Robbie Beck McHugh, Amanda Peterson, Jack Douglas, and Laura Thomas-Doty at the ASTA rodeo

Forty years ago, Park City was far from being an international mecca for tourists and conventions. It was a small mining town and a ski area that attracted mostly day skiers from the Salt Lake Valley. Then, one remarkable event sparked its transformation: the 1979 American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) Western Conference.

The Backstory

It all began with the formation of a Chamber of Commerce—spearheaded, back in 1965, by the fledgling Treasure Mountain Resort (today, Park City Mountain). After a decade-long rocky road, the Chamber stabilized under the direction of Amanda Peterson, and its tiny Main Street office handled visitors and promoted local businesses. Meanwhile, the ski area developed its own marketing staff that distributed information to ski clubs and, by 1973, hosted small familiarization tours for the travel industry.

At about the time the streamlined Chamber proposed the formation of a Convention and Visitors Bureau, Roger Haran with Moana property management ambitiously submitted a shot-in-the-dark Park City bid for the most prestigious travel event in the country: ASTA’s Western Conference. Unbelievably, in February of 1978, ASTA announced that Park City had won, and “The West Rides Again” Conference would be held May 20–24, 1979.

The Plan

“In order to ensure a successful conference,” Haran announced, “the entire community will be enlisted for total cooperation.” That was an understatement. In a classic “be careful what you wish for” moment, the town collectively panicked. Hundreds of travel agents, and representatives from airlines, hotels, tourist offices, and wholesalers would descend on Park City, generating a fortune in free publicity. The newspaper, The Park Record, deemed it “of monumental significance to Park City’s tourist trade,” and prophesized that it “could be the biggest plus for Park City since the mining hey days.” No pressure.

The May date, which was during “Mud Month,” was bad news. “Weather was unpredictable, businesses closed up, and people left for Mexico after the resort closed,” explains Laura Thomas-Doty, then Park City Ski Area’s assistant director of marketing and chair of the event’s organizing committee. “We begged the shops to stay open and people to stay in town.” It was risky to hold so many events outdoors, but there were no alternatives and no back-ups. The committee joked that the only way to feed attendees together was in a circus tent. So, City Councilman Bob Wells arranged the purchase of an enormous, yellow-and-white-striped tent, capable of seating 1,000 people, that was erected at the bottom of the ski run, next to the ski area’s plaza.

The plan was to operate the entire town as one venue: receptions on Main Street and the ski area plaza; registration and information at the swanky new Holiday Inn (where rooms cost $25 a night); seminars, films, and a trade show at the new Prospector Square; a golf tournament at the city’s only course; a tennis tournament at the new Racquet Club (now the MARC); melodramas at Silver Wheel (historic Egyptian) Theatre; gondola and alpine slide rides on the mountain; two all-conference dinners in the tent; exhibits and performances at the new Kimball Art Center; a rodeo at the junction; and meals and lodging in small groups at every tiny restaurant and lodge in town.

Two months before the conference, the Convention Bureau was finally up and running with its first director, Jack Douglas. Nearly every organization, business, and individual had been recruited to help—including Sunn Classic Pictures, which was filming Grizzly Adams near town. “The restaurants have been renovated and cleaned, the streets have been swept, and the town has gone all out,” declared The Record, three days out.

“We all held our breath,” Thomas-Doty remembers.

The Main Event

From the moment they arrived, the nearly 700 ASTA attendees realized they were in for something special. On the bus ride up the canyon from the airport, hosts dressed in period dance hall costumes regaled the conference goers with stories about Parley’s Canyon train, Kimball Ranch at the junction,  and Park City’s silver mining history. “And we served everyone drinks in an effort to dissuade their perceptions of Utah’s liquor laws,” recalls Robbie Beck McHugh, then the ski area’s marketing assistant.

At check-in, attendees received an official program produced by The Newspaper, the town’s second paper at the time, and big red popcorn-filled “dynamite” tubes that said, “Have a Blast in Park City!” The merchants included “stock certificates,” good for freebies and discounts in the shops. Humorous instructions on how to get a drink in Utah were tucked into handmade canvas liquor bags. “I got a nasty phone call from the Utah Liquor Commission about those liquor bags,” reflects Peterson, “scolding me for ‘promoting liquor’ in Utah.”

The conference began with an uproarious reception on Main Street, which was closed to cars and open for business. Locals were invited to wear historical costumes, ride their horses, and join the festivities. And they did. There were fiddlers and square dancers, an exhibit at the Kimball, and walking tours with local historian Bea Kummer. The Historical Society held forth in the vacant Union Pacific Depot, and the Silver Wheel Theatre invited folks inside. The Convention Bureau’s Douglas wandered up and down the street with a giant pair of scissors and proceeded to slash horrified ASTA visitors’ ties into ribbons. “You were warned not to wear them,” he’d yell at them. The party culminated with a dramatic shootout staged by the Sunn Classic actors. “Park City proved once again that it has more comic characters per capita than Disney Studios,” observed Record columnist Teri Orr, who served wine in Dixie cups from the newspaper office’s porch.

That evening cocktails were served at the ski area plaza, followed by a chuck wagon dinner in the brand-new tent. A team of volunteers had worked all day to set tables with tin plates, red bandana napkins, and antique Park City containers filled with flowers and greenery from local gardens. Lloyd Stevens, popular owner of The Claimjumper restaurant, lined up every barbecue he could scavenge and set up a mile-long buffet heaped with Western grub from every local eatery in a sort of town-wide potluck. “It was a real tough task,” recalls Stevens, “but everyone pitched in and we pulled it off like a charm.” Utah Governor Matheson addressed the crowd, wearing his signature cowboy hat, and rollicking bluegrass tunes played into the night.

ASTA was charmed. This definitely wasn’t the usual hotel ballroom dinner.

In addition to scheduled events, there was a lineup of side tours to nearby attractions—and nonstop parties. A band of 14 Peruvians, with their group of colorful musicians and dancers, entertained every night. Festivities at the ski area’s Rusty Nail involved Hawaiians riding a mechanical bull. Mexicana Airlines invited everyone for margaritas and mariachi dancing.

“The city has been thrown into a frenzy!” commented Record columnist David Fleisher, who admitted to attending six parties in one evening. “At one point we at the Record considered installing an ASTA hotline.”

Ernie Scow, known to all as “Ernie the Bread Man” (yes, he delivered the town’s bread), organized the rodeo at his scrappy little arena at the junction. Practice had been held two days before “for aspiring rodeo participants to test their dude skills,” including barrel racing and bull riding. Ernie’s wife, called “The General” (a.k.a. Joanne Scow), served as announcer, local character Wayne Putnam was the rodeo clown, and the women’s softball league ran concessions to raise money for new sod. Locals joined ASTA visitors on the rickety wooden bleachers. Each state had its own team competing—with Park City represented by Peterson, Wells, Thomas-Doty, McHugh, and Mayor Jack Green.

“My horse was named Reno,” recalls McHugh, who had never ridden before. “They told me to hold on real tight. After Reno went through the barrels, he raced out of the arena and down to the creek. I didn’t know how to stop him.” Wells, after a stiff drink, mounted the bull for a ride he was teased about for years. Chaos ensued when a “posse of sheriffs” rode in, “arrested” ASTA Chair Dave Smith, and hauled him off to the territorial jail in City Hall. The Hawaiians won the rodeo.

By the time the conference wrapped up with a farewell beer-and-barbecue bash (and departing attendees wearing “You bet your sweet ASTA I was in Park City!” T-shirts), the town knew that history had been made. Every day of the conference had been a bluebird day. The next day, it started snowing.

The ASTA Afterglow

It was “the best ASTA Conference ever” according to a letter from ASTA that was published in both The Park Record and The Newspaper. And those T-shirts were framed in travel agencies all over the world.

“A lot of people said we couldn’t pull off the ASTA Conference,” recalls Thomas-Doty, “but, we did it! It proved to be one of the pivotal events in Park City’s history, starting a journey to becoming a major winter and summer vacation destination.... In the process, it created a powerful, fun-loving, cohesive coalition that went on to transform the town for decades to come.”

Forty years later, the spirit of ASTA lives on.

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