Lunch is winding down at downtown Little Rock’s Doe’s Eat Place. Plates and glasses rattle between the tables and the kitchen, while the cash register sings a sweet tune of a big, busy lunch crowd.
U2′s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” drifts through the iconic establishment, but it’s clear that one patron’s search has long been settled.
Montine McNulty, executive director of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, is finishing her plate full of world-famous tamales and a second glass of sweet tea.
The long-time leader of the restaurant, travel and tourism trades says it’s still a rocky road out there, and the industries she represents are operating with caution.
“It’s good, but I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of optimism out there. I think business people are a little worried out there about what’s going to happen in the next year,” said McNulty.
What’s on a business owner’s mind? Workforce, consumer spending and especially health care.
“Everybody’s sorting through it and trying to determine the impact on their business,” McNulty says.
She’s spent the past year monitoring every workshop and webinar she can in order to pass along information to the folks she works for. To each business under her association’s umbrella, the impact could be different.
“I think for awhile most people had their heads buried in the sand about it,” she says. “Once they realized it is the law and its going to be carried out, they seem to be a little more interested in how its going to affect them.”
The Arkansas Hospitality Association represents the state’s lodging association, restaurant trade group, and the Arkansas Travel Council. In many states, these groups operate independently, but in Arkansas they fold under the AHA tent, a “great advantage,” according to McNulty.
The hospitality industry is a $5.7 billion economic engine in Arkansas. It employs nearly 100,000 workers – the third largest employer group in the state – and it’s poised to be the No. 1 job generator in state during the next decade.
“The great part about our industry is you can be entry level or an entrepreneur or executive,” says McNulty. “If you’re willing to get in there and work, you can be extremely successful in the hospitality and tourism industry.”
She hears success stories every day of hotel owners who once started as bellmen or restaurant owners who launched their careers as “chief dishwasher.”
McNulty, a Pine Bluff native, was drawn to the industry 16 years ago after serving on the state’s Parks and Tourism Commission.
“I just loved the atmosphere and the people and what goes on in this industry. It’s fun, it’s challenging and it gives people an opportunity to be successful,” she explains.
She’s a political animal and during a legislative session, she’ll be monitoring bills ranging from the wages to working conditions to health codes to unemployment insurance.
Any laws impacting those areas could have a major effect on not only the companies she represents, but the customers her members serve. And consumer behavior is a big deal. She notes the staccato nature of spending that dictates the fortunes of the hospitality industry.
“We went through a really down period and businesses got behind and in the hole,” she says in reference to the Great Recession. “Then things seemed to brighten up, and it seems like we’re going through another cycle where the consumer is being a little more cautious again.”
When asked, McNulty said she isn’t leaving her post any time soon. It’s way too good of a job and there’s too much promise on the horizon. She cites the innovations taking place in parts of Arkansas like the Crystal Bridges’ arts emphasis in the northwest and new entrepreneurial activities centered around the Southern traditions of the Delta.
“It’s all about quality of life. People want to travel to and live in places that have things to do. When we walked in here to Doe’s today, there was a group out front getting their picture made. They’ve created a place to be seen,” she noted to emphasize her point. “It’s a little bit of having fun in life and creating things that people want to do.”