Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the Nov. 6 issue of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “Then & Now” is a profile of a past member of the Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class.
From the outdoors to the arts to the food and nightlife, there’s plenty to experience in Fayetteville.
Not to mention the Arkansas Razorbacks, who will always be a built-in advantage unique to the city.
“They are the No. 1 tourism driver in the state,” Molly Rawn said.
Rawn, 41, promotes those things and more to residents and tourists. Since August 2016, she’s been the chief executive of Experience Fayetteville, the destination marketing organization for the state’s second-largest city. The office has 19 full-time workers and a 2023 budget of $5.3 million.
“The best places for tourism are places where people want to live, and [Fayetteville] is where people want to live and enjoy spending time,” she said.
Rawn’s job found her, not the other way around. She previously was director of development and communications for the Scott Family Amazeum, which opened in 2015 in Bentonville.
Even though the children’s museum was planned before Rawn was hired in November 2013, her fingerprints were on its most significant gifts and the balanced, sustainable funding plan. She worked with some of the region’s most prominent philanthropists to help fund the museum’s educational efforts. Her work gained recognition from the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal, which named her a Forty Under 40 honoree in 2015.
“The Amazeum was a great place to work, with a tremendous team and mission,” she said. “I wasn’t looking to leave, but in the back of my mind, I knew I would want to [eventually] get back home.”
Rawn, a native Arkansan, has called Fayetteville home since 2005. She said she got a call from a Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion (A&P) commissioner — the commission rebranded to Experience Fayetteville in 2017 — about the executive director’s job. Rawn, who had not worked in a tourism-related field previously, did not immediately view herself as a candidate. The more she looked into it, the more she felt like the job was an opportunity she had to pursue.
“Yes, it’s tourism,” Rawn explained. “But it’s also community-building, storytelling and leadership, and I can do those things. I went into the interview thinking it’d be nice if they asked me to come back [for a second interview]. I left thinking, ‘I will be devastated if I don’t get this job.’”
Rawn said the city’s tourism growth over the past seven years has been exceptional. Experience Fayetteville broke HMR (hotel, motel, restaurant) tax records with a 144% year-over-year increase in lodging HMR tax collections for January 2022 and a 10.5% increase in sales tax revenue compared with January 2021.
Fayetteville hotels, motels, and short-term rentals collected more HMR taxes in January 2022 than in any other January, as thousands of fans, cyclists, team personnel, officials and vendors filled up rooms across the city for the 2022 Walmart UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships.
Earlier this year, Experience Fayetteville was named Tourism Organization of the Year during the 49th annual Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism.
“The reason our team has been so successful at boosting the tourism economy is that we recognize the goal is to make the city better,” she said. “Tourism is the tool that we can use to do it.”
Rawn’s job has opened her eyes to other municipal aspects in Fayetteville, where she lives with her husband and their three kids (18, 15 and 11). It’s excited her about additional ways to advance the city’s profile — not only through tourism but as mayor. In September, she announced her intention to run for election in 2024. She will challenge Lioneld Jordan in the nonpartisan campaign. Jordan has been the city’s mayor since 2009 — the office does not come with term limits — and said he intends to run for a fifth term.
“What is happening right now in Fayetteville is great; I think it could be better,” she said. Rawn said it wasn’t a specific issue that attracted her to the mayor’s race — it’s her first run for elected office — but she did recognize that planning for continued population growth and the need for affordable housing is top of mind.
“If you had to put one [issue] at the top of the list, that’d be it,” she said. “Our decisions today will impact Fayetteville for the long haul.”