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Sharing hospitality.

LET'S FACE IT: ARKANSAS tourism suffered in 2009. Truth be told, the year was grim--the worst many can remember. Problems of one sort or another plagued us, start to finish. The good news is we see glimmers of hope.

The year began with a bang. Hundreds of them, in fact, as transformers across northern Arkansas blew and power poles snapped during a winter storm that kept many folks--and businesses--without power for weeks. Then the rains came and they seemed to never let up. When clouds finally parted, Little Rock had received well over 80 inches during 2009, a record and about 60 percent more than average. Central Arkansas wasn't alone as other locations across the Natural State established records for precipitation. Ice storms and floods are bad for tourism.

So is a struggling economy. Nationally, consumer confidence remained low, announcements about foreclosures and layoffs filled news reports, and then the president of the United States suggested that business meetings weren't a good idea.

As frustrating as our problems were in Arkansas, they couldn't compare to those experienced by Nevada, Arizona, Florida and others whose economies are more dependent on the hospitality industry. Restaurants, resorts and entire hotel chains declared bankruptcy.

But enough doom and gloom. I'm optimistic by nature and feel better about 2010. Arkansas tourism is not going to have a banner year, but I think things are looking brighter, especially if the nation's economy gains steam.

Our owners and operators have responded aggressively. They're working hard to meet customer demands with improved products and services. As have other organizations, the Department of Parks & Tourism has buckled down while instructing our advertising and Internet agencies to stretch every marketing dollar.

Meanwhile, Arkansas' product base continues to improve. Southland and Oaklawn made major capital investments in their "games of skill" facilities and have attracted good crowds, not to mention the attention that Rachel Alexander and Zenyatta are bringing to Oaklawn's April 9 Apple Blossom Invitational. Texarkana unveiled an equine center last spring, and it's drawing substantial interest, much of it from beyond our borders. In cooperation with the Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department, we recently opened state-of-the-art welcome centers in Blytheville and Lake Village. Within the past few months, the Highway Department signed the Rock 'N' Roll Highway between Newport and Pocahontas.

The "World of the Pharaohs" exhibit at the Arkansas Arts Center has helped, and so have the ever-changing exhibits at the Clinton Center. We now have cabins at Moro Bay State Park, a new visitors center at Hobbs State Park and campsites for the first time on the Delta Heritage Trail. The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute atop Petit Jean is getting fine reviews from guests.

In addition, the Department of Parks & Tourism is working closely with the Arkansas Hospitality Association on an ambitious Welcome to Arkansas program designed to improve customer service. Nearly 50 communities have enrolled, giving them opportunities to strengthen skills of front-line employees. The goal: improved visitor satisfaction, which translates to longer stays--and more spending.

Also, we have a newly crafted strategic tourism plan that will guide us in the years to come. Prepared by Longwoods International & Economics Research Associates, it should ensure that our tourism industry does its part to keep Arkansas prosperous. Among other things, it will focus available resources to help build new businesses, especially in areas needing assistance.

Finally, I'll close by reminding everyone that while new products, creative marketing campaigns and finely honed strategic plans are important, what ultimately will set Arkansas apart from the competition is our people. Other destinations will always claim bigger theme parks, newer malls, faster roller coasters, fancier lodges or trendier museums. That's the nature of this business. But if Arkansans can share their traditional Southern hospitality with our visitors and personally invite them to enjoy the state's rich natural and cultural legacies, we'll be just fine.

Joe David Rice is tourism director of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism.
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Title Annotation:Commentary
Author:Rice, Joe David
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Mar 8, 2010
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