Editor’s note: Story by Dave Edmark, special to Talk Business & Politics.
Molly Rawn takes her time to learn the territory and scope out the situation. She’s doing so in her new job as executive director of the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission she’s held since Aug. 8.
It’s a bit similar to the challenge she faced a few months ago when she positioned herself in the right place to garner a dance with Bruce Springsteen on stage. At a Springsteen concert in Oklahoma City, she worked her way to the stage thanks to getting a lucky lottery number among general admission ticket holders and then stayed in a good spot for a few hours before and during the show. She made eye contact with Springsteen while he performed, brought out a small sign at an appropriate time and then got the invitation coveted by several others below the stage: Springsteen called her to join him in “Dancing in the Dark.”
It was a big five minutes.
With that life experience behind her, Rawn is settling into managing the city agency that collects and manages hotel and restaurant sales tax revenue. The agency is responsible for promoting tourism, attracting conventions, funding local arts efforts and operating the Town Center, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Visitors Center and the Clinton House Museum. She’s reviewing what’s already in place more than halfway through the current budget year and considering what to recommend for 2017. It’s not unlike trying to figure out the where’s the best place to be at a Springsteen concert and then developing a strategy for the stage.
“I’m going to take my first 60 days to figure that out,” Rawn said. “I want to really spend some time looking at the data we have.”
So far, the financial data are looking good. Last year’s budget was about $3.7 million and she said this year’s is tracking to be near $5 million, thanks in part to the $1.051 million in revenue collections that the commission reported for January to April of this year, a 9.58 percent increase over the same months in 2015.
In reviewing the marketing plan and devising next year’s, Rawn works with Little Rock-based The Sells Agency, which handles the commission’s paid media such as advertising in publications and video production and placement. Media exposure is generally targeted to areas within 600 miles of Fayetteville. Advertising has been aimed at people categorized as the “travel and leisure” group as well as empty nesters.
“We also look at marketing Fayetteville as a diverse place and LGBT-friendly place,” she said. “So there have been some plans in terms of advertising that touch on all these types of travelers as well as people traveling here for sports. Obviously the university is a big influence. But in terms of a specific plan for next year of where we market, I’m going to give myself a little more time before I decide anything concrete.”
Fayetteville’s marketing strategy targets meeting planners, group tours and trade shows, audiences Rawn expects to continue seeking although she and the commission staff will review which publications will be used to reach those audiences.
‘HUB AND SPOKE’ TOURISM
Rawn views Fayetteville as “the hub of Northwest Arkansas.” But the city is not alone in the regional tourism market. It has over the years recognized that tourists are not likely to limit themselves to Fayetteville’s offerings but are also interested in seeing sights in nearby cities. An 11-year Fayetteville resident, Rawn has seen it work that way first hand, having served most recently as director of development and communication at the Scott Family Amazeum in Bentonville before landing in Fayetteville.
“There are wonderful and unique experiences to be had in Fayetteville,” she said. “But we can serve as a hub and spoke. There are great experiences to be had here with day trips going out into other regions and wonderful things to do in our neighboring cities.”
She sees the neighboring cities in Northwest Arkansas as partner cities and serves with their representatives on the board of the Northwest Arkansas Tourism Association.
“The more we are able to work together to bring visitors here, the better off we’ll all be,” she said. “I think tourism has changed a little bit in that visitors coming from other places don’t necessarily think about just going to visit one city. They think about it as a region, so I think it’s upon us to mimic that in our planning and strategy.”
The neighboring cities have a wave of new attractions to promote, such as the additions around downtown Bentonville and the redevelopment happening in downtown Springdale. Fayetteville has more longstanding attractions such as Razorback sports bringing in big crowds for decades. But Rawn said Fayetteville isn’t lacking in new things to do and see. She cited the Fayetteville Ale Trail, a tour of several craft beer breweries that’s self guided via “passports” issued by the Visitors Bureau; the Walton Arts Center that will reopen this fall after an extensive renovation, and the longer-term quest by Theater Squared, the professional theater company, to build its own facility at Spring Street and West Avenue.
“We always have a lot of new restaurants coming in and and new exciting things to try,” she said. “I don’t think we necessarily have to be chasing ‘new.’ But it’s wonderful when we get new attractions and it’s wonderful when we have new things to promote.”
‘UNEXPECTED’ ADDITION, OFFICE MOVE
A new attraction that fits into Rawn’s and the commission’s agenda is a large mural near the downtown square. Interestingly, it’s part of a Fort Smith-based project that also includes one Fayetteville mural. Puerto Rico-based artist Alexis Diaz is painting the mural on a blank white wall of the remnants of the former Mountain Inn facing College Avenue. It’s part of the second annual event called “The Unexpected,” for which several other murals are being painted in Fort Smith under sponsorship of that city’s 64.6 Downtown, a private organization.
“We are thrilled about it. We’re happy they’re here,” Rawn said. “We look forward to adding to the public art landscape.”
The Advertising and Promotion Commission has set aside funds in its budget to bolster its own support public art in Fayetteville. Rawn noted that the commission is planning to develop a process for how that funding is used.
The Advertising and Promotion Commission recently bought for $750,000 the Walker-Stone House on West Center Street near the downtown square, a significant structure in the city’s history dating back to the 1840s and the home of a local law firm in recent years. The commission will eventually move its offices to the house from quarters in the Visitors Center on the square.
Rawn said no timeline has been established for the move nor have final decisions been made about use of the space. She and commission members will discuss the topic at future meetings of the commission where she hopes to “hear their thoughts and vision” on the building’s next phase.
“I’m really excited about the future of that house, what it means for A&P, the city as a whole and certainly with regards to toursm and to culture here for our local residents,” she said.
Rawn said she supports the traditional convention and visitors bureau model of promoting tourism and encouraging visits. But she wants local residents to be an important part of the equation. Out-of-towners are spending money in the hotels that provide the agency’s tax revenue, but local residents also provide a major portion of the revenue when they dine at local restaurants.
“I think we need to acknowledge that by creating events and cultural experiences for the people that are here,” she said. “It drives tourism but it’s also a great quality of life benefit. If you can advertise and promote a city and a region, you can also invest in making that city a better place to have experiences.”