New restaurants in downtown Bentonville, a new murals festival in downtown Fort Smith and other tourism products that “creates a buzz” are what will help Arkansas’ tourism industry in 2015 build upon an impressive 2014, said Richard Davies, executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.
2014 was a solid year for the travel and tourism sector in most Arkansas cities and for the state. Collections of Arkansas’ 2% tourism tax needed only 11 of the 12 months of 2014 to set a new annual record. Collections of Arkansas’ 2% tourism tax during the first 11 months of 2014 totaled $12.866 million, up 7.51% compared to the $11.967 million during the same period of 2013. The 2% tourism tax set a record in 2013 with $12.716 million, and the 2014 numbers are on track to reach more than $13.5 million in 2014.
Tourism tax collections in Northwest Arkansas’ four largest cities was up a combined 8.2% for the first 10 months of 2014. Hospitality tax collections in Fort Smith and Van Buren were up 4.2% and 1.4%, respectively. Conway saw similar collections increase 4.35% in 2014. Hospitality tax revenue was up 2.3% and 2.1% in the tourism towns of Eureka Springs and Hot Springs, respectively. Collections were up 5.26% in Little Rock during 2014.
Industry jobs are also increasing. Arkansas’ tourism sector (leisure & hospitality) employed 113,900 during December, up from 110,400 during November, and above the 106,900 during December 2013. The December number, if it stands, marks a new record for employment in the sector. Employment in the sector is up 23% in the past 10 years.
‘A NEW RIDE’
“I think we will continue to grow at the same pace, which in my view is pretty good,” Davies told The City Wire. “It’s actually harder to keep that growth up than to accomplish it just once every few years. … I will be totally surprised if 2015 falls below 2014 unless we have some freak of nature with the weather or some national emergency. I can see no other reason for decline.”
Davies said a mild 2014 summer helped the state’s tourism facilities and events. Keeping the growth on an upward pace will require more things to do and proper marketing of what there is to do in Arkansas.
“I think the factors in our growth included more ‘product’ either on the ground or in serious discussion (Marshal’s museum in Fort Smith, or instance) that creates a buzz, along with some targeted marketing by cities, regions and states at user groups like motorcyclists, bicyclists, adventure sports, and arts/culture/history,” Davies said. “We’re going to have to keep on top of trends, especially in technology, user preferences, and needed tourism offerings. Research, as always, is terribly important, as is continuing to add ‘a new ride’ as Joe David (Joe David Rice, tourism director for the Department of Parks and Tourism) is fond of saying. We can’t become stale.”
CONTINUING TO EVOLVE
Kalene Griffith, president and CEO of the Bentonville Convention & Visitors Bureau, agrees that new “product” is the key to growth. In an e-mail interview, Griffith provided a long list of new developments to help Northwest Arkansas tourism in 2015. The list included: opening of the Amazeum museum; the “Van Gogh to Rothko” exhibit at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville; opening of at least eight new restaurants in downtown Bentonville; opening of Sheraton Four Points (103 rooms) hotel in the Spring; and continued growth of the Market and Arts Districts in downtown Bentonville.
“We need to continue to evolve as a leisure destination. People are looking for value, unique and authentic experiences. We see Bentonville and Northwest Arkansas as all three,” Griffith said. “Most importantly, is for us to sustain the excitement for our area as a destination for all ages. Our job is to put our cities at the top of mind with travelers. We have many unique and authentic experiences, currently and coming in the future.”
Officials in the Fort Smith area are also counting on new events to maintain the pace in 2015. The inaugural Steel Horse Rally is expected to bring thousands of motorcyclists and enthusiasts to downtown Fort Smith on May 1-2.
A “Festival of Murals” project for downtown Fort Smith was unveiled Feb. 17. The festival is set for Sept. 6-13, with several events – to include artist reception at the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum, emerging artists show, spoken word event, wine tasting, skateboard park, and sidewalk art collaborations between artists and area school students – to coincide with large murals painted or applied to between five and 10 downtown buildings.
For long-term industry growth, Davies said workforce training is essential.
“Another needed change is the number of hospitality training programs and degrees being offered in Arkansas that we didn’t use to have. We need good, smart young folks to replace us old worn out ones,” Davies said.