Locals may refer to it as Small Lake City, but for the outside world, Salt Lake City is the once and presumed future host of the Winter Olympics. In the middle of that outsize attention is Clay Partain, CSEE, managing director of Sports Salt Lake, who deserves a gold medal for maintaining a small-city warm welcome with big-city-size amenities and events.
For the past seven years, Partain has pushed the region’s sports tourism industry to new heights. It now represents 15% of the meetings and events business the CVB brings into the city—and officials now say the 2002 Olympics are responsible for much of the corporate and association business.
“We’ve reached the point that if we’re going to be a major sports tourism hub, we need to look the part and walk the walk and talk the talk,” Partain says.
It’s a task too tall even for Partain, a 2017 Connect Sports Game Changer. Fortunately, Visit Salt Lake has called in reinforcements through a strategic decision to launch Sports Salt Lake. The new division builds upon Partain’s success and keeps him at the helm. His team includes sports sales manager Chris Robinson, sports services manager Caryn Bradshaw and marketing manager Kristen Hiester.
“It’s not anything different than what we’ve been doing,” acknowledges Partain. “We’re just making it more formalized.”
He adds: “I can only do so much—having these extra people to help is huge.”
The timing, not coincidentally, comes as the destination looks to rebound from the coronavirus-plagued 2020. As sports has grown in the region, it is now counted on as an essential piece of the recovery.
As a case in point, Visit Salt Lake attributes 30 pieces of group business this year to be tied directly to an incentive geared to entice event planners. About one-third of those events are sports tournaments, including returning customers like USA Fencing, Jam on It AAU Track and Field, and Triple Crown Volleyball.
Given the pandemic, it’s not all surprising to see innovation and adaption that makes sure events stayed in town. USA Weightlifting recently completed a rare hybrid competition, while USA Judo became become the first summer sport to use a winter sport arena when its youth national championships took place at the Utah Olympic Oval April 24 and 25.
“We’ve been busy through COVID,” Partain says. “We’ve been able to run a dance, albeit you have to be creative on how you run them.”
Sports provides a greater flexibility of venues for events than conventions, which primarily use Salt Palace Convention Center and Mountain America Exposition Center. There are about two dozen places to play in the area, including Salt Lake Regional Athletic Complex. The diversity of options allows the city to host, theoretically, two citywides concurrently, Partain notes.
With a new division and staff, Partain isn’t close to settling for business as usual. There remains room to grow “just as much over the next five years as we’ve done in the previous five years.”
He adds, “It never ceases to amaze me how much potential is in sports.”