Little Rock convention chief says planning for pandemics now a long-term business strategy

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 505 views 

Arkansas. Blue suitcase with label at airport.

Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau CEO Gretchen Hall is seeing signs of recovery in her industry, but there is still a lag from 2019 numbers and the new Delta variant surge of COVID-19 threatens the progress that’s been made.

Many of the city’s restaurants have adapted to the “new normal” and overall hotel revenue is improving. Hall said that downtown, where convention business is centered, is the farthest from full recovery as group travel remains tenuous.

“So a first half look at 2021, we’re still behind on total revenue on the hotels by about 15%, but making huge strides. So we’ll see how long we can maintain that number. We’re seeing a real recovery in total events coming back, but the large group meetings and conventions are still lagging a little bit and we don’t anticipate that return until next year,” she said.

“Our restaurants really have recovered back to 2019 levels. That doesn’t mean every restaurant is thriving. But it does mean as a whole in the city, our restaurants are doing very well, because they have learned to pivot. Our hotels, again, are still lagging by about 15% on the revenue side. Now that’s much larger in our convention hotels downtown. And that’s because that group business is still lagging. So year-to-date on the hotel revenue side, in the downtown area, we’re still down about 40%, total. But only 15% from 2019 citywide,” Hall added.

Last month, Hall ascended to the chair position of Destinations International, a global tourism and travel trade association. From that vantage point, she’s able to see how other cities, states and countries are tackling the COVID crisis.

“I see places that are a lot further behind than we are, so on that global platform, it’s really great to be able to look and create some strategies with the world’s leaders in the tourism space to talk about all of those different benefits and all of our setbacks. Whether that be a community that is already thriving, and the word ‘pandemic’ is kind of in the rear-view mirror, to our global borders that are slowly beginning to open, to some that are still in complete lockdown,” she said.

A year ago, many observers felt the pandemic would be under control with vaccine breakthroughs. Now, due to vaccine hesitancy, strains of the virus are emerging and threaten a more complete public health and economic recovery. Hall said businesses need to start planning for pandemics to be a way of life in the coming months and years.

“I think we have to, right? This pandemic has taught us a lot of things, but it also makes us try to sit down and strategize all different kinds of things. Some of them we can’t even fathom, we couldn’t fathom this several years ago. So yes, I think it will teach us all to think differently moving forward,” she said.

You can watch Hall’s full interview in the video below.