The tourism industry was relatively consistent with respect to access, options and overall consumer behavior.
And then the Internet happened.
“The way people plan a trip is radically different. The way they research … and how they book the room or the whole trip is all different, completely different, than what it was. It changed all aspects of the tourism industry,” said Maryl Koeth, executive director of the Van Buren Advertising and Promotion Commission.
And that’s not a bad thing, she said. It has forced owners of tourism and travel related companies to evolve and keep evolving. It has forced tourism officials to pay more attention to tourism and travel trends. And the Internet, the system that forced the changes, also helps tourism officials quickly adapt to ever-changing consumer preferences, Koeth said.
She’s seen the industry cycle for a few seasons. After working for a freight brokerage firm, Koeth began with the Van Buren A&P in 1990 shortly after Van Buren voters approved a 1% lodging tax and a 1% restaurant tax to launch the city’s tourism promotion and recruitment efforts. She’s been the A&P director more than 13 years.
Koeth is also active in statewide tourism efforts. She’s a board member with the Arkansas River Connection, is the incoming president of the Travel Council for the Arkansas Hospitality Association, and is active with the Arkansas Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus.
VACATION SPENDING SHIFT
There is one thing about the industry that has emerged as a constant.
“The American worker is a unique creature. We tend to work harder, and we tend to work more hours … but we will take a vacation. And when we do take a vacation the American worker is going to figure out how to do that no matter what the economy is doing. … They figure out how to do that even if they have to do it cheaper than they did last year,” Koeth said.
Cheaper, unfortunately, has been the more common modus operandi in recent years, according to Koeth. She is hearing from those in the industry that travelers are eating fewer meals or are skipping the appetizers. Instead of a three-night stay, the traveler may cut back to just two nights.
“We’re going to go on that vacation, but we may buy fewer souvenirs, or we may stay a day or two shorter,” she said.
Koeth cites this shift in consumer behavior – shorter vacation times, and less spending – as a reason for declines in area hospitality tax collections.
Hospitality tax collections in Fort Smith and Van Buren are down for the first five months of 2013. Collections in Van Buren during the first five months of 2013 total $174,969, a slight decline of 0.77% from the $176,327 in the first quarter of 2012.
May collections were $36,898, down 1.2% from the $37,344 in May 2012. The city collects a 1% tax on lodging and a 1% prepared food tax.
“We’re happy, obviously, that they are still taking a vacation, but the downside to how tourists are spending is that it’s really been hard on our shops on Main Street,” Koeth explained.
‘NEVER STAYS THE SAME’
Dwelling on present difficulties is not something Koeth can afford. With data provided by Internet sources and more sophisticated tools now used in the industry, Koeth says she spends more of her time researching “where the tourism industry needs to be” in the next season.
“Tourism never stays the same. Ever. In any community. Never the same. It’s always evolving. It’s always changing,” Koeth said in a measured staccato rhythm to emphasize her point.
She said it’s still important to have a five-year plan or other forms of long-term strategies, but the plan better be flexible. For example, tourism research in the past few years suggests that travelers are more attracted to riverfront and open greenspace areas.
“What we are seeing is that more people are wanting to do more outdoor things,” Koeth said.
That traveler is also open to spending time and money visiting historic areas that may be off the beaten path. To reach that traveler, Koeth said she hopes to work with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and other partners to “keep developing our heritage tourism assets.” UAFS took the lead in restoring the historic Drennen-Scott house in Van Buren.
An aspect of the industry Koeth also watches is business travel. So far, she is hearing from hotel owners that business travel in the Van Buren area is good. But with an uncertain economy, the definition of “good” is also subject to change. Koeth says she closely watches the national trucking industry to gauge future economic health.
“Yes, it looks like our business travel is holding steady, but with any ripple in the economy, that’s where businesses will often cut back,” Koeth said.
Another industry dynamic is that tourism benefits don’t necessarily come from nearby facilities or events. Koeth said Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville has helped the Van Buren tourism economy. The anecdotes are many, Koeth says, of those who stop in Van Buren going to or coming from Crystal Bridges.
“It may be sitting in Bentonville, but it’s having an impact on our part of the state. It’s a world-class art museum just 70 miles away.”