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SALT LAKE CITY — "Tenacity" is the word that came to Roger Zampell's mind as he looked up at the Hyatt Regency Convention Center Hotel taking shape in downtown Salt Lake City Friday.
That's not just because the building is about a decade in the making, but the world has changed so much since ground broke on the building in January 2020. Just two months after that ceremony, COVID-19 struck and has disrupted everything imaginable since.
"Our team has had to do a superhuman effort to offset COVID, labor shortages, material shortages, supply chain issues — you name it, they've had to deal with it," said Zampell, the senior vice president of development at Portman Holdings, the building's owner.
Despite those hardships, "tenacity" is why construction on the $377 million building is still on schedule and on budget, and why those behind the project remain confident that the project will be completed on time for an October 2022 grand opening.
To that end, crews on Friday celebrated as a crane hoisted the final beam needed for the skeleton of the structure, in what is known as a "topping out" ceremony. An American flag and a small tree — a nod to the ancient Scandinavian practice of putting a tree at the top of a new building to appease religious spirits — joined the journey up to the top, where the beam was secured into place.
"It's really a rite of passage," said Derek Hoffine, vice president of Hensel Phelps, the contractor brought in for construction. "So when you're raising that beam, that's the moment this building comes to life. It symbolizes bringing the building to life."
Those behind the project or working on it also signed the final beam with a permanent marker before it was moved into place. Hoffine added that this beam, unlike most final beams — painted orange, white and yellow to match a design atop the structure — will be visible when the building is complete.
Salt Lake County tourism experts have long said they believe the building, which will bring 700 hotel rooms to the county, will be a lively place once it opens. But has that changed since COVID-19?
The demand for hotels after COVID-19
Urban tourism in the state hit a snag in 2020 that has lasted much longer than Utah's outdoors tourism. That poses a problem for Utah's overall $10 billion tourism industry because about half of all tourism spending happens in its four-most populated counties: Davis, Salt Lake, Utah and Weber.
Kaitlin Eskelson, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake, told KSL.com in April that COVID-19 cost Salt Lake County an estimated 350,000 travelers and more than 550,000 downtown hotel stays, resulting in a $357 million economic hit. Downtown Salt Lake City hotel occupancy fell below 20% for months at a time.
University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute estimated that Salt Lake County's transient room tax revenue fell 48.5% in 2020 compared to 2019, which gives an idea about how poor occupancy rates were after COVID-19 struck.
This year has been much kinder to the industry. The Salt Palace Convention Center, the building to which the new Hyatt Regency is attached, resumed conventions in 2021. There were conventions also held elsewhere downtown. Revenue levels remain below pre-pandemic levels but they offer optimism that the industry will recover.
I definitely think there's an eagerness that people have to get back together, to start having meetings in person. We're looking forward to being able to open our doors next fall and see that come to life.
–Pina Purpero, Hyatt Regency Salt Lake City
The 25-story Hyatt Regency Salt Lake City's 700 rooms will include 33 luxury suites, and there is 60,000 square feet of meeting space. It'll also feature a sixth-floor rooftop pool, a fitness center, as well as a restaurant that will have outdoor dining and fire pits available.
There are already encouraging signs of interest in the new convention center hotel. Some groups have started booking their future stays, said Pina Purpero, general manager for the Hyatt Regency Salt Lake City.
"I definitely think there's an eagerness that people have to get back together, to start having meetings in person," she told KSL.com. "We're looking forward to being able to open our doors next fall and see that come to life."
Purpero sees the new building as being a future "headquarter hotel" for Salt Lake City — a building not just a part of the Salt Palace Convention Center, but one located just blocks from other venues that can draw in large crowds, such as Vivint Arena or Temple Square. The city also draws in people who come to Utah for outdoor recreation, especially to the mountain resorts east of the city.
With the industry working to recover, Purpero the hotel chain has been working closely with the staff at the convention center, with Visit Salt Lake and even the other hotels in the city to help make downtown Salt Lake City a destination for business and leisure travelers alike.
Visit Salt Lake even launched a program in August giving discounts to attractions and breweries around Salt Lake County if they booked a hotel stay in participating Salt Lake County hotels.
Purpero said she believes both business and leisure travel will return to normal eventually.
"When exactly? When is there going to be that trigger that people are going to be 100% comfortable? I can't say, but we already do have some groups that are booking, which is a positive sign moving forward," she said. "I think that amount is only going to continue to increase as the next few months go by."
Work on downtown's ever-changing skyline
It's hard not to miss the new hotel as it forms. Once complete, it'll stand at 327 feet high as the 10th tallest building downtown — ninth among currently completed buildings but behind 95 State, a 392-foot skyscraper that is nearing completion.
Construction on both buildings celebrated milestones this month. While crews "topped out" the new hotel at the convention center, workers lit up the 95 State, located three blocks northeast from the Hyatt Regency, for the first time last week. 95 State is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
But building the skyline hasn't been easy the past 20 months. Adding a completely new building that attaches to an existing building hasn't been much of a struggle; the bigger construction issue is items mostly out of their control.
Hoffine explained that they anticipated struggles in construction, especially after COVID-19. The hardest part of the construction, he said, was originally finding the right amount of labor.
Issues with the supply chain and material shortages required a little bit more creativity. They found ways to remain on schedule despite those issues because they worked on parts of the project they could until certain materials came in, when possible.
"It may have meant having some work out of sequence or maybe you had some work going simultaneously, which wouldn't be ideal when you're planning out a job of this scale," he said. "Those are the things that we had to do, and it's worked out fine. ... Our team did a really good job of not letting some of the things happening elsewhere with other projects impact this project."