett and Garfield are among 10 total qualifying counties.
For Delynn Fielding, rural programs director at GOED, the Fast Track Grants help fill a critical need in counties like Daggett, where other state incentives do not reach.
“GOED’s Fast Track Grants help the State of Utah execute on its top objective to strengthen and grow existing Utah business, both urban and rural,” says Fielding. “Since hospitality and tourism are critical components of the rural economy, these incentives have the potential to help Utah businesspeople, who have invested their lives in the industry, expand their operations and grow their bottom line.”
The decision to expand was relatively easy for hotel owner Lance Syrett. In 2007, “business was good,” Syrett says, giving the short answer. It had been their best year ever, and social media tracking suggested to the team a need to invest in a different kind of hotel to cater to a new clientele. They had already built an “economy” competitor across the street from their own flagship Ruby’s Inn, but a consensus was building online that Ruby’s Inn was getting too busy with tourism traffic. It is not necessarily a bad thing from a business perspective to be busy, but it was having a documented impact on the traveler experience.
The Bryce Canyon Grand added a higher-end product to the portfolio to take some of the burden off Ruby’s and add a new offering to visitors. Although the recession hit in 2008 and things started out a little slow, it did not take long for the product to reach its clientele and begin turning a profit.
As for the ski resort in the Ashley National Forest, it may be for Raymond a “pie-in-the-sky idea” still in its research stage, but recent strong collaboration with the Forest Service, some political momentum and a little—or a lot—of investment might bring the resort within reach. Raymond has his eye on a patch of the forest a few miles south of the Gorge near the junction of U.S. Highway 191 and state Route 44, about a half-hour to either Manila or Vernal.
Growth in Vernal, south of Daggett County, thanks to energy development in the Uinta Basin, may prove key to its tourism aspirations as a larger population base could create a demand to help support tourism from the Wasatch Front, pass-through travelers and neighboring states.
In the meantime, some trail development with the forest and state agencies will certainly further the dialogue, and Raymond may look at a tubing hill to begin encouraging people to come up in the winter.
For his own part, Wilson remains enthusiastic. “Some of the potential I saw when I first came here has been realized. Does opportunity still exist? Twenty years later, the answer continues to be ‘yes.’”