This month’s Governor’s Tourism Roundtable discussion, organized by the Business Services team within the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), was a listening session for the governor and his economic development team. Participants offered insight into the challenges and opportunities facing the industry.

It was Gov. Herbert’s last GOED Roundtable discussion of his administration, and because of the pandemic, he engaged with Utah’s travel and tourism industry leaders via Zoom on Nov. 3, 2020.

Val Hale, GOED’s executive director, kicked off the conversation by highlighting that it’s a timely discussion, given the unique challenges the industry is facing due to the coronavirus pandemic. The governor noted Utah is built for a robust travel and tourism industry, and it contributes $10.06 billion to the state’s economy annually and supports about 141,500 jobs.

Ryan Starks, GOED managing director of Business Services, moderated the discussion. He asked participants how their businesses have been affected by COVID-19 and how they’re coping with the challenges.

Steve Neeleman, founder and vice chairman at HealthEquity and GOED Board member, noted visitors stayed longer at Zion Ponderosa Ranch, his family’s resort, during the coronavirus pandemic. A silver lining of COVID-19 is guests get off the beaten path, consistent with the Office of Tourism Red Emerald strategy, he added. Nathan Rafferty, president & CEO at SkiUtah, noted what makes Utah’s tourism different from many other states is the collaboration between the various entities. Bill Wyatt, director of Airports at Salt Lake City Corporation, also added that the new airport traffic is picking up, and with fewer passengers, physical distancing is not a problem.

The engaging discussion then shifted to unique opportunities and challenges the travel and tourism industry faces in each region of the state. 

Southern Utah

In Southern Utah, Kevin Smith, chief executive officer at Tuacahn Amphitheater, noted as a private nonprofit organization, if it was not for the federal PPP and CARES Act funding, and the Create In Utah grant, that their organization could be facing Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Natalie Randall, director of Economic Development and Visitor Services for San Juan County, added they’re working on outreach and education to highlight what communities are doing to survive and thrive during COVID-19. She also stressed that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work in all of Utah’s rural communities.

Wasatch Back

Jennifer Wesselhoff, president and CEO at Park City Chamber, noted that while businesses are down significantly in the number of staff needed, they also struggle to fill vacant positions due to the lack of international workers. 

Dalin Koecher, executive director at Heber Valley Tourism, added that the recent Shop In Heber Valley, which offers economic relief to local businesses, has been successful.

Northern Utah 

Kym Buttschardt, owner of Roosters Brewing Company in Ogden, addressed the state’s liquor policy and provided recommendations to improve the future approach.

Sara Toliver, president and CEO at Visit Ogden, noted a lot of uncertainty surrounding special events, such as the Ogden marathon, and if it will occur.

Vicki Varela, managing director of Tourism at GOED, concluded the roundtable discussion by reading a reverse proclamation to Gov. Herbert that read in part:

“Whereas, Governor Gary Herbert led a vision that Utah be the No. 1 state in the nation for business and careers and annually invested in ensuring the growth of Utah’s tourism industry as a key pillar; Now, therefore, the Utah Board of Tourism Development, Utah Office of Tourism and Utah Tourism Industry Association, on behalf of the state’s tourism industry, honor Governor Gary R. Herbert, Utah’s 17th Governor, for his advocacy, passion, and vision to put Utah on the map globally as an international tourism destination.”