A Sundance altered by coronavirus could ‘put a big hit’ on Park City’s economy

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Main Street has long been one of the hubs of the Sundance Film Festival, with a screening room at the Egyptian Theatre, other official festival venues and numerous temporary corporate setups. Sundance organizers on Monday said the festival is planned in 2021. It seems highly unlikely, though, the festival’s economic numbers in 2021 will approach those of previous years.
Park Record file photo

A range of Park City business sectors enjoy the spotlight of the Sundance Film Festival each January.

The lodging industry charges some of the top rates of the year with heavy bookings, the restaurants are jammed or rented out to corporate interests, the nightclubs are rocking and it is tough at many points to grab a taxi or shuttle.

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, many welcomed Sundance’s announcement on Monday that the festival is still planned early next year. It seems almost certain the festival in 2021 will not be the economic blockbuster that it has been for years, but it could provide a boost for businesses after what will by January be nearly a year of effects of the illness.

Sundance organizers are crafting a radically altered format for the event in January. The festival would be based in Park City but have venues across the U.S. under the concept that was outlined on Monday. Sundance said it is in discussions with screening rooms in places like Los Angeles, New York City, Atlanta and Detroit. Mexico City was also listed. The details have not been finalized, leaving numerous unknowns about the 2021 edition of Sundance six months before it is scheduled to open.

The Park City business community is likely to intensely follow the planning as details are publicized. Some will be attempting to project the financials of Sundance and, eventually, considering staffing levels for January. Others could be weighing whether to enter into temporary leases with the corporate interests that arrive in Park City for the festival. Revenues during Sundance can be crucial to the annual numbers of some businesses.

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“This is good news. We were just dealing with an unknown,” Bill Malone, the president and CEO of the Park City Chamber/Bureau, said. “We didn’t know whether Sundance would go dark for a year.”

Malone noted the lodging properties are jammed at some of the highest nightly rates of the year during the festival and business is strong in the community. He called Sundance “our second Christmas,” referring to another extremely busy stretch of the tourism calendar.

He acknowledged, though, the numbers will likely drop during the 2021 event. Malone mentioned the possibility of a reduced Sundance footprint and the prospects there will be less of a corporate presence.

“Economically, it will be significant,” he said.

Malone noted that details that were not publicized on Monday will be important as the planning continues. Some of the details he is awaiting include the venue map, the number of seats that will be available in each screening room and the sorts of health protocols that Sundance will be required to follow.

He also said he wants to learn about Sundance’s ideas for future festivals, including whether organizers will ultimately want to permanently adopt changes like offering events elsewhere.

The economic numbers have risen sharply over time as Sundance secured a place as one of the elite festivals on the global circuit, alongside those in places like Cannes, France, Toronto and Venice, Italy. Sundance in 2019 generated $182.5 million in economic impact in Utah. The 2020 numbers will be released later. Much of the economic impact is generated in Park City and surrounding Summit County.

The report detailing the economic impact of the 2019 event showed festival-goers spent nearly $70 million on lodging, a little over $39.9 million on recreation and entertainment and another approximately $36.6 million on meals. Car rentals and other categories of transportation accounted for millions of dollars.

The lodging industry will also await more details about the Sundance plans for January. The president of the Park City Area Lodging Association, Danny Williams, contended it was premature for Sundance to announce the concept for 2021 so early. He said a decision could have been pushed to October, saying some of the other cities that were identified as possible venues could suffer coronavirus increases by the time of the festival.

“What if other cities become hot spots,” he said, adding, “Way too early to make those judgments.”

Williams also predicted the lodging industry will suffer during Sundance as compared to previous years. He projected occupancy could be cut by up to 40% and the average daily room rate could drop by up to 40% as well during Sundance.

“It would put a big hit on our economy,” he said.

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