The LDS Church timed the opening of its new City Creek mall to coincide with its 2012 spring General Conference. The strategy apparently paid off, as conference goers flocked to the new development “in droves.”
The strategy also shows that building an economically vibrant city goes hand in hand with other aims such as religious edification. The church was smart to do what it did.
Which raises the question: why isn’t Provo taking advantage of LDS General Conference?
Provo hosts fewer tourists and out-of-staters than Salt Lake City during the biannual Mormon gathering, but there is nevertheless a serious influx of people. Besides conference attendees, many former Mormon missionaries also have reunions during conference weekend, and a fair number of those reunions are held on or around BYU, or at least in Utah Valley. In addition, many families in the area make getting together during conference a tradition.
Yet the increased traffic in Provo is an under-utilized asset. Though some visitors likely go to local restaurants, there’s little concerted effort to draw the travelers and converging families into downtown. There are no events, no marketing, no “conference weekend” deals at area businesses. I walked around downtown several times over the weekend and it wasn’t particularly lively. I even heard one restaurant owner comment, paradoxically, that business was slower because it was conference weekend. While undoubtedly true in that restaurant’s case, it’s an absurd reality when a huge influx of people actually reduces area business.
To be clear, I’m not talking about the many singles events and youth dances that take place during conference weekend. Those events generally target locals, and sometimes come off as tacky in their timing and tone.
Instead, I’m advocating something that could become a draw and a tradition in Provo for conference attendees. Downtown restaurants could offer more publicized incentives for women to eat out during the all-male Priesthood session of conference on Saturday night. Many LDS women I know already have some sort of similar tradition, so getting them to come downtown shouldn’t be too difficult.
Or, local organizations — LDS or otherwise — could host centrally located choral or religious performances during conference weekend. Downtown Provo Inc. could organize a special, one-off gallery stroll-type event for out of town conference goers (and for locals, of course). The city could organize walking or biking tours hosted by knowledgeable volunteers.
The possibilities are endless. And significantly, almost anything would have either a direct or indirect benefit on the local economy and on broad perceptions about Provo.