boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Utah trying to change its early-to-bed image

Tourism offices tell of a life after sunset

SALT LAKE CITY -- Tourists love Utah's ski resorts, red rock formations, and fine restaurants. It's finding something to do once the sun sets that's giving the state an image problem.

Restrictive state liquor laws, city ordinances, and a historic association with the Mormon church are causing headaches for those trying to get tourists to spend more money here and change the perception that Utah is anything but hip.

Tourism is a growing $5.45 billion industry in Utah, but its domestic market share has steadily shrunk in the past decade, even after the 2002 Winter Olympics.

A nationwide image survey conducted for the Utah Office of Tourism this year has found a perception that there is a dearth of entertainment for adults.

Leigh Von Der Esch, the office's executive director, knows it can take years to change perceptions.

The tourism office has started an $11 million advertising campaign, focusing on attracting affluent outdoor adventure travelers and educating them about nightlife once they're here.

The top complaints the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau receives are that there's not much nightlife and that it's difficult to get a drink. The complaints begin before tourists even arrive, said Shawn Stinson, director of communications for the bureau.

``We're the first to say Salt Lake has excellent bars and restaurants throughout the city. They are just not in a densely populated area," Stinson said. ``We feel that is definitely a drawback to the Salt Lake experience."

Salt Lake City law prohibits more than two bars from operating on the same facing of a city block. Downtown, the average city block is 660 feet long.

Many other cities and towns in Utah, including the ski resort town of Park City, do not have that limit.

Salt Lake City's mayor, Rocky Anderson, wants the restriction lifted in Utah's most-visited city. He said the perception is that tourists have to go to Park City, about 25 miles away, to have fun.

``We want to create a walkable, lively, and hospitable downtown. It's crucial," he said. ``I'm not saying that the two-taverns-per-block-face is necessarily the most important issue facing us in our downtown, but it is one of those obstacles."

During the day, downtown bustles with people. By 6 p.m., sidewalks are empty and many businesses are closed.

But locals say there is no shortage of nightlife. It's finding it that's the problem.

``We do have lots of bars and nightlife, but you have to look a little bit for it. It's a challenging condition," said Councilor Soren Simonson.

``If we're truly going to welcome the world," Simonson added, ``we have to let people make their own choices about alcohol consumption."

The City Council is considering creating an entertainment district to liven up downtown. But most council members say they're in no rush to change ordinances to do so, and worry about the possibility of increased drunken driving in Salt Lake City.

The Utah Office of Tourism commissioned the image survey to understand how the state compares with others. The results were not good.

The state was seen as being highly marketable for family-friendly activities, the tourist segment that spends less per trip than any other.

Utah also scored poorly for cultural activities and entertainment.

The more tourists associated Utah with the Mormon church, the lower marks they gave the state for having a wide variety of things to do, for being fun, luxurious, or exciting, or for having nightlife. Faithful members of the Mormon church do not drink, smoke, or consume coffee or tea.

A report last year by The Salt Lake Tribune found that about 62 percent of the state's population is Mormon, although the church says the number is closer to 70 percent.

Most of the state's leaders, including Governor Jon Huntsman, are Mormon. The state Legislature passed a law this year to ban smoking in bars beginning in 2009. There was discussion at the time of revisiting the state's liquor laws, which include a tax on full-strength beer and a requirement that bar visitors must be a member or a member's guest. Becoming a member involves a fee and a few minutes of paperwork.

``It's a slap in the face to tourists when they walk into a club and the first thing they're hit with is the question of whether they're a member and requiring they provide all this personal information," Anderson said.

The liquor law issue did not make the cut for items that legislators would study leading up to the legislative session, which that begins in January.

For all the debate, some, like Councilor Dave Buhler, see no problem in Salt Lake City.

``Compared to everywhere else in Utah," he said, ``we certainly have a lot more going on in our downtown."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES