The Saratoga Sun -

Good to be together again

Wyoming tourism summit held in person

 

November 3, 2021

Mike Armstrong

CCVC CEO Leslie Jefferson and board member Mary-Pat Whitfield enjoyed the Fall Summit of Tourism and Hospitality held in Sheridan.

The Wyoming Hospitality and Tourism Fall Summit was held in Sheridan on October 20 and 21. The common statement made by leaders and attendees was how good it was to have the conference in person instead of by Zoom, which happened last year.

"I was so grateful we had Zoom and other virtual networks to stay connected," Wyoming Office of Tourism Executive Director Diane Shober said. "But face to face is so much more engaging when you see the full person. Body language is important to non-verbal communication. The fact that we are all back here together says a lot. This a small but might industry and we get energized by each other."

Among the attendees were four board members and the CEO of the Carbon County Visitors Council (CCVC). All made the four hour drive to learn what programs and initiatives were being put in place for the tourism and hospitality industry.

Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association (WLRA)/Wyoming Travel Industry Coalition (WTIC) Executive Director Chris Brown pointed out since COVID-19 came on the radar, the Wyoming tourism and hospitality industry went through some tough times.

"I can't believe it has been almost two years since we have met together," Brown said. "The last two years have probably been the most difficult our industry has ever faced and it feels so good to be back together."

Brown said there was still challenges. He pointed out the second largest industry in Wyoming was having workforce shortages along with shortages of affordable housing for the available workforce.

"Thank goodness for the support the industry has received from the federal government and state government the past two years so we could bridge between what has been a horrible pandemic for our industry to now," Brown said.

The first program was a federal legislative update for the industry by Senior Director of State and Local Government Affairs, Katie Wright and Erik Hansen Executive Vice President of the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

The speakers said there was opportunity in the federal government for positive movement for tourism legislation because tourism is important to every elected representative to some degree. There is bipartisan support to help the industry get back to where it was before the pandemic.

A panel from the Wyoming government was represented from directors of the Department of Workforce Services, Wyoming Business Council and the Department of State and Cultural Resources on how funding of the Rescue Plan Act would be spent.

Brown gave a Wyoming Legislative update. Mentioned in the program was a review of Film Industry Production Incentive being considered.

In a program featuring Shober as the speaker, she said now that WOT and the Wyoming Tourism Board had a budget from a dedicated funding source through the statewide lodging tax, the State's marketing budget was poised to support and grow Wyoming's tourism economy. She pointed out the $22 million the State had put forth to support the industry years prior now stayed with the State. She said in March 2020, the state was at its worst but tourism bounced back in 2021. Shober said although tourism was doing well it should not be taken for granted which is why marketing of tourism was important. She said leisure and hospitality represented 13 percent of the workforce in Wyoming, only the State employed more at 22 percent.

"You build an industry that takes care of Wyoming people," Shober said. "Tourism marketing is supporting Wyoming people and Wyoming communities."

Shober said that in 2022 and 2023 there would be a strong push in marketing to build an interest in the state. She was very positive about the future.

"We are trying to prioritize and do foundational work and help our communities be visitor ready so they can have visitors longer," Shober said. "We cannot take demand for granted. We cannot assume everyone will be coming here. That is why we have to have marketing because we have a lot of competition around us."

Shober felt the Fall Summit was important to keep the industry aware of the leadership and initiatives being put forth by the Governor, WOT, WTIC/WLRA and allies.

"The summit is about fostering partnerships and deciding where we are going to go together," Shober said. "It is so nice to see board members of the Carbon County Visitors Council here with Leslie (Jefferson), because they have a responsibility to understand how they can best position Carbon County. They have a budget and they want to spend that, but if they want to partner with others that have like-minded brand platforms and opportunities, it is another way to elevate the destination. This is an industry about people; people serving people; people treating strangers like friends and that is why it is such a special industry."

Shober was not the only one to have good words about the industry as the summit was winding down. Brown was happy to have people interacting in person again.

"Our industry is a hands-on industry that likes to get together and put our brains together and work hard, so it has been amazing to be back together," Brown said. "Collectively, as an industry, we have the ability to do anything, to achieve anything, when we stand together and speak with one voice. If we speak from the same talking points and work together, we have a really good chance for success. Our industry is poised to grow if we can continue to invest in and develop more tools to grow tourism at the state and local level. We are in a great position."

The Fall Summit concluded with Governor Mark Gordon talking to the attendees at dinner. He made clear his support of the industry and he was glad to be at the summit

"I think the summit is an incredible opportunity for people to share stories and tell about the successes they have seen this year and it is just nice to be gathered again," Gordon said after his speech. "Think about how this summer went, which for the most part was exceptional. Even if the Platte was low, people were in record numbers in Saratoga."

Gordon is also happy with the success of the lodging tax.

"The people in Wyoming need to understand, the vast majority of that funding is paid by people that are out of state," Gordon said. "That is important in the building of infrastructure and makes our communities whole as this money comes in."

Like Shober and Brown, he was glad to see all the smiles.

"This gathering of people has been great to see because of all the smiles, and the thinking of all the opportunities that might happen because they are all together," Gordon said. "I think it is great to see. For me it has been an opportunity to re-energize to think about the ways we can help build that workforce, open that new restaurant or any businessand bring back that vitality to Wyoming."

David Rudloff, owner of Rudloff Solutions, a tourism industry consulting agency, said the summit was an excellent chance to be back in touch with many people in person.

"You know everyone has worked so hard to get through these rough times, so this summit and get together feels like a happy release," Rudloff said. "It is really feels like the Wyoming travel industry has come together in a celebration of having survived."

Jefferson also shared her thoughts on the summit.

"It is important to get face-to-face," Jefferson said. "The Zoom meetings just lost their luster and now it is great to be speaking in person and having that eye contact."

"As one of the newer members on the board, this summit has been extremely helpful," Rawlins representative Mary-Pat Whitfield said. "It gave me a terrific overview and the importance of the CCVC and its connection to State tourism."

Saratoga representative and CCVC Chairman Danny Burau found the summit an opportunity to see where Carbon County played a part in Wyoming's overall tourism industry.

"We have the second longest airstrip in the state," Burau said. "You can land an airbus here and you are not going to overwhelm us. We can handle it. This county is near so much and the diversity is incredible and vast. We have some amenities that are world class and the same can be said for our outdoors recreation."

Burau found the summit enlightening because he believes tourism is a major force for the future in Carbon County.

"In my mind, tourism is the way this county moves forward," Burau said. "We are already did better during the pandemic than many other places in Wyoming. We offer many things people want and we are accessible through I-80 and then we have a river. Most places can only dream of having a major corridor running through it and a river. We have Seminoe and mountain ranges that are spectacular in the beauty they offer."

Burau said he enjoyed talking to the individuals who were working for tourism marketing companies and the WOT marketing team for the different programs and ideas being promoted.

"One thing that became apparent is that international travel will be slow to return and that the state as a whole has done well with people driving," Burau said. "I think the spotlight that was on our state the past year or so will lend itself to endless opportunities. So it was interesting to hear what trends are happening in the other parts of the state."

Burau said a trend he heard being mentioned was visitors were looking for an authentic feeling place to visit.

"People aren't really interested in sitting in front of their computer any longer," Burau said. "They are looking to get around and seeing natural scenery and Wyoming is abundant with this attribute."

He said Wyoming was on the uptick as a brand.

"There is a lot of opportunity to grow our brand and this is a desired place to be," Burau said. "As they said at the summit, don't drop the bar and keep reminding people what we have in this state to see."

Burau said there was an important message at the summit he gleaned from listening and talking to the leaders and different attendees.

"My takeaway from the summit was that we did better than a lot of states during a very tough time, but we can't take the foot off the gas if we are going to compete in this regional market," Burau said. "Now is the time to crank up and show the world what we have to offer, whether we are talking about the state as a whole or just Carbon County."

 

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