Business, tourism sector in Fort Smith metro sees big rebound in 2021

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,027 views 

The Fort Smith metro business and travel sector in 2021 saw a big rebound from the COVID-19 crash in 2020, with hospitality tax revenue in Fort Smith and Van Buren setting new records and 2% tourism tax revenue in the area much higher than pre-pandemic records.

Van Buren, which has a 3% hospitality tax on lodging and 1% on prepared food, generated $743,700 for the city’s Advertising and Promotion Commission, up 25.7% from the $591,682 in 2020. The revenue was also 18.6% above the 2019 record of $626,912.

Fort Smith, which has a 3% hospitality tax on lodging, collected $961,940 for the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2021, up 49.6% compared with 2020 and above the record of $920,247 in 2019.

Sebastian County generated $825,186 from the state’s 2% tourism tax in 2021, up 66.2% compared with 2020 and above the previous record of $659,310 in 2019. Crawford County collected $246,043 from the 2% tax in 2021, up 50.8% compared with 2019 and also above the 2019 record of $187,454.

Jobs in the region’s leisure and hospitality sector have not fully recovered. The average monthly sector employment was 9,430 in 2021, better than the 8,600 in 2019, but below the record 9,510 in 2019.

Maryl Purvis, director of the Van Buren Advertising and Promotion Commission, said people were eager to get back to some semblance of normal in 2021 and that is continuing into 2022.

“We saw a pretty good uptick in visitors during Spring Break, maybe a little more than normal.  Excursion train passenger numbers for this time of year have been better than normal also.  People are ready to go back to a more normal life and that means traveling for weekend getaways and vacations. Even with higher gas prices, I think we will see this trend continue through the traditional travel and vacation months,” Purvis said.

She said the city will have many festivals return in 2022, including the numerous downtown Van Buren events, and Arkansas’ Class 5A state track meet is being held in Van Buren in early May. But the COVID surges in 2021 remain a reminder that the pandemic is not over.

“Having said all of that, there is a lot going on in the world right now and, as we learned with COVID, things can change in a very short amount of time. Going forward I will continue to be cautiously optimistic about tourism travel for the remainder of 2022,” Purvis said.

Timothy Jacobsen, executive director of the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the agency refocused its marketing on the “drive market,” which targets people within a three-hour drive. He said they are also using “a more digital strategy” to better target potential tourists and maximize the advertising budget.

“We expect to grow tourism in the River Valley by bringing in a more diversified visitor by promoting our destination and the differentials we have to offer over our competitors. The western heritage is an important part of the Fort Smith brand we continue to promote, but we also feel there is great opportunity in with our unique arts and entertainment we have to offer.  The opening of the U.S. Marshals Museum in 2023 will allow us yet another unique attraction to draw new and repeat visitation to Fort Smith,” he said in a note to Talk Business & Politics.

Jacobsen also said the bureau is working with Los Angeles-based Oak View Group (OVG), which is managing the Fort Smith Convention Center, “to grow group meetings and conventions and events.”

Marc Mulherin, convention center general manager, recently told the Fort Smith Board of Directors that facility improvements and staff changes will bring in more events and groups in 2022. He said OVG is now able to showcase “who we are from a conventions and meetings destination” standpoint, and the Fort Smith Convention Center is able to compete with Rogers, Little Rock and even Hot Springs. Mulherin said they are budgeted for 146 events in 2020 and as of the first of March they had 80-85 confirmed events.