by Dwain Hebda
Bill Solleder’s first love has always been music, and it’s seemed to play into whatever job he’s holding at the time. That includes today, where as Director of Marketing for Visit Hot Springs, he’s the Pied Piper for visitors from around the globe, leading them to the Spa City.
Today’s Hot Springs gives Solleder a lot of backup harmonies for the tourism tune he’s carrying, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, he points to a 2014 moment of devastation as the literal phoenix pyre for what visitors now see and experience.
“After the Majestic (Hotel) fire, it seemed that a lot of things changed in Hot Springs,” he says. “There were some changes in leadership at the chamber, changes in leadership in the city government. Visit Hot Springs, the City of Hot Springs, the Chamber of Commerce and a lot of the more influential community leaders all seem to be working together.”
“It’s so refreshing right now to see that. Hopefully that will last a while; it seems like everyone’s getting along, everyone’s working or doing their part towards an end.”
Solleder had seen this kind of spark before. The oldest leisure and tourism destination in the state, Hot Springs had grown a little crochety in its offerings by the time Solleder founded Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival in 2004, kicking off a youth revolution. Since then, he’s seen enough to appreciate the new vibrancy the city has taken on through growth and fresh thinking.
“I really believe (Visit Hot Spring CEO) Steve Arrison and I share the same attitude,” he says. “When we’re thinking about promoting the city of Hot Springs, we want to promote what’s unique to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Hot Springs has some very unique things like a four-story treehouse and the Mid-America Science Museum and a brewery that uses thermal water to brew its beer. Those things are all unique, things that you can’t see or do anywhere else in the world.”
Solleder and his team at Visit Hot Springs have demonstrated a singular knack for introducing events that quickly become fixtures on the calendar, accentuating existing attractions rather than overshadowing them.
“When we think about events, we’re like, what can we do that no one else is doing that’s unique and creative? From those brainstorming sessions we come up with some of the coolest, most fun ideas,” he says. “Take the Running of the Tubs. Our history goes back to Bathhouse Row. The buildings are beautiful, the history is there, it will always be there. So, why not race bathtubs on wheels?”
“Places like Northwest Arkansas are excelling because they’re bringing some of the most amazing talent in the world to Northwest Arkansas for big business up there. I love what they’re doing. I think we can also bring in new business with new ideas and still hold onto what’s amazing about Hot Springs and that is the past.”
Such forethought wasn’t in play when he brought the Valley of the Vapors festival to life, and there was nothing to suggest in that first one what the event would later become. Except for those who were there.
“The Valley of the Vapors was very small at first,” he says. “I remember the first night the first band that played and all these kids showed up for the show and they literally were sitting cross-legged in front of the stage. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is never going to work.’”
“When that band started, I saw what was probably years of pent-up energy in these kids as the room erupted. Then I was like, okay, I’ve really got something here. These people want this. They want something that not only is loud and energetic, but it spoke to them as the youth of Hot Springs.”
VOV not only survived (the 2019 version happened in March), but it planted a seed for creative expression and whetted an appetite for similar events. Even as he’s taken a step back from managing his creation, Solleder is still VOV’s biggest fan.
“I’m just watching now from the sidelines. It’s kind of like sending your kid to college,” he says. “It’s doing well. I always thought that in an organization that prides itself on new ideas and younger ideas, you have to have younger people in charge trying those new ideas. I had to get out of there eventually, otherwise it would just have become stagnant.”
Solleder doesn’t have a lot of wistful time on his hands, however, as Visit Hot Springs continues to focus on future attractions.
“We are looking forward to additional sports tourism,” he says. “With the bond passing for the Majestic baseball fields at the former site of the Boys and Girls Club, we begin construction next year and we hope to have our first Little League games there in early 2021.”
“Sports tourism is something that’s worked with mountain biking and it’s worked with running to bring a different type of healthy tourist. I drive through downtown Hot Springs two to four times a day and I’m seeing mountain bikes on the back of cars and I’m seeing runners and walkers. People are up and active and they’re getting around. I think that is changing the way Hot Springs looks.”
“We’ve kind of reinvented being healthy and being a tourist at the same time. I see more of that in the future.”