Remember the good old days, when Main Street bustled with shoppers and guests, and foot traffic on downtown streets rivaled street traffic? Remember when the eye of the world looked down upon us and smiled?

It's over now, but tourism experts say that singular event — the 2002 Olympic Winter Games — continues to benefit Utah. While economic and political unrest have put a damper on tourism worldwide, Utah has weathered the rough patches better than others.

Dianne Binger, president and chief executive officer of the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau, was set to report during the bureau's annual meeting Tuesday night that it booked 537,791 room nights for Salt Lake County hotels last year, which will add an estimated $245 million to Utah's economy in coming years.

The bureau's convention sales team booked 272 groups in Salt Lake County hotels for 2002, 2003, 2004 and as far out as 2012, Binger will say, attracting more than 228,000 delegates and contributing more than $177 million to the local economy.

Utah has outperformed the national hotel occupancy trend, the bureau reported. PricewaterhouseCoopers said hotel occupancies in 2002 averaged 59 percent, the lowest in 31 years. Salt Lake hotels averaged 64 percent.

"2002 was a remarkable year," Binger told the Deseret News Tuesday morning. "The Olympics certainly were an incredible boost to our industry. But even without the Olympics, Salt Lake City hosted more convention delegates, we welcomed more leisure travelers than we ever have before. Other destinations weren't as fortunate. They didn't host the Olympics."

Kent Hansen, spokesman for the Utah Travel Council, said the council is receiving more phone calls from potential visitors and more requests for information than in years past.

"Utah has not suffered the dearth of tourism that a lot of other places have," Hansen said. "It's better than it otherwise might have been, and we're certain that the Olympics had a role in that.

"In early 2003, indications are that visitation at resorts is generally up. Utah got wonderful publicity about how friendly the people are and how beautiful the place is. Call center calls are up, requests for travel guides are up. The secret is out. Utah is a great place to visit."

That doesn't mean Utah's roads are paved with laurels, and there will be no resting, Binger said. Competition with other cities for conventions and travel groups will be fierce. And though Salt Lake City ranks above Cincinnati, Nashville, Portland and Los Angeles in one survey of conventioneers' preferred cities, it is still behind cities like Las Vegas, Chicago, New York City, Dallas and Orlando. Other cities, like Louisville, Ky., are now advertising that they will pay cash to conventions for coming.

"We've been pretty insulated last year and even in 2001 because we hosted the Olympics," Binger said. "But things may get tough for our hospitality partners. We've asked our partners to get even more creative and more aggressive with our pricing and in how we sell Salt Lake."

The bureau will increase the number of groups it hosts on buyer trips and site inspections, as well as the number of sales missions to other cities to attract customers to Utah. It also will promote its winter leisure program.

"We feel that the Olympics has really positioned Salt Lake, and we need to continue to market and not be complacent about our success in 2002," she said. "We need to get out and market harder and smarter in 2003 and beyond."


E-mail: jnii@desnews.com