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Salt Palace bookings soar

$214 million in 4 months; bureau to seek 2nd-phase expansion funds

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In the four months since the Salt Palace expansion project was announced, the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau has booked an estimated $214 million worth of convention business.

To keep the momentum building, SLCVB chief executive Dianne Nelson Binger said Wednesday the bureau will ask the Utah Legislature for $5 million annually for the next 10 years to fund the second phase of the Salt Palace expansion, which the bureau estimates will result in more than $72 million annually in direct visitor spending.

Prior to the SLCVB annual meeting Wednesday night, Binger told the Deseret Morning News that the expected legislation likely will include "some type of hotel/transit/room tax increase" to fund the expansion. Alan Dayton, a consultant to Salt Lake County, has been contracted to work on draft legislation.

"They're keeping it pretty close to the chest," Binger said. "Right now there is no bill numbered. But I have been assured that people are working behind the scenes."

Meanwhile, work on the first phase of the expansion project continues, Binger said. Construction is under way on an underground Salt Palace parking facility that will add 400 stalls — accessible by 300 West — to the existing 600 stalls off 200 South.

The expanded underground parking will be beneath the exhibit hall floor, Binger said. Phase one, which will cost $15 million and is funded by Salt Lake County, will be complete this summer in time for the Outdoor Retailer summer trade show in July.

Phase two of the project, which will cost an estimated $43 million, will commence when the show concludes and be completed by August 2006.

In all, 2004 was a positive point of departure for the tourism industry in general, and for Salt Lake City in particular, Binger said.

"Last year was a great year," she said. "It was a very good year for the booking department, which booked 400,000 hotel room nights for future years, which was the best booking season since 2001. It was a good year in terms of the number of convention delegates hosted last year, which was our best year excluding 2002, the Olympic year. It was also a very good year for tourism bookings.

"It has taken awhile for the tourism industry to recover. But it looks like we've finally turned a corner. Things are looking up."

In addition to four major conventions booked since the Salt Palace expansion was announced — the American Chemical Society in March 2009, the Society of Toxicology in March 2010, the American Society for Mass Spectrometry in May 2010 and Rotary International in June 2011 — the bureau also is bidding on eight other national conventions representing 81,000 delegates. None would have been possible without the promise of an expanded facility, Binger said.

"We have already confirmed over $200 million in future direct visitor spending as a result of the Salt Palace expansion," she said. "This is new money to our community. There's no multiplier here. This is money going from their pockets to ours."

According to the bureau's annual report, also released Wednesday, the 2004 convention-related hotel bookings were a 17.5 percent increase over 2003.

About 231,795 convention delegates were booked in Salt Lake City in 2004, the report stated, compared to 206,767 the year before. Total delegate/visitor spending, not counting associations or corporations, topped $259 million in 2004.

The SLCVB's tourism department sold 46,000 "Ski Salt Lake" passes during the 2003/2004 ski season, exceeding $1.8 million in revenue, the report stated. This season, Binger said sales of the passes are up 72 percent over the prior year, as of Jan. 23. Ski Salt Lake passes, which can be used at four area ski resorts, are only sold in conjunction with hotel room nights.

Looking ahead, Binger said the bureau will continue to refine its efforts to bring more visitors and dollars to Utah. It expects good results from a new partnership with Travelocity, an online travel service, and new genealogy materials to capitalize on niche markets unique to Utah.

"Based on our past success, I am confident about our future," Binger wrote in remarks provided to the Morning News. "The travel industry is changing at a breathtaking pace. New technologies, security concerns, time and lifestyle pressures, and financial uncertainties are reshaping our industry on a daily basis. . . . And while we are committed to the activities that have brought us success in the past, we also recognize that the only thing we can count on is change. So we will continue to embrace change, as we move into the future."

E-mail: jnii@desnews.com