Louisiana native markets Rogers as ‘world-class’ destination

by Robin Mero (rmero@nwabj.com) 694 views 

J.R. Shaw, executive director of Visit Rogers

J.R. Shaw moved from Pennsylvania to Northwest Arkansas more than three years ago to lead the efforts in drawing tourists to Rogers. Since then, revenue from the city’s lodging tax has surpassed $1 million per year, and he’s embraced the region as his permanent home.

As executive director of Visit Rogers, Shaw shepherds a young and dynamic team in selling and promoting Rogers as a destination. They make direct inquiries, develop materials and keep the social media outreach fresh, relevant and inviting to the outside world.

Shaw’s focus on detail and ability to assemble a talented, tenacious staff has taken Visit Rogers to the next level, said David Faulkner, general manager of the Pinnacle Hills Promenade and a member of the Rogers Advertising and Promotion (A&P) Commission.

“He’s always out there finding better ways of doing things,” Faulkner said.

Shaw was groomed for southern hospitality in his home state of Louisiana. He earned a journalism degree at Louisiana State University in the 1970s and later added a hospitality degree from the University of New Orleans, where hospitality is under the business college. He worked at a boutique hotel in the French Quarter, then a 1,600-room Hilton property with large convention space.

“I come from one of the world’s great destinations,” Shaw said. “We knew how to put on big events, work hard, play hard and enjoy a lot of success.”

Shaw met his wife Angel in Covington, La. She is from Pennsylvania, and the couple later relocated to the city of Washington, Pa., in Washington County. He worked for the Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau handling sales and marketing for the leisure market and later pursuing international travelers. His next job was closer to home as president of the Washington County Tourism Promotion Agency. Nestled in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains and rich with history and heritage, Washington County fared well during the Recession. There wasn’t much convention space. But fracking was active, and a racetrack offered casino gaming.

Shaw helped found the Whiskey Rebellion Festival. He enjoyed the rural atmosphere and close proximity to Pittsburgh. Notably, Shaw lobbied — unsuccessfully — to keep his agency from being merged into the local chamber. He said both entities help develop strong, diverse communities. But the two have different customers and go about their work in different ways. He fought to remain independent.

Little did he know that in short order he’d be leading Visit Rogers which, since its inception in 1999 as the Rogers Convention & Visitors Bureau, has been soundly under the 5-star accredited Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce. He called this a “cosmic irony.”

Shaw is comfortable with his change of position, and said the collaborative model — at least here — plays to the strength of both organizations, for the better of both. They work together and share staff members, and campaigns are often mutually beneficial. In 2017, the agency created Tourism Talk, a regional one-day educational event for tourism and hospitality professionals.

Much of the work of Visit Rogers may be imperceptible. Visitors check in and out of the city’s 1,900 hotel rooms to attend retail meetings, visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville and attend Arkansas Razorback games in Fayetteville.

But heavy business travel means hotels are fuller Monday through Wednesday nights, so Shaw’s team pursues leisure travelers to build hotel rooms up on other nights. They prospect groups for outdoor recreation and sporting events, cultural affairs, camps, craft fairs, yoga festivals, as well as for meetings and conventions, most of them held at Embassy Suites and the adjoining John Q. Hammons Center.

Proceeds from a 3% lodging tax go to the Rogers A&P Commission, and Visit Rogers is charged with using those funds to attract more tourism. The tax was established at 2% in 1999, but the Rogers City Council bumped it up last year. In 2015, $741,662 in lodging taxes was generated, $806,618 in 2016, and last year, following the tax increase, $1.02 million.

The number of hotel rooms has remained fairly steady since 2015. The real growth has been in amenities that make destination marketing more fun and successful for Shaw and his team. The familiar query from potential visitors of “What’s there to do?” is no longer a quandary. Not only is downtown Rogers expanding, hopes are pinned on “uptown” — the Pinnacle Hills area being developed around the Walmart AMP to include more dining options, concerts and the announced plan to build a Topgolf just south of the AMP.

Later this year, the Rogers City Council will entertain an array of new zoning designations, including an “entertainment district” form for uptown. Shaw is watching closely. He loves the synergy of the area (he lives in a quiet neighborhood uptown) and knows its potential appeal to visitors.

“There’s an interesting dichotomy of downtown and uptown that makes Rogers a lot of fun to market,” he said. “And we have a strong group of political advocates making sure we’re relevant for the future, looking inward to see what the community really needs. What seems seamless to the public is actually many people working very hard to make this a great community.”

What’s on Shaw’s wish list for the future? He definitely wants the community to support an upcoming $299 million bond issue seeking funds to update parks and streets, which will improve east-west connections, he said. Residents will vote Aug. 14.

“I’m in favor of moving people around more efficiently,” he said.

Second wish: more flights and cheaper fares at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport.

Shaw has been active with the Northwest Arkansas Tourism Association, NWA Film & Entertainment Commission, Southeast Tourism Society, Arkansas Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus. A&P Commissioner Mark Kruger described Shaw as “easygoing, but somehow at the same time he’s aggressive.” Kruger said his favorite thing about Shaw is how integrated he’s become into the community.

“That’s not a requirement of the job, of course, but he and his wife stay so active throughout Rogers. He’s a breath of fresh air,” Kruger said.

Much of that activity comes through the Shaws’ membership at First United Methodist in downtown.

“I love being a part of the development and management of Rogers so it becomes a world-class destination. This job fulfills me because it’s here,” Shaw said. “This is a thriving, growing, dynamic, progressive community. Who wouldn’t like that?”

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