Bentonville, Arkansas, had about 21,000 residents a decade ago. That’s when Kalene Griffith arrived in town to take over at the helm of the city’s tourism office, Visit Bentonville. Griffith, 47, arrived about the time Crystal Bridges of American Art was announced. Much of Bentonville’s explosive growth since can be traced to that announcement, she said.
In those 10 years, Bentonville has undergone an explosion of sorts in numbers. The population has doubled, the downtown has become a beehive of activity with new lodging, restaurants and coffee houses, shops, boutiques and other businesses opening around the City Square, including the new Walmart Neighborhood Market.
Bentonville has become a tourism destination in that time, she said.
Known as a cheerleader for tourism in all of Northwest Arkansas, Griffith was recently appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) to the Arkansas State Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission to replace Mark Givens from El Dorado. The appointment expires in January 2021. She attended her first meeting in early November when the commission met in Fort Smith.
“I am excited to be part of the team,” she said of joining the state board. “Arkansas has always been a national destination. We have 52 state parks and I expect to see the growth in tourism to continue.”
But, she is quick to add, besides 52 state parks, Arkansas has also added arts and cultural experiences, culinary experiences and sports experiences. Arts and cultural experiences recently added an architectural component with the opening of the Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman-Wilson House on the grounds of Crystal Bridge, Griffith said.
“It is one of the most beautiful states to visit 12 months a year,” she said.
The Arkansas Tourism Ticker recently noted the pace has not slackened for Arkansas’ travel and tourism industry. The state’s second largest economic sector has in the first eight months of 2015 posted healthy gains in municipal hospitality tax revenue, the statewide tourism tax, and tourism-related jobs. The Arkansas Tourism Tracker is sponsored by the Arkansas Hospitality Association, and managed by Talk Business & Politics.
Collaboration is a central theme in all Griffith does. She regularly discusses opportunities to showcase Northwest Arkansas with her counterparts in Fayetteville, Springdale and Rogers and other communities.
“I am open to collaboration, looking at all sides of the opportunity. I want to be a voice for Northwest Arkansas and the state. We all benefit. We all are working for the same goal,” she said.
Tourism to Bentonville is in reality a regional experience in that visitors may come to Bentonville to enjoy Crystal Bridges but those same visitors may also spend time in Eureka Springs, eat a meal in Fayetteville or attend a ball game at Arvest Park, she noted. The money spent in each Northwest Arkansas community is a new dollar for that community, she added.
Tourism, the second largest economic segment in the in the state, has an economic impact that generates revenue in every city in Arkansas, she said. She expects to see more development of attractions and restaurants through the state.
A FULL PACKAGE
Griffith, a native of Dodge City, Kan., attended Kansas State University. Her husband, John, is employed in the facilities management division of Bentonville School District. Her teenage children – daughter, Keelah, 15 and son Keegan, 17 – are students at Bentonville High School.
She was named president of Visit Bentonville while serving as executive director of the YMCA program in Fulton, Mo. Her parents and two siblings had already to move to Bentonville and it was her brother, she said, who encouraged her to apply for the job. When arriving in Bentonville, she noticed a vision and excitement about that was going to happen.
“People are moving here because Northwest Arkansas is a full package,” she said.
She credited the creation of a splash park and skate rink as well as wayfinding, or directional, signage among the accomplishments in recent years of Visit Bentonville.
“We always had the Walmart Museum and we were a business destination. We became a leisure destination with the opening of Crystal Bridges,” she said.
Visit Bentonville, founded in 1996, is governed by the Advertising and Promotion Commission and funded by a nominal tax on lodging, dining, and meeting facilities. Its goal is to invite the world to come to know the community, a small town with what she says is a rich heritage that complements the energy of the world’s largest retailer.
She says her biggest accomplishment has been creating a team at Visit Bentonville who excels in promoting sales and advertising and who can collaborate with all levels of the tourism community.
“I’m successful because of them. Visit Bentonville is successful because of them,” she said.