No Fort Smith area hotels closed; tourism officials work to promote, protect the industry

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 3,678 views 

The bus trolley in downtown Van Buren.

Several prominent hotels in Northwest Arkansas have closed, but no hotels in Fort Smith or Van Buren have closed temporarily during the COVID-19 pandemic though many if not all are working with skeleton staffs and low occupancy.

“I know we have had some who have had to furlough their cleaning staff, but anyone who has worked in the hotel industry for long, from general managers on down, know how to clean a room,” said Claude Legris, executive director of the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Though no hotels have closed their doors, with the rapidly changing climate due to concerns of the virus, there is “real possibility” that they will, at least temporarily, said Maryl Purvis, director of the Van Buren Advertising and Promotion Commission.

COVID-19 cases in Arkansas rose from 165 on Sunday to 197 on Monday. As of early Monday afternoon, there were 41,708 U.S. cases and 573 deaths. Globally, there were around 367,500 cases and more than 16,100 deaths.

“This has significantly impacted their business and the business of restaurants in the city, which were directed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson last week to discontinue dine-in services indefinitely,” she said.

A significant impact on the local hospitality industry means a significant impact on advertising and promotion budgets for the two cities. Fort Smith and Van Buren advertising and promotion commissions depend on hotels and the revenue they generate for their budgets. The Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau is solely dependent on the 3% lodging tax collection for its annual budget. Van Buren has a 3% tax on lodging as well as a 1% tax on prepared food to make up its A&P budget. Fort Smith collected $920,247 in 2019, up 9.5% compared to 2018, and the first time above the $900,000 level. Van Buren collected $626,912 in 2019, up 3.5% over 2018.

“There is no question we are going to take a hit,” Purvis said.

Even so, neither office is focusing right now on the impact to their budget. They are focusing on keeping their staff safe from the virus by following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and doing what they can for the businesses in their cities. Neither office has had to resort to furloughs or layoffs. Legris said his department is required to have a $75,000 in a reserve fund, and now it has $350,000 in the fund.

“We’re going to be able to keep everyone. Some will be working from home. Some at the office,” he said.

Purvis said the Van Buren A&P office, like the Fort Smith A&P office, is closed to the public, but there is always someone there to answer the phone and questions.

“We all have different duties. The main thing is that we can do most of our core work at home. Right now that is what we are doing and for the foreseeable future, that is what we’ll do. Technology allows us to do,” Purvis said.

That work they are doing now has shifted though, she said. It has moved from working to get people from out of town and state to visit the city to getting people in the city to buy locally and support small businesses and restaurants.

“This is not just for a few weeks. The governor said he’s thinking six to eight weeks. This is a burden on our businesses. There is no way they could have prepared for this. In small towns, the people who own these businesses are often our friends. This is hitting us on an economic and business level but also on a personal level,” Purvis said.

Van Buren A&P’s digital outdoor billboard advertisements are now promoting the city’s small business and restaurants. Marketing plans now push people to order locally for delivery or curbside pickup. There’s no need to cancel date night or weekend dining plans. Those plans just need to adapt, she said.

“We want people to know you can still eat from your favorite restaurant. You just have to eat it at home,” Purvis said. “Many retail shops are posting on Facebook and their websites that you can order, and they will deliver or bring it out to your car. We are promoting that.”

Fort Smith is working to do similar things to promote not just downtown restaurants, but restaurants and retail stores throughout the city, Legris said. The A&P is working on a hashtag to be released soon that will help gather a list of deals from shops and restaurants into a list of sorts, he said.

And the commissions are not forgetting those in the hotel business. Purvis said the Van Buren A&P is working closely with the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce to do what they can to help

“We are watching it closely. We are looking for anything that might help them, programs out there that can help them maintain staff and property. And we’re talking to our senators, asking them to please make sure in the stimulus package that there is something so the lodging properties are taken care of,” she said. “We are trying to help as much as possible.”