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Will Hot Springs heat up? City leaders hope to boost winter tourism numbers with promotions.

Don Raulie will never forget his first job interview in Hot Springs.

"I got there literally as the water from the flood was going down," Raulie says.

He interviewed for his current job as executive director of the Hot Springs Advertising & Promotion Commission on June 1, 1990.

Less than two weeks earlier, on May 19, a torrential downpour had dumped 13 inches of rain on Hot Springs.

Central Avenue turned into a river. Water rushed through the historic downtown area, damaging businesses and scaring off visitors for weeks.

"There was a great deal of concern," Raulie says. "It was justified. |The flood~ created some serious problems, not only because of the high water, but also because of the negative publicity we received as a result.

"You see a woman clinging to a post, nearly swept away by torrential waters. That makes good television, but it scares people off."

In fact, it scared them off in droves.

City officials do not try to gloss over the 1990 tourist season.

The numbers speak too loudly.

In the year of the flood, hospitality tax collection figures show business off 5 percent in May and 5.1 percent in June from the previous year.

Raulie and other Hot Springs leaders say businesses felt the flood's backlash all summer, traditionally the spa's second-best season. Oaklawn Park's thoroughbred racing season from late January through April is the major tourist period.

A poor racing season or an act of God can drastically affect Hot Springs' economy. So community leaders are beefing up their efforts to attract more tourists during the fall and winter months, traditionally the city's off-season.

"We recognize that we have the ability to attract people virtually all year long," Raulie says. "In the past, we missed an opportunity by not utilizing the holiday season to bring people to the community.

"We recognize that and want to do something about it. We don't expect to have a big December immediately, but over a period of years we hope to build our December business."

Holiday Spirit

The Advertising & Promotion Commission, the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and businesses have several activities in the works. They include:

* Holiday In The Park.

This is Raulie's baby. His hope is that annual Hot Springs holiday events such as the city's Christmas parade and its art gallery walks will become more attractive to tourists once they fall under the umbrella of Holiday In The Park.

By giving the events a common theme, Raulie believes they will be easier to market.

"In every community, and certainly Hot Springs, there are many holiday-related activities," he says. "We've compiled information on every holiday-related event from turning on the lights downtown to the New Year's dance and put them on a calendar. It's an impressive group of events."

* Incentive packages.

Hot Springs recently concluded its Octoberfest celebration, the city's first group effort to package an event.

"In August, we began working with hotels, restaurants and attractions, encouraging them to develop packages that we could advertise," Raulie says. "Most resort destinations have used packaging forever. But packaging here in Hot Springs has really been minimal."

Raulie hopes to convince area businesses to put together Holiday In The Park packages to attract tourists.

Two years ago, a meeting designed to convince business leaders to package promotions attracted seven people. This year, a similar meeting drew more than 60 attendees.

Part of the reason may be the resounding defeat in August of a proposed tax to expand the city's convention center. Hot Springs merchants now are fighting for survival.

"We have people working together and communicating about packaging," says Bob Haupt, a former general manager of the Park Hilton Hotel and president of Spa Lodging. "In order to make packages go, we need a large number of businesses involved."

Businesses once were not as willing to cooperate with each other.

Self-Sacrifice

Haupt says package promotions involve a certain amount of initial sacrifice. For instance, if a hotel includes dinner on the "Belle of Hot Springs" and two passes to a music show in return for two nights of accommodations, it spreads the wealth.

Right?

But the hotel manager struggles with the idea of escorting potential dinner guests from his hotel's restaurant to a boat on Lake Hamilton.

"You're taking a risk," Haupt says. "But you must believe the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."

* A hospitality seminar.

A committee was formed in March to implement a customer-service seminar. Employees from hotels, restaurants, gift shops and other businesses are educated on the history of Hot Springs and its attractions. Participants then are given a handbook filled with maps and information on how to better treat customers.

"It includes everything from what types of birds are in the area to why leaves change color," says Terri Clark, the chamber's special events coordinator. "We want to give as much information as we can. Instead of saying, 'I don't know,' they can help the tourist."

The first seminar Sept. 3 drew 120 people. Another seminar is scheduled for December.

"Eventually, we hope to get all of the people in the hospitality sector to complete this course," says Helen Selig, the chamber's chairwoman and owner of the Selig & Smith Inc. commercial real estate firm. "If you come from Little Rock, go to the Hamilton House restaurant and ask what there is to do in this town, people will tell you."

* A shop-at-home program.

Sponsored by a Hot Springs radio station and bank, the program sells "dollars" for 69 cents. Each voucher may be redeemed for $1 toward purchases at participating Hot Springs businesses.

The results of the off-season efforts will not be known until next year. But Raulie believes business already is picking up.

He says the Oct. 23-26 Octoberfest, the city's first packaging effort, drew a sizable number of tourists.

"I don't know what we did in the past |during off-season months~," Raulie says. "I suspect we did not do much."

Battle Of The Springs?

While Hot Springs' tourism trade suffered a slump in the late 1980s, Eureka Springs showed a substantial annual increase.

Until recently, however, Hot Springs' tourist rush did not coincide with that of Eureka Springs.

The summer and Oaklawn's racing season fattened the wallets of Hot Springs merchants. Eureka Springs, meanwhile, is famous for its arts and crafts offerings, dogwoods in the spring and fall colors.

Will Hot Springs' new emphasis on fall and winter tourism pit the two cities against each other?

"The area around Hot Springs is as pretty as Eureka Springs," Selig says. "But we're not in competition. We offer different things such as golf courses and national forests.

"If you want a number of things to do, come to Hot Springs."

Even in November and December, which normally finds Hot Springs hibernating.

"We usually have a downturn in the fall," Selig admits.

"There are some ups and downs, but generally business declines from the end of summer until the race meet," Raulie says.

Oaklawn's summer-fall simulcast season has yet to provide a tourism boost, Raulie says, although the Advertising & Promotion Commission is exploring ways to exploit the simulcasts.

An event such as last Saturday's simulcast of the Breeders' Cup races from Louisville, Ky., and national multimillion-dollar "Pick 7" wager may be worth an effort.

"I don't know how to deal with simulcasting," Raulie says. "It is probably not a major factor because the typical simulcast participant lives in or near Hot Springs.

"So far, it does not appear to be an attraction that brings people a great distance. But with something like the Breeders' Cup, there is a possibility to do something."

Raulie and Hot Springs business leaders are exploring all the possibilities.

"We have a lot to offer," Haupt says. "We just need to package and promote it. For the first time ever, we're packaging the hotels and attractions."

Perhaps it will make for a cozier winter.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:More than Summer; Hot Springs, Arkansas
Author:Webb, Kane
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Nov 4, 1991
Words:1318
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