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Lack of general conference crowds will impact downtown businesses

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Lowman Borlik serves lunch to Nathalie Anderson and Madison Anderson at Spitz in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 11, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The decision to conduct April’s general conference sessions remotely will likely have rippling effects throughout Salt Lake City, particularly in retail outlets and other businesses that typically benefit financially from the influx of visitors for the semiannual event.

The average visitor spends more than $900 while attending a convention in Salt Lake City — generating more than $20 million in revenues annually for the area, according to studies conducted by the University of Utah’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research based on surveys of convention delegates.

While general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attracts thousands of attendees to the metro area every six months, analysts say the economic impact isn’t quite on par with the typical convention delegate.

“I know through conversation in the tourism community that a conference attendee does not spend on scale with a convention attendee,” said Dee Brewer, executive director of the Downtown Alliance.

“You look at the differences. A convention attendee is typically on an expense account, they’re entertaining guests and others, so they’re just naturally going to have a higher spend in the hotel and in restaurants. Per-meal expenses are going to be much higher.”

He added that a lot of conference attendees also stay with friends and family rather than in hotels.

“General conference typically does not sell out the hotel inventory in downtown, but a citywide convention will,” he noted. “Restaurants and retailers downtown will definitely feel that in their sales results for April.”

For one Salt Lake City eatery, the lack of patronage during what would normally be conference weekend will be missed.

“It’s always a great time for businesses, especially the restaurants here in downtown region to really gain some some added revenue stream that is much needed,” said Ian McKeever, server at Spitz Downtown. “I mean, it is my paycheck and with the loss of the conference this year, I definitely do fear that there will be a dip in a gratuity and revenue stream.”

Even prior to the announcement that conference would be conducted remotely, McKeever said he has noticed a difference in the number of people patronizing restaurants downtown.

“I’ve actually noticed that the people who do come in, they’re the ones that are braving it,” he said. “They’re joking about the coronavirus. They look around and they’re like, ‘Hey, you guys are kind of empty. What’s going on?’ I look back and just say, ‘Hey, coronavirus.’ What else can you say? Most people are working from home.”

He said there is a level of uncertainty from people regarding the impact of the coronavirus that has affected their behavior to a degree, but most are still dining out, but in a less personal manner.

“We still do delivery, we still do DoorDash and you still get people that are ordering our food, they’re just not coming,” McKeever said.

The church normally holds five sessions during general conference weekends in its Conference Center that has a capacity to hold more than 21,000 people. Many of those church members often visit nearby City Creek Center between sessions to shop and eat.

“Naturally, we expect the impact to be a decrease in traffic that we would normally see during this time,” said Linda Wardell, City Creek Center general manager.

“However, it’s important for us all to be vigilant as it relates to the spread of COVID-19 and we respect the decision to make this a technology-only event.”

Meanwhile, for a Northern California family who had planned to make the trip to Salt Lake City, the announcement has put a wrinkle in their travel plans.

Sacramento resident Valeri Andersen last attended general conference in person a decade ago. This year, she had planned to bring her family to what was anticipated to be an event of great spiritual significance for her and her young children. Additionally, she plans to celebrate a major life accomplishment as she attends her commencement ceremony from BYU-Idaho a few days after conference.

“I was disappointed just because it just seemed like, it just fit into the plan so perfectly,” Andersen said. “I just happen to be graduating the week following the 200th anniversary of the First Vision where this general conference is going to be like no other. It’s just like the perfect combination of events. It was going to be so spiritually uplifting and exciting and then this happened.” 

The family sill plans on driving to Salt Lake City, where they will visit with her parents and spend time with family.

“It’s not like an enormous inconvenience. We’re still going to come out there. We’re still planning to go to Idaho,” she said. “But my concern now is, if the church has decided to close general conference off to the public, are they going to cancel commencement exercises at BYU-Idaho?”

For now, she is bracing for the worst and hoping for the best.

“Conference isn’t being canceled, so we’ll still have a chance to get to watch it together and talk about it and be edified,” she said.