Tourism’s Reach: City, Town & Country

by Talk Business & Politics staff ( 90 views 

Whether you want city life, country life, something in-between, or a little bit of both, Arkansas’ tourism destinations offer you choices.

As Richard Davies mentioned in his cover story interview, the products have evolved and adapted to consumer needs and desires, while still capitalizing on the natural resources and man-made creations that appeal to visitors.

Whatever the magic formula is, it’s working.

Tourism has been on a tear the last three years – really for more than a decade despite the blip of a slowdown during the Great Recession years that crushed a lot of vacation spots.

In 2014, the travel and tourism sector in most Arkansas cities and for the state saw healthy gains in tourism tax collections, the broadest measurement of visitor and travel activity.

Collections of Arkansas’ 2% tourism tax needed only 11 of the 12 months of 2014 to set a new annual record. Collections of the 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 once tallied the 2014 numbers should surpass $13.5 million.

Tourism tax collections in Northwest Arkansas’ four largest cities were 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.

So with all that going for it, are tourism officials resting on their laurels? Not hardly.

Little Rock marked another year of progress for Central Arkansas.

The capital city celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Clinton Presidential Center, which has far surpassed expectations for attendance.

Gretchen Hall, CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau (LRCVB), can recite a litany of statistics to highlight the presidential library’s impact on Central Arkansas, but two truly stand out for their significance.

“It put us on the map… As we look back 10 years ago, our annual tourism visitation has increased 33%,” Hall noted. “Our tourism tax – our A&P [advertising and promotion] tax – in Little Rock has increased 65%. So you’ve seen massive increases in the tourism product and the tourism numbers.

Still, Hall says if she were a teacher handing out grades, she’d give Little Rock a B+. “Always room for improvement,” she says.

Hall said there has been several tactical decisions her group has made that have benefitted tourism recruiting efforts in Central Arkansas. Efforts include targeting meetings and conventions for travel writers, meeting planners and tour operators in order to showcase the city to decision makers in the meeting/convention industry and to gain more media exposure from travel journalists.

“Awareness continues to be an issue,” Hall says. “We always exceed expectations once people visit, but often we are trying to overcome the fact that they have no perception, recognition or awareness of the destination.”

Little Rock’s positives, according to Hall, go far beyond the Clinton Library. She touts continuing development of Main Street as a creative corridor, the addition of hotel rooms in the city, and national recognition of local restaurants.

The Main Street revitalization should pick up the pace in 2015. New restaurants and building renovations are coming online and the offices and rehearsal space for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and Ballet Arkansas should be finished in the first quarter of 2015 near the existing Arkansas Repertory Theater.

The $70 million renovation and expansion of the historic Robinson Center is set to give Hall another asset to market in 2016. The theater will be brought into the modern age and a conference center will be added to the backside offering spectacular views of the Arkansas River. It will be a highly marketable product for attracting meetings and travelers as “a major arts & entertainment destination.”

There are challenges too. Massive construction projects involving I-30 and the Broadway Bridge will make travel “orange barrel” miserable, but the payoff should be worth it.

Sporting facilities is also likely to enter the conversation as a concern, Hall says. Sporting event attendees are the biggest generator of hotel room traffic for the city. While the numbers are solid, eventually they may not hold.

“We are unable to bid on certain sporting events because of the lack of facilities or the lack of upgrades to current facilities,” Hall says.

But a study is already underway to look for possible solutions. The LRCVB retained Crossroads Consulting to conduct a feasibility study for a potential indoor, multipurpose, sports facility in 2014. The final study should be presented mid-year and will evaluate the overall economic potential and quality of life impact of sporting events, as well as provide an analysis for building and operating such a facility.

Pivot to the tiny Northwest Arkansas hamlet of Eureka Springs. The Ozark Mountains getaway is a resort, spa and honeymoon town to some. It sports an artisan population of a little more than 2,000, and is the hub of some of the most unique motorcycle and car cruising events in the country.

Some say time stands still in Eureka Springs, which boasts significant Victorian architecture in its homes, businesses and buildings. It became a boomtown in the late 1800’s due to the area’s “healing waters,” or springs.

But it hit its stride primarily as a family vacation resort in the 1970’s and 1980’s when the Christ of the Ozarks statue, the Great Passion Play, Thorncrown Chapel, and the revitalization of its downtown district put Eureka “on the map” for tourism.

At the time, it had proximity to Branson and the now-defunct Dogpatch. By the ’90’s, the city began to cater more to visitors focused on the arts, culture and dining.

“The tourism industry, like the world we live in today, is ever-changing and the pace that things change picks up every day,” notes Mike Bishop, former president and CEO of the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce. “We are always aware of preserving our historic designation, our architecture, and the traditional attractions and activities that have defined us for years, and yet we realize we must change with the times and trends. I believe we are doing that.”

With the draw of nearby Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Bishop says Eureka Springs has renewed focus on its artistic roots and it has stepped up its game with galleries, shopping, dining and nightlife.

Known for its quirkiness, Eureka Springs is marketing its tours of two haunted hotels and the rise in popularity of upscale motorcycling has brought opportunities to the town nestled along the scenic Pig Trail – a highly popular top ride destination.

Bishop says the diversity of Eureka Springs and what it offers gives town leaders an opportunity to flow with the changing tastes of travelers.

“I know it sounds braggadocios, but we really have so many options of things to do, types of vacations and reasons to visit that it is hard to settle in on a single identity,” Bishop said. “I believe Eureka Springs is the ultimate vacation destination in Arkansas. For a weekend getaway, a family vacation, a group outing, a wedding, a family or military reunion, a business meeting, convention or conference, whatever it might be, Eureka Springs can fill the bill.”

A mailbox sitting in front of the Johnny Cash boyhood home near Dyess is a place where messages are often left to honor the music legend.

Dr. Ruth Hawkins, executive director of Arkansas State University’s Heritage Sites program, says another message has been left – tourism has had an impact in communities like Dyess, Tyronza, Piggott and Lake Village.

During a recent talk at the ASU Agribusiness Conference, Hawkins said the group’s sites – the Cash boyhood home, the Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village, the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center in Piggott and the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza – draw visitors from around the country and the world.

The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum honors author Ernest Hemingway, whose in-laws at the time lived in the Piggott area. The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum includes a barn studio associated with Hemingway and the family home of his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. During the 1930s, the barn was converted to a studio to give Hemingway privacy for writing while visiting Piggott, and he wrote portions of “A Farewell to Arms” there.

The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum looks at the history of one of the first integrated unions in the country, Hawkins said. It strives to enhance knowledge and understanding of tenant farming and agricultural labor movements in the Mississippi River Delta, in an effort to preserve the history and promote the legacy of sharecropping, tenant farming and the farm labor movement.

Built in 1859, the Lakeport Plantation house at Lake Village is the only remaining Arkansas antebellum plantation home on the Mississippi River. The Greek Revival structure – one of Arkansas’ premiere historic buildings – was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

The newest site in Dyess is drawing visitors as well.

The Dyess Colony, created in 1934 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to aid in the nation’s economic recovery from the Great Depression, has been resurrected through restoration of several historic buildings.

The Dyess Colony Administration Building houses exhibits related to establishment of the colony, lifestyles of typical colonists and the impact that growing up in the tiny Mississippi County hamlet had on Cash and his music. The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home is furnished as it appeared when the Cash family lived there.

“It is kind of interesting and amazing with the number of foreign visitors,” Hawkins said of the Cash home, which opened last August.

Many of the visitors will head to Memphis and visit places like Graceland and Sun Studios first before heading across the river to visit the Cash home, Hawkins said.

Recently, a group from Ireland toured the home and Hawkins said nearly two-thirds of the messages left in the mailbox are from international visitors.

About 800 people live in the Poinsett County town of Tyronza, which has two restaurants, a gas station, a bank, a garage and a funeral home among its businesses.

Keith Forrester, co-owner of Tyboogies, one of the restaurants in town, said his eatery gets several out-of-town visitors each week. Some of the customers will go to the museum or the Cash home before eating at the restaurant. Forrester said a group from Buffalo, N.Y., recently paid a visit, but a lot of the visitors are also from the Memphis area, he said.

The revenue from the town’s one-cent sales tax has also benefitted. The town received $36,580 from its sales tax in 2014, up slightly from the $33,000 the sales tax collected in 2013. For 2014, the sales tax averaged about $3,000 a month.

However, the monthly sales tax revenue nearly doubled from May to June 2014. The town collected about $4,700 in June of last year, compared to around $2,600 the month before, numbers showed.

One possible reason for that increase involved the town’s festival – the Stars and Stripes Festival. Several Vietnam-era veterans were honored at the event, with a miniaturized version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on display for nearly a week.

Hawkins said the sites have not only helped to educate people about the history of the region, but provided many towns an opportunity. “Tourism is an interesting business because it is not self-contained, like a plant or factory,” she said.

She noted that people are looking for the basics when they visit a place. “In tourism, there is the ‘3-3-Sleep’ principle. People want three places to visit, three places to eat and a place to sleep. … Hopefully, we will be able to capture that,” Hawkins said.