by Howard Stephenson
It took years of preparation and finally the seventeen days we’ve been waiting for have arrived. During these winter Olympic games Utah’s story will be told to nearly four billion people around the world through the pens, cameras and microphones of more than 10,000 journalists.
The world wide advertizing value of the Winter Olympics for Utah is valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. This is advertising we could never afford as a state on our own. Yet, this exposure provides an extraordinary opportunity to entice the world to return here, spend some money, and go home, having had some of the greatest experiences of their lives.
Tourism could be Utah’s best new growth industry, but it’ll take more national and international advertising than we’re used to, to permanently capitalize on the temporary Olympic high. The usual source of these advertising dollars is the transient room tax, and you’d expect that with the occupancy rates and the higher room prices during the Olympics, we’d be awash in room taxes. But that’s not the case. With so many of the rooms being purchased in tax-exempt 30-day blocks, the transient room taxes and sales taxes are not collectible. Consequently these tax revenues are actually expected to be quite flat during the Olympics.
While the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau has a significant track record of attracting conventions to Utah, their job will now be even more important in booking more and bigger conventions. While on the convention front we seem to have things pretty much under control, the marketing of Utah tourism to individuals and families has not had similar success. When the Utah Travel Council appeared at the Legislature two weeks ago to discuss their proposed budget, they spoke of airing television ads about Utah to the “drive-able” states that surround Utah and were asking for approximately $800,000 to do so.
As might be expected, many legislators were appalled to learn that the Travel Council was thinking so small, following an event of Olympic proportions. One legislator compared it to a farmer spending all of his resources to plant acres of corn and then not watering the furrows.
Other policy makers pointed to international travel magazine advertising such as that done in Europe by competing states such as Colorado, and questioned, “Why doesn’t Utah do similar advertising?”
It’s clear that we do not presently have in place the plan that will capitalize on the Olympics to catapult Utah’s tourism economy to the next level of performance. When the Olympics are over, we’d better roll up our sleeves and get to work.
While state legislators have no greater opportunity than others to attend the competitive Olympic events, we have been given opportunities to assist in hosting foreign dignitaries at receptions and parties. We were also allowed to attend the dress rehearsal of the opening ceremonies. The rehearsal was so moving and so inspiring that many of us were moved to tears as we recognized the many gifts we enjoy in the Beehive state. As Utahns observed the torch run, which highlighted so many parts of our state, we saw through the eyes of the rest of the world the wonders which we so often take for granted.
I had the opportunity last Thursday night of attending the mainland China Olympic Delegation dinner atop the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. It was a wonderful event for representatives of our two countries — political and religious leaders — to connect in a spirit of peace and mutual respect. After the formal introductions and a few short speeches, dinner began. The group was aware of the Olympic torch run which was about to take place on the ground below. When the torch appeared on the street outside the people in the room spontaneously got up from their tables and moved to the windows to watch the passing of the torch from the runner to President Gordon B. Hinckley who then passed it to his colleagues while standing on the steps of the LDS Church Administration Building. I noticed the intense interest in the faces of all in the room and the explanations given by each of the Utahns to the Chinese guests standing next to them.
Another poignant experience for me was the presentation of an Olympic flag to the students of Lehi Jr. High School. A student choir sang “Light the Dream” and observations were made about the contrast between the events of September 11, which were bourne out of fear and hate, and the events of the Olympics which stem from a spirit of peace and brotherhood. I came to realize more fully than before the significance of these seventeen days of world celebration. A celebration of the things we have in common.
I feel intense gratitude for the unique opportunity Utah has to be the place where the world comes together to heal.