Arkansas tourism officials optimistic about 2013 growth

story by Aric Mitchell
amitchell@thecitywire.com

Editor’s note: This is part of a series on fourth quarter (fall) tourism in Arkansas. The Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism estimated that tourism and travel was a $5.68 billion industry in Arkansas during 2011. Although it may not be the peak tourism season, the travel and tourism operations don’t shut down in the fall and winter months.

The state of Arkansas is trending toward its best year for tourism revenues since 2005, according to the latest tourism tax collection data released from the state’s Department of Finance and Administration (DFA).

Compared to tourism tax revenues from 2011, the DFA reported a 3.02% increase through the first nine months of 2012. Through September, tourism tax collections are at $9.641 million compared to $9.35 million last year.

Going back further to 2010, this year’s performance marks a 6.25% increase, up from $9.038 million year-to-date.

In 2008, tourism tax collections were at $9.431 million through September, an average of $1.047 million per month. This resulted in the highest revenue of any year from 2005 to 2011 as tourism revenues were pacing at $12.575 million YTD during that period, though they did finish lower at $12.005 million due to natural lulls in November and December activity.

While this year’s performance will likely experience these same lulls, thus bringing down the monthly average of $1.071 million, the 2012 tourism tax revenue number is pacing at $12.855 million, around $280,000 more for the year than in 2008. This trend indicates that 2012 is on course to become the highest performing year for tourism tax collections during the last eight-year period of DFA reporting.

AN OPTIMISTIC 2013
Joe David Rice, director of tourism for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, believes “several factors” have contributed to the growth including a “dedicated funding source for our marketing and promotional efforts” as well as the department’s primary market areas – Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, and Dallas – “weathering the ongoing economic difficulties better than most.”

“When those SMSAs (Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas) are strong, we’re generally going to be okay,” Rice said.

Additionally, he said, “Arkansas’s tourism product has been greatly enhanced. We have a completely renovated lodge at Petit Jean State Park, a long-awaited state park on the Mississippi River, new features at Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs, new convention centers in El Dorado and Stuttgart, several new state welcome centers at major entry points, expanded biking and pedestrian facilities in central Arkansas, and, of course, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.”

Rice said such details are major drivers of the state’s success, and also emphasized consistency in branding.

“Some of our competitors routinely change their positioning statement every few years. We’ve developed a great deal of equity in our ‘Arkansas: The Natural State’ brand over the past couple of decades and potential travelers are familiar with it.”

Rice credited department employees with preparing and implementing “good solid campaigns year in and year out.”

“Our ad agency (CJRW) and our Internet agency (Aristotle) have talented and experienced staff members who complement our Parks and Tourism team. The Governor supports us and has regularly appointed effective participants to the Arkansas State Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission. This group is essentially our Board of Directors...and the Commissioners take their roles seriously.”

Asked to describe his expectations for 2013, Rice said he’s “optimistic.”

“The 21c Museum Hotel opens in Bentonville soon and that will be an interesting draw. We’re redoing the lodge at Queen Wilhelmina State near Mena. The Highway Department will soon unveil new welcome centers, which we’ll staff, in West Memphis and Helena/West Helena. The Johnny Cash Home in Dyess opens early next spring. And we’re all eagerly awaiting the U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith,” Rice said.

BENTONVILLE GAINS
One of the strongest performers in state tourism is Bentonville. Through October the Bentonville A&P showed an $871,102 total on prepared food and beverage tax collection and $397,060 for lodging and meeting space. Through the same period of time in 2011, the numbers were at $760,370 and $350,458, respectively.

Total tourism-related dollars for the first 10 months of 2012 total $1.268 million, up 12.46% compared to the 2011 period.

Kalene Griffith, president and CEO of the Bentonville Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), credited the opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art as the biggest driver “in conjunction with our business traveler and sports events.”

Griffith believes it will be challenging to build upon that success in 2013, but said the Bentonville CVB will continue to do so, “promoting Crystal Bridges ... and development in the downtown area with restaurants and retail.”

“We will utilize the positive awareness in the past year to promote Bentonville as a leisure destination...and expand awareness for upcoming attractions such as 21c Museum Hotel and NWA Children’s Museum.”

FORT SMITH REGION
Through the end of October, the Fort Smith CVB reported an increase to $644,917 from $603,700 in 2011, an improvement of 6.39%.

“We’re pleased to see this kind of performance in a national election year,” Claude Legris, executive director of the Fort Smith CVB, told The City Wire in November. “We typically see much more conservative spending including travel in an election year but that has not been the case. As most everyone, we’re cautious to see what may happen with the economy after the first of the year.”

Much economic concern has been directed to the “fiscal cliff,” a series of mandatory budget cuts and tax increases that could occur if Congress doesn’t reach a deal before the end of the year.

However, Maryl Koeth, executive director of the Van Buren Advertising and Promotion (A&P) Commission, isn’t concerned over the “political posturing” and she doesn’t think citizens are either.

“I can’t look at my numbers and say I’m seeing panic or concern on the spending public’s part because of the fiscal cliff. It’s kind of a game that gets played all the time in D.C., and most people don’t really believe that we’re going to go off the fiscal cliff. I don’t think people are completely buying into it. They see it as they (Congressional leaders) are rattling their sabers,” Koeth said.

To go with Koeth’s point, Van Buren tax receipts are up 5.3% over budget for 2012 and 6.3% better than 2011. During the first 10 months of the year, Van Buren A&P collected $392,781 in hospitality taxes for restaurants and lodging against $369,406 YTD in 2011.

“It’s pleasantly surprising,” Koeth said. “I think that overall people are a little more comfortable with the economy. That’s not to say the economy is getting drastically better. They are just a little more comfortable.”

Koeth admitted that “some of the increase is due to price increases,” but insisted increase in the cost of doing business “will not contribute to all of it.”

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“People are spending a bit more, which is good news.”

Koeth shares Rice’s optimism about 2013, especially considering Van Buren voters’ support for a 1% bump in the city’s sales and use tax. The increase was approved by close to 70% of voters in July and will support $11.7 million in capital improvement projects, including new fire and police stations, a new senior center, and $1.75 million in park improvements.

“We had money set aside for overhauling Veterans Park, and we’re hoping to partner with the city on that next year. Also, talking about Lee Creek Park, it’s a closed Corps of Engineers park, and the potential there of doing things right on the river, that will impact us and give us another area within city limits to promote for visitors as well as the people who live here. That sales tax makes it possible to maintain these parks.”

Koeth said she was “proud” of Van Buren voters’ support.

“It usually doesn’t factor in to the everyday citizen’s life. Citizens say, ‘This city has that, why don’t we, what’s the matter with Van Buren?’ But the (Van Buren) Mayor (Bob Freeman) laid it out – and he did a very good job of laying it out – saying, ‘Here are the taxes you pay in Van Buren and here is what they pay in Alma or Greenwood, so when you ask why, here’s why, people in those communities pay for it, and if you want that you’re going to have to pay for it.’”

Koeth continued: “I’m really encouraged the people of Van Buren got that because in a lot of communities they don’t.”

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