Utah Office of Tourism, Film and Global Branding Director Vicki Varela has been named National State Tourism Director of the Year by the U.S. Travel Association.
As the Tourism, Film and Global Branding director, Varela is responsible for the development and implementation of marketing, communication and branding programs aimed at promoting Utah as a world-class travel and tourism destination. Since she assumed her role in 2013, Varela and her team have led a major expansion of Utah’s international and digital marketing strategies and developed new analytics and research practices.
“Utah’s unprecedented growth and success in tourism is due to Vicki’s dynamic leadership,” said Val Hale, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “She has done a remarkable job of rallying the tourism industry and inviting the world to experience Utah. Those efforts generate nearly $1.1 billion annually in state and local taxes.”
Varela was announced as the award recipient before more than 800 of her peers at the U.S. Travel Association’s annual Educational Seminar for Tourism Organizations (ESTO) conference, held this year in Boca Raton, Fla. The U.S. Travel Association’s National Council of State Tourism Directors—a body representing the tourism offices of all 50 states and U.S. territories—votes on the award annually ahead of ESTO, the premier annual ideas exchange for destination marketing professionals.
“Vicki Varela has helped attract thousands of additional visitors to Utah through a variety of successful campaigns, and this award is an acknowledgement of her years of outstanding work,” Roger Dow, U.S. Travel Association President and CEO, said. “Her leadership and destination marketing acumen have made her an incredibly respected representative of the state tourism sector among her peers and her incredibly effective advocacy for the travel industry has greatly benefited not just the people of Utah, but our nation’s economy as a whole.”
Varela played an integral role in the implementation and expansion of The Mighty 5® campaign, which highlighted Utah’s five major national parks. The campaign paid off with massive returns for the Utah economy, driving significant increases in visitation to the state through strategic broadcast advertising and integrated marketing initiatives. Subsequently, Varela led in the development of Utah’s latest ski campaign, Find Your Greatest®, and the successor to the Mighty 5 campaign, Road To Mighty™, which anchor the Utah brand in powerful visual storytelling across multiple media channels.
The success of The Mighty 5® created a need to expand Utah’s tourism offerings to meet growing demand. In response to this demand, Varela and her team created a tourism training program, which helps rural Utah communities organize their brand, marketing and customer service strategies in order to accommodate increased numbers of visitors to their areas. These areas can now also access a platform that allows Utah regional authorities to leverage state and Brand USA funds for custom destination marketing campaigns aimed at attracting international travelers.
Varela and her team also collaborated with partners in Idaho and Wyoming to create The Yellowstone Loop marketing plan, which outlines major attractions and destinations in those states for visitors who land at Salt Lake City International Airport and drive north to Yellowstone National Park.
“Utah’s tourism economy in all corners of the state has soared as a result of Vicki’s visionary leadership,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said. “She epitomizes the Utah spirit and is well deserving of this recognition.”
Prior to her current role, Varela embarked on an early career in journalism and public service, including an eight-year post as Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt’s spokesperson and deputy chief of staff. Varela also worked as a marketing consultant to major Utah businesses before returning to work for the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. She currently serves on the board of directors of both the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Travel Association.
Candidates for State Tourism Director of the Year are nominated by a panel of state/territory tourism directors. A slate of three finalists is presented for selection by ballot.