Of all the entities suffering through the 2020 pandemic, it’s hard to imagine one in tougher straits than convention and visitors organizations. Since March, they’ve faced the unenviable task of promoting area amenities to an audience unwilling or unable to travel.
For Little Rock’s CVB, the year has been one requiring radically different thinking to help keep Central Arkansas front of mind for leisure travelers and business groups alike.
“It’s a cliché to say it’s a tough year,” said Gretchen Hall, LRCVB president and CEO. “It’s been extraordinarily challenging this year. We’ve tried to do a variety of things to continue to not only stay relevant, but also to help all of our businesses in the industry.”
Many of those new initiatives center around the use of technology. Not unlike companies adopting Zoom meetings and families facetiming their holidays, the organization has packaged several video tours of local attractions.
“Pre-COVID, we had a couple of audio tours that we self-guided,” Hall said. “You could drive through the destination or walk through certain aspects of the tour. One highlighted our civil rights history and one highlighted a lot of the political history that is here in the capital city.”
“When COVID hit, we pivoted and did all kinds of different things. All of those things came together for us to create these virtual tours, but they’re also designed to be a driving tour or a travel-at-your-own-pace tour.”
Last spring, the CVB released a virtual tour of the city’s murals, followed in the summer by a sculpture tour, highlighting 140 of the city’s public art pieces in the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden and Riverfront Park.
In November, a tour of historic churches was released spotlighting the architectural significance of 18 houses of worship, 13 of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. And on Veterans Day, the group’s fourth video tour was released, highlighting the area’s military history through a collection of 14 monuments, memorials and museums dedicated to those who have served.
Hall said the tours are not just meant to stand on their own, but are hoped to whet the appetite of prospective visitors.
“We were brainstorming with our marketing team, trying to figure out what products we could develop that really highlight and capitalize on some of our amenities here in Central Arkansas and would, in a virtual environment, inspire a future visit. That’s what the videos are intended to do,” she said.
The video tours are the most visible product of LRCVB’s work this year, but much has also been done behind the scenes to help push the area as a safe destination.
“We’ve tried to do a variety of things not only stay relevant, but also help all of our businesses in the industry,” Hall said. “We created the Big on Safety program that we could promote to visitors so they would know how businesses were pushing cleanliness, disinfecting and adhering to mask ordinances. We launched that program months ago.”
“We’ve also worked with several of our state leaders to develop a grant program to provide additional support and funding for our private sector businesses in the hospitality industry. That program has recently launched, so that’s great news for them.”
Still, Hall admits that much of the work done this year is unlikely to pay off immediately, especially as it pertains to conventions, a huge revenue generator.
“Group and convention business, it will still be a couple of years before we get those fully back,” she said. “We’re still in conversations and prospecting for future convention business, however the messaging is different. Where we may have been targeting that 1,000-person convention—and still are for 2024 because those big conventions literally take that much lead time—right now, we’re going after those 200-person conventions that need the space capacity of a 500-person convention.”
“We’ve created COVID maps for all of our facilities showing how we can safely spread out groups. We’ve booked a few pieces of business because of that, but those are really few and far between. Group business just isn’t ready to come back yet. For those larger convention groups and any of our performing arts and concerts, especially indoor concerts, it’s really hard to make those make financial sense when you have the necessary distancing guidelines in place.”
Asked if lawmakers had acted in a manner that balanced health needs with economic considerations, Hall was delicate in her response.
“I think, by and large, the approach that has been taken at the state level has been good. Could we do more? Sure,” she said. “There’s mixed feeling on what that would include, what that would look like and how much more that hinders business development and economic growth. I won’t get deep into all of those thoughts.”
“We put a mask ordinance in place [in Little Rock], in fact, before some of the others in the state. That was to be expected. We’ve got a huge health care community here. We also have a much larger business population here. I think that really helped us on the front end.”
On the other hand, as numbers have continued to spike in the fourth quarter of the year, Hall said institutional guidelines must be met with individual responsibility to curb the pandemic and help businesses of all stripes to recover. With that, she said, she’s got high hopes for the future.
“We’ve still got a long way to go and I hope that individuals are seeing that there’s a major personal responsibility here,” she said. “The government can only do so much. At some point, there has to be some personal responsibility to take care of yourself and others.”
“I’m the eternal optimist, which has been increasingly harder to be in this environment, I will admit that. Even though this is [the reality] that we’re going to live in in the first quarter of 2021, there is going to be something magical about putting 2020 in the rearview mirror and going into a new year with increasing hope and optimism.”