In an Odd Tourism Week, LRCVB’s Gretchen Hall Looks Ahead

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Gretchen Hall was finishing up an odd National Travel and Tourism Week on Friday, touring local and national sites virtually while cautiously looking forward to a revival in business for the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Hall, the bureau’s CEO, assessed the limited reopening of on-site dining at Arkansas restaurants and predicted that gatherings at LRCVB’s Statehouse Convention Center and Robinson Hall could resume in August and continue full-force through the fourth quarter, “assuming that there’s no resurgence of the coronavirus.”

She said national research suggests that despite a pent-up eagerness to travel in about a third of the American population, the tourism industry expects another third of the populace to travel only close to home, and for the last third to wait until progress is made combating the pandemic medically. She hopes to get back her own staff, decimated by about 160 furloughs of part-time and full-time workers after gatherings were halted a little more than a month ago at LRCVB venues.

All of this added up to the oddest Tourism Week in Hall’s nearly two decades at the bureau.

“We’re celebrating the spirit of travel, but we had to make some adjustments and do it a little differently,” she said. Travel and Tourism Week comes at the beginning of May each year, and it does more than highlight destinations and travel opportunities. “It also pays tribute and highlights those that work in the industry, and that’s important because we’ve all been hit very hard in this industry.”

The LRCVB launched a tribute video showcasing “the faces of the Little Rock hospitality industry,” Hall said. The week also featured a driving tour of murals in the capital city, to be done in real life from your vehicle or virtually on the internet.

Hall also participated in a virtual road trip across the United States, thanks to the U.S. Travel Association.

Part of the idea was to keep spirits up while Little Rock awaits the reopening of eight downtown hotels and many restaurants that have temporarily closed. Several restaurants have announced permanent closings, including P.F. Chang’s and Bravo’s.

“Tourism is a major economic driver for Arkansas,” she said, ranking second only to agriculture as a nearly $8 billion-a-year industry in the state as measured by economic impact. She welcomed the reopening of some in-restaurant dining, but noted that restaurants that adjusted well to delivery and curbside service are reaping only a fraction of their usual revenue.

“And then the hotels throughout the city are really hurting, especially those downtown, because those hotels typically have a higher percentage of business travel and groups and meetings, convention travelers,” she said.

Events drawing those types of travelers “are nonexistent right now, so we’re anxious to welcome visitors back to our community again in a safe manner.”

As Americans start to venture out, the first travelers are likely to stay close to home, and to drive rather than fly. “I think the average radius of those that are comfortable taking a vacation in 2020 is a 680-mile radius,” Hall said. “So it’d be a weekend getaway or longer, but they are not comfortable yet about getting on a plane, but they have greater comfort for hotel stays and Airbnb-type stays. Some want to do more RV travel and camping. Some people are wanting to jump back in, and others are taking a slower approach.”

She said federal aid, in the form of payroll protection loans and other features of the coronavirus relief program, had been a godsend to her members. “There has been a tremendous amount of support from the federal government for a wide variety of our industry partners, but it’s a lot to go through, a lot to read and review and figure out,” Hall said.

“Of course, there’s also been a lot of support through unemployment benefit programs because in our industry so many people have been furloughed or laid off due to closures.” The LRCVB has been disseminating information on aid programs to its partners.

She said restaurants have helped one another, “shifting the way they operate in order to survive, going to curbside or adding delivery or a grocery store component. We’ve seen a lot of creativity and a lot of communal support.”

She said part of the LRCVB’s message was to glimpse “better roads” ahead. “We’re hopeful for kind of late summer, especially into the fall and fourth quarter, to see very positive growth,” she said. “Although the environment is going to have to change a little bit as we move forward, we can’t wait to welcome all of our associates at the point when events resume.”