Southern Utah Tourism Summit emphasizes message of working together to elevate travelers’ experiences

Event organizers and guest speakers gather onstage at the conclusion of the second annual Southern Utah Tourism Summit, Cedar City, Utah, March 29, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY — Working together to elevate the quality of tourists’ experiences was the overarching theme of the second annual Southern Utah Tourism Summit at Southern Utah University’s Hunter Conference Center on Thursday and Friday.

The Cedar High School marching band performs at the beginning of the second annual Southern Utah Tourism Summit, Cedar City, Utah, March 28, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

A live musical performance by the Cedar High School marching band got things off to a rousing start Thursday morning, followed by opening remarks by Breck Dockstader, president and CEO of Vibrant Management.

Dockstader welcomed the  approximately 370 registered attendees to the two-day conference and said groupwide collaboration, much like that exhibited by the CHS band members, is essential for those working in the tourism industry

“We have the ability to come up with innovative solutions and leave the world in the best way to handle this type of visitation and popularity,” Dockstader said. “To get this right, though, we must work together and we must collaborate. This is why we’re here today to explore how to collaborate and elevate what we do as an industry.”

Dockstader said Southern Utah is home to “some of the most incredible backdrops on Earth.”

“As stewards of this incredible land, we have a unique and powerful opportunity to lead it in a way that sets the stage for how the tourism industry should operate, thrive and preserve this incredible landscape,” he said.

“As I see it, our visitors should be as much in awe at how they experience it, with our people, hotels, restaurants, gas stations, supermarkets, and more, as the natural wonders they came to visit,” he said. “We should and absolutely must lead the world in this effort. It is our duty and responsibility to accomplish just that.”

Maria Twitchell, executive director of the Cedar City-Brian Head Tourism Bureau, spoke about the reasons behind a tourism summit hosted by and devoted to Southern Utah.

“Do we really need a conference just for Southern Utah?” Twitchell asked the audience. “And my answer is, ‘yes.’ And the reason why is because I think we have some very unique opportunities and some challenges that are particular to our region.”

Twitchell said the key to being proactive and designing the future of Southern Utah is the necessity for cooperation and collaboration.

“In order to sustain our success and come to compete on a global playing field, we need to plan and engage as a region,” she said. “Not only in our marketing efforts, but everything from our national parks and public plans to building broader transportation opportunities to providing affordable housing for our service workers, to making sure we have enough water to serve our communities and our guests together. We have a bigger voice in protecting our way of life and what matters to us.”

Kaitlin Eskelson, executive director of the of the Utah Tourism Industry Association, said that next year’s annual appropriation for the state’s tourism Marketing Performance Fund is a record $25 million.

Eskelson also provided a recap of the recently completed 2019 session of the Utah Legislature, briefly outlining several bills that will have an impact on the tourism industry, including HB 266, allowing transient room taxes to be used for emergency services; HB 43, support animal amendments; HB 128, a measure to curtail ticket scalping; SB 132, beer with an alcohol content of up to 4 percent now permitted to be sold in grocery stores; and several others.

Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, gave the keynote speech Thursday and talked about a tourism marketing initiative called Red Emerald, first introduced in 2017.

Vicki Varela, director of the Utah Office of Tourism, speaks during the second annual Southern Utah Tourism Summit, Cedar City, Utah, March 28, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Varela said the idea behind Red Emerald is to seek ways to increase the quality of visitor experiences, not merely the sheer number of visitors. The goal is to encourage tourists to stay longer, spend more money and have deeper personal connections with the places they visit, she said.

Most Southern Utah travelers plan their trips around visits to one or more national parks, Varela noted.

“Let’s be sure we are helping them figure out what comes in between,” she said.

“People want their vacations to be a learning experience,” she said. “We’re preparing our customers to have the right experiences.”

Varela also noted that during 2017, travelers in Utah spent $9.15 billion, which generated an estimated $1.3 in tax revenues. That translates to $1,375 in annual tax relief per Utah household, she said.

Other hot-button items briefly highlighted by Varela included tentative plans for a second visitors center at Zion National Park near the park’s east entrance, the newly designated Jurassic National Monument and expansion of Goblin Valley State Park in Emery County, expansion plans for the Salt Lake International Airport and Utah’s possible bid for the 2030 Olympic Winter Games.

Also speaking on Thursday was Eric Bright, vice president of e-commerce at, who broke down the science of customer satisfaction and offered suggestions on how to improve it. For example, he suggested, instead of having bottled water for sale in a hotel room for $4 a bottle, why not provide it to the customers for free? The positive feedback it would generate would likely be well worth it, he said.

Bright also suggested that rather than striving for a “minimum viable product,” companies should instead seek to provide a “minimum delightful product.”

“People want an authentic experience,” he said.

Thursday afternoon, attendees went to two of their choices of breakout sessions on a variety of topics. There was also a short discussion and presentation on the Zion Forever Project.

Friday’s two main speakers were Ernie Harker and motivational speaker Chad Porter.

Brand strategist Ernie Harker speaks during the second annual Southern Utah Tourism Summit, Cedar City, Utah, March 29, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Harker is the “brand therapist” who was behind the rebranding of Maverik convenience stores from their original identity as a “Country Store” to their current status as “Adventure’s First Stop.”

The six necessary ingredients of branding, according to Harker, are the following:

  1. Define your unique selling proposition.
  2. Define your target customer.
  3. Identify your core belief.
  4. Outline your vision.
  5. Describe your brand.
  6. Establish design elements (colors, textures, images, visuals, fonts, vocabulary).

Harker also touted the importance of developing a shared connection with customers and helping them have a quality experience.

Porter, a native of North Carolina, talked of how he was seriously injured as a teenager in 1991 when a motorboat backed over him following a water skiing run. He lost the lower part of his left leg, and his right leg was badly damaged.

Motivational speaker Chad Porter shows scars on his leg from a boating accident when he was a teenager, Southern Utah Tourism Summit, Cedar City, Utah, March 29, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

He said the life-changing event forced him to make a decision, to either give up or fight.

“I wasn’t born to be a quitter,” he said, encouraging those in the audience to do the same. “Life just happens sometimes.”

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you are,” he added, encouraging those in attendance to help others get what they want in life.

“Keep helping, keep serving, and make others happy,” he said.

The conference’s final speaker was Utah Shakespeare Festival artistic director Brian Vaughn, who talked about how much the festival has grown from its humble beginnings in 1961, when founder Fred Adams first borrowed $1,000 from the local Lions Club to put on three of Shakespeare’s plays.

Today, the festival is a major production, with eight plays running over a months-long season from summer to fall. The highly popular, award-winning festival now has an annual budget of over $7 million and is seen by more than 100,000 people each year, Vaughn said, adding that its fiscal impact on the local economy has been estimated at approximately $35 million annually, according to a 2012 study.

Vaughn said the festival strives “to give our guests an experience that is more than just seeing a play.”

“The heart of what we do, really, is to give people something to do while they’re here,” he said, noting that the festival strives to provide many additional interrelated activities to keep guests engaged, including the popular greenshows and backstage tours.

Speed painter Tim Decker creates a likeness of the Statue of Liberty on canvas during the second annual Southern Utah Tourism Summit, Cedar City, Utah, March 29, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

One added bit of surprise entertainment took place Friday morning, when attendees watched nationally renowned “speed painter” Tim Decker crank out three portraits in just a few minutes each.

Using brushes in both hands to slather paint on black canvases and working to energetic music as the audience clapped to the beat, he quickly rendered likenesses of Albert Einstein, John Lennon and the Statue of Liberty. Two of the paintings were given away to conference goers as raffle prizes. Decker also created a painting of the tourism summit’s logo for event organizers.

Next year’s summit is scheduled to be held April 2-3 at Kanab’s new convention center, organizers said.

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