Northwest Arkansas cities work to invest strategically for tourism recruitment

by Jennifer Joyner ( 550 views 

Visit Bentonville Executive Director Kalene Griffith poses with artist Kenneth Siemens’ “The Pedaler” mural at The Pedaler’s Pub in downtown Bentonville.

Arkansas Tourism Director Joe David Rice has compared Arkansas to a 58,000-square-mile theme park. Adding “new rides” each year is the key to continually drawing in visitors, he said.

In Northwest Arkansas, lasting attractions in the form of museums, trails, breweries, performance venues and arts organizations have sprung up in recent years, and large-scale events are another tourism piece. Bentonville Film Festival was launched in 2015.

“That’s a perfect example of a new ride,” Rice said.

It has brought in people from all over, including Hollywood, and helped to build the region’s burgeoning film industry, he said.

“A festival can do a lot to put a community on the map,” he said.

The lasting ones have “garnered that position as the place to go for that certain thing,” he added, pointing to events like the Sundance Film Festival (Park City, Utah) and South by Southwest (Austin, Texas) as boons for their respective cities.

“It’s really important for communities to latch onto a niche that works,” Rice said.

The annual Bikes, Blues & BBQ event, which started on Dickson Street in Fayetteville 18 years ago, found its place through its mix of offerings. There were motorcycle rallies, music festivals and food festivals, but Bikes, Blues & BBQ tied them together and has become a regional tradition each fall, Rice said. It takes place Sept. 20-23 this year.

Visit Bentonville, the city’s tourism bureau, is dedicated to adding new events and is now looking at hiring a full-time events manager, said Kalene Griffith, executive director.

“I think we’re going to continue to have more big events in the future,” Griffith said, pointing to a possible music festival or a celebration related to the area’s culinary or arts scenes, both of which have seen a big boost in recent years.

The events person would act as a liaison between the city and event organizers and would also look for potential festivals to bring in.

“Instead of sitting back and letting things happen, we want to be proactive and research festivals for different times of year,” Griffith said. “It’s about tourism engagement. We want those experiences to bring in new dollars to the community. That way we’re not only taxing those visitors, we also invest back into the community by providing a fantastic experience for community members, too.”

“Tourism events are a twofold benefit,” Griffith said. “You have direct revenue from accommodations and restaurant sales, but also long-term it provides a greater exposure for Bentonville as a tourism destination and encourages tourism from future events.”

Last year’s International Mountain Bicycling Association World Summit is a prime example of the latter. It will not be an annual event or continual revenue stream for the city. Its economic impact, though significant at $273,830, is not on the level of some of the region’s largest events. However, Griffith said the IMBA event was unique in terms of the attention it brought to the area in general and also as a mountain biking hub.

Requests have been made for Bentonville in 2018 to host the IMBA Uprising women’s biking summit and the National Interscholastic Cycling Association National Conference, in addition to a high-profile event for Public Land Solutions, a Utah-based nonprofit which advocates for recreation planning. Those doors were opened because organizers attended IMBA last year, Griffith said.

One movie producer who attended the 2016 Bentonville Film Festival was inspired to use the town as the setting for his next project. He recently wrapped filming on the family movie, SkipStone Pictures’ F.R.E.D.I., in Northwest Arkansas. Griffith said other independent films and TV series have looked at Bentonville for potential shoots, and the city will continue to build up the services it needs to accommodate the industry.

“The nice thing about BFF is that it creates this atmosphere that we’re very interested in and welcoming to the film industry,” Griffith said.

At the same time, this year’s film festival had a tangible economic impact on the community of about $1.3 million, according to Visit Bentonville, though Griffith called the estimate “very conservative” and based mostly on hotel stays and other related metrics, since much of the event was not ticketed. It also doesn’t count the money organizers spent within the community on goods and services to put on the event.

The festival’s organizers estimate the impact of the 2017 event to be about $7.5 million. About 73,000 attended the festival, and 80% of participants were from Northwest Arkansas, according to organizers.

In terms of investment, the city helped with marketing and advertising for this year’s Bentonville Film Festival to the tune of $18,000, Griffith said. However, the organizers footed the bill for most other major facets of the operation, including added services from the police and fire departments.

In Fayetteville, the rule of thumb is that if an event is run by a nonprofit, the city will absorb the cost of added security and other accommodations, said Susan Norton, director of communications for the city. For-profit events like the Joe Martin Stage Race, for example, pay their own, as does the University of Arkansas for football and basketball games.

Bikes, Blues & BBQ, run by a nonprofit, is the exception to the rule. For years, the city did not charge the organizers for the large-scale operation of closing off roads and police overtime for multiple days, but now the city splits the cost with the Bikes, Blues & BBQ organization. Last year, overtime costs for police officers was about $34,600, so organizers and the city each paid about $17,300, Norton said.

Organizers say it’s difficult to count the number of attendees for the annual festival, so a range of 300,000 to 350,000 — 170,000 to 200,000 from outside the NWA community — was estimated for a 2014 study from the Center for Business Research and Economics at the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business. The study found the event’s economic impact to be between $69 million and $81 million.

“Bikes, Blues & BBQ is one example of how a city’s investment in and commitment to events like these can help create a major tourism draw in the future and provide a strong ROI [return on investment],” said Molly Rawn, executive director of Experience Fayetteville, the city’s visitors bureau. “Of course there are no guarantees when making such investments. Cities that are vibrant in their appeal to tourists offer a variety of events and attractions that cater to diverse audiences — from craft shows to art festivals, athletic events to music festivals.”

Each city in the Northwest Arkansas metro area hosts events. Razorback athletics, however, is unique to Fayetteville. The CBER estimated in 2012 that more than 1 million people attended UA sports events that year, and nearly half came from outside the region. Razorback football, in particular, drew outside visitors, with 67% of attendees coming from another area. The CBER study estimated UA athletics’ annual economic impact to be $124.1 million.

In addition to finding the right niche, large events must be “very carefully planned and crafted,” Rice said. “Festivals are amazingly difficult to pull off.” That means paying attention to changing environments.

In July, the organizers of the 40-year-old music festival Riverfest in Little Rock announced the annual event was to be put on hold due to a lack of funding. Rice said the event, which started in the late 1970s, became popular before there were many options to watch live music around central Arkansas.

“Consumers and their needs, wants and desires change. I think Riverfest was a victim of that. People have to understand that times change,” Rice said.

Though Riverfest organizers cited the small size of the Little Rock market as a reason for the festival’s declining popularity, Rice said its suspension should not serve as a deterrent from creating more events in NWA. Rather, it should serve as a cautionary tale for organizers to be responsive to changes. He chose restaurant chains and brands such as Coca-Cola and Frito Lay to illustrate the principle.

“At Frito Lay, they have a policy to bring so many new products to market per year,” he said. “You can’t be complacent, as our society changes, our consumer changes.”

Bikes, Blues & BBQ, he added, is “right on track.” He praised the move to expand the venue from a concentrated area on Dickson Street to different sites throughout the region. That sort of thing helps keep it fresh and bring in “new folks.”

“One other advantage of a community-wide festival? It may be the only time when everyone in town is invited to the same party,” Rice said.