SBJ/February 4 - 10, 2002/Special Report

Economy, terrorism can't dampen host spirit

Skiers are coming to Park City despite concerns
that Olympic visitors will add to traffic.

Despite a soft economy and fear of new terrorist attacks, the Salt Lake City Olympics has generated record ticket sales and could start a local tourism boom that lasts a decade, local officials said.

Salt Lake Organizing Committee officials said that 88 percent of the 1.6 million tickets available had been sold as of last week, a record for the Winter Games, and that more than 90 of 165 competitions are sold out.

The group said it has been selling about $300,000 of tickets a day and will likely meet its goal of $180 million in sales. The committee was $7 million short with a week to go until the Games.

"We've been pleasantly surprised at the continued robust ticket sales," said SLOC communications director Caroline Shaw. "We're confident we won't have any budgetary shortfalls."

At the same time, domestic interest in the Games has offset a reduction in international visitors. Many canceled their Olympic plans after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Utah travel officials said they stand by their original estimate of 1 million Olympic visitors, who they expect will spend about $350 million.

"Visitor demand has not been diminished at all by security concerns or the softening economy," said John Kemp, research coordinator for the Utah Travel Council.

Nearly every hotel room within 100 miles of Salt Lake City has been reserved for Olympic visitors, but a number of corporations overbooked and are trying to resell some of their rooms, said Jason Mathis, media director for the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau.

That means last-minute visitors might not have trouble finding a place to stay. The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News also list a full page of homes for rent each day in the classifieds.

Larry Mankin, president of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, said the Olympics' effect on tourism will outlast the Games. A building boom has brought more than 2,000 new hotel rooms to the area, which will allow Salt Lake City to enter the market for larger conventions than it was able to lure in the past.

"Post-Games tourism should be phenomenal," Mankin said. "We already have one of the highest number of bookings for conventions next fall that we've ever had. And the Conventions and Visitors Bureau will host a large number of groups during the Olympics that could lead to more conventions. We already have bookings lined up through 2010 and 2011.

"The Olympics are going to make the tourism industry in Salt Lake for the next decade. Tourism probably is the brightest star we have."

Even Utah's vaunted ski industry, which had expected skiers to avoid the slopes because of Olympic traffic concerns, has prospered. Analysts expected a 20 percent to 30 percent decline in ski visits, but it has yet to occur.

"We had our second-best Christmas ever," said Nathan Rafferty, director of communications for Ski Utah!, which promotes the state's ski areas. "It surprised everybody in an Olympic year and after Sept. 11, and [with] the slow economy. Things are a lot better than we expected."

Media attention to Olympic preparations helped the upswing, Rafferty said.

"All eyes were on us as reporters repeatedly asked whether we'd have enough snow for the Olympics," Rafferty said. "When it started to snow and didn't stop, it was great. You can't substitute any amount of marketing for 250 inches of snow, especially when the international media is ready to broadcast to the world that it's falling."

Still, several resorts continue to worry about ski visits, he said. While lodge and condo owners have sold their rooms to Olympic spectators, resorts such as The Canyons in Park City still don't know whether skiers have gotten the message that only 5 percent of Utah's slopes will be used during the Olympics.

"We knew it would be a challenging year, but things are better than expected," Rafferty said. "We're still not sure what will happen in February during the Games, but March will be great."

Tad Walch is a writer in Utah.

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