Downtown Salt Lake City businesses expect a clientele increase during the first weekend of April because of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Annual General Conference returning to an in-person format.
This is the first general conference to take place in-person in two years. On March 11, 2020, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced the April 2020 General Conference would be carried out virtually because of health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the CDC easing COVID-19 safety regulations and the Church providing new reopening guidelines, members and nonmembers from all over the world were invited to attend the live, in-person sessions of general conference in a letter sent by the First Presidency Feb. 11.
This year’s conference will consist of five sessions from April 2–3. According to the Church Newsroom, seating will be limited to 10,000 people per session because of parking and accessibility matters caused by the Temple Square construction work.
Reflecting on his experience managing downtown Salt Lake City restaurant Spitz, Assistant General Manager Ian McKeever explained how lockdown and COVID-19 regulations were especially tough for restaurants like his that rely on tips and in-person consumption.
“During the last two years we suffered,” McKeever said. “We were limited to little-to-no capacity dining in, we had a lot of short staffing, almost nobody was coming to work and when they did very few people were tipping us.”
Even though restaurants all around the country financially struggled in a similar way, there is something different about downtown Salt Lake City businesses: general conference.
According to a 2019 report by Womply, a software company that tracks small-businesses sales, the biggest day for Salt Lake City restaurants in 2019 was the Saturday of general conference, with sales 13% higher than on an average Saturday.
Downtown Alliance SLC told the Daily Universe, “On average, in a ‘normal’ year, the conference draws more than 19,000 participants, half of which the Key C. Gardner Institute estimate comes from out of state.” The other half comes equally spread from the Wasatch Front, Ogden to Provo, the statement said.
Stores that would have extended hours, special sales and multiple events for general conference weekend, such as the flagship store of Deseret Book in downtown Salt Lake City, also had to close for the past four conferences.
“For the last two years, our downtown store was closed, and it was a huge drop for us,” said Christa Morgan, manager of the flagship Deseret Book.
According to Morgan, the store will open during this year’s general conference weekend, including the following Monday as well.
“For this year’s conference, we debated whether the store was worth opening, and after the Church’s Christmas devotional last December, we experienced a return to normality regarding client affluence,” Morgan said. “Even though we won’t have authors do signings and it won’t be such an event-driven week, we are opening during conference weekend.”
The flagship Deseret Book store will be the only one of the locations that will open on April 2. Other restaurants and hotels will also make the necessary changes in availability and staff to prepare for an increase in clients and sales.
“We are expecting to be incredibly busy, which is why I will increase my staff by 25%,” McKeever said. “In fact, we are already starting to see an increase of out-of-town clients around here.”
Another location that will also experience a higher number of sales over the weekend for the first time in two years is the City Creek Center mall, located just a block away from Temple Square.
“Based on what our retailers share, we can tell you that we expect to see increased sales and traffic with the return of in-person general conference,” said Lisa Wardell, general manager of City Creek Center.