Less than 60 days into his job as the new executive director of the Fort Smith A&P, Tim Jacobsen is optimistic about the future of the tourism industry in the Fort Smith metro.
Jacobsen, the former executive director of the Lake of the Ozarks Convention & Visitor Bureau in Osage Beach, Mo., started Jan. 4, taking over the position left vacant when Claude Legris retired from the post July 10. That put him in Fort Smith as the city was deep in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic and funding was down by 30%.
“We get our funding from the 3% lodging tax. From 2019 to 2020, that was down 30%,” Jacobsen said. “But that is not as bad as some. We have fared better than some in the industry.”
In 2019, Fort Smith collected $920,247 from the lodging tax, up 9.5% compared with the $840,004 in 2018. The increase was better than the 5.2% increase among the 17 Arkansas cities reviewed for the Arkansas Tourism Ticker. In 2020, the lodging tax brought in just under $700,000 for the city, Jacobsen said. The Fort Smith A&P Commission administers and oversees the funds received from the 3% percent Fort Smith lodging tax. Corporate and business travel to the city has continued during the pandemic, which has helped the hotels in the city, Jacobsen said.
“Some of the larger group hotels have been harder hit than the smaller independent ones,” he added.
Fort Smith’s tourism makeup is two-fold, Jacobsen said. There is individual travel and group or tour travel. Fort Smith has been fortunate that though group travel declined greatly in the past 11 months, individual travel has remained strong, he said.
“We have recognized this and have focused on promoting the city’s access to outdoor activities and things that (travelers) recognize as safer activities during (this pandemic),” Jacobsen said.
And Jacobsen is optimistic about the future of tourism in the city.
“With more people receiving the vaccine and fewer (COVID) cases, I think things are looking up,” Jacobsen said. “The restrictions being lifted last week for venues helps.”
Gov. Asa Hutchinson adjusted COVID-19 directives regarding large indoor and outdoor events as well as sporting events Feb. 16 after a drop in COVID cases throughout the state. According to the updated directive, the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) must approve a submitted plan for events with more than 100 attendees. Previously, a plan was required for events with more than 10 attendees. It covers outdoor venues for commercial, community or civic events and activities where an audience, spectators or a gathering of people are present, such as at concerts, weddings, plays, sporting events, rodeos, races, fundraisers, parades, fairs, livestock shows, auctions, carnivals and festivals.
The change does not include restaurants, and small events must still follow COVID directives.
The directives for school and community sporting events also were adjusted to allow competitions with two or more teams, but plans must still be approved by ADH.
The changes could mean the Fort Smith Convention Center will begin seeing more business, Jacobsen said. The convention center, which has seen a drastic reduction in event bookings because of the pandemic, has 13 events on the calendar for the end of February, March and April; seven for May and one for August. But the venue has started seeing more bookings for the end of the third quarter and first of the fourth quarter for the year, Jacobsen said.
He and others from the Fort Smith Convention and Tourism Bureau will travel to Panama City Beach Saturday (Feb. 27) for a group tourism conference. While there, they have about 30 appointments to meet with groups in hopes of getting them to book group tours to Fort Smith toward the later part of the year.
“This will be the first show we’ve gone to in some time, but we have more planned. We’re looking at some travel conventions that are both sports-related and group tour-related,” he said.
New management of the Fort Smith Convention Center will help get some of those groups to the city, he added. Marc Mulherin took over as the new general manager of the convention center, now under management of the Oak View Group, Jan. 4.
The Fort Smith Board of Directors unanimously approved a contract to allow Los Angeles-based Oak View Group (OVG) to manage the Fort Smith Convention Center beginning Jan. 1. The contract has an initial 3-year term, with options for up to seven subsequent one-year terms. The city will pay a management fee of $8,500 a month, subject to annual CPI adjustment, plus commission on food and beverage sales. There also will be possible performance and sales commission incentives.
OVG will invest up to $500,000 to put a full-service commercial kitchen in the convention center. They would recoup that expense through $50,000 annual installment payments for 10 years that would come from the facility’s operating fund. That rate would be prorated over the number of years the agreement was in effect if the contract is terminated before 10 years, the agreement states. OVG also will make a $25,000 investment for an initial “Solicitation of Events” fund.
“The kitchen will help a lot. Before a group not only had to book the convention center, they had to hire a caterer. That put us (Fort Smith) at a disadvantage when it came to getting groups to hold their meetings and conventions here,” Jacobsen said.
The trifecta of relaxed restrictions, a kitchen at the convention center and more people across the country receiving the COVID vaccination will mean good things for the city, Jacobsen said.
“A lot has to do with the comfort level of different meeting planners. Anxiety is going down and hopefully, that means travel will go on again,” Jacobsen said. “People are wanting personal meetings. There are things that just cannot be accomplished through Zoom meetings are whatever method that’s been used. Being able to network with your peers is huge. People want to get back to having meetings in person.”
The key now is to promote the benefit of those meetings being in Fort Smith. When it comes to getting organizations or industries to choose a location for a conference or meeting, there are two key criteria. The first of those is a hard product, Jacobsen said. There has to be enough hotels and meeting space. Fort Smith has that in abundance, he added.
“But it’s more than heads and beds,” he said. “There has to be an experience.”
Fortunately, between the city’s historic and Western heritage draw and the newer push for modern amenities for outdoor activities, including walking and biking trails, the Greg Smith River Trail and the Riverfront Skate and Bike Park, Fort Smith is now more well-rounded and attractive to those wanting to book the city for their next big gathering, Jacobsen said.
“These things make the city a better draw,” Jacobsen said. “There is a lot of possibility.”