A New Generation of Economic Development
By Kalene Griffith and Gretchen Hall
Those of us who work in the travel industry not only need to work to engage and attract visitors, but we also need to be concurrently active in helping our community develop the products and experiences necessary to cultivate great places. Communicating the value of tourism and the importance of place to our political and private sector leaders is often necessary, as their decisions affect a city’s competitive position in Arkansas’s billion-dollar tourism industry. Our work directly correlates to local jobs and increased tax revenue. Simply put, cultivating great places for tourists and citizens is economic development.
Utilizing a workforce to serve as ambassadors for your community is a great way to begin. Service and hospitality training as well as visitor welcome initiatives come in many forms across the Natural State. The Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism operates 14 welcome centers that span each major highway entry into the state. The staff at these welcome centers is trained on all the wonderful things to see and do in Arkansas, and can offer a great resource for waiters, retail workers and others to offer a positive message to visitors.
Moreover, it is certainly easier to share that knowledge in a genuine way if that staff is able to experience the offerings first hand. To provide that hands-on experience to its staff, the Parks & Tourism department conducts week-long familiarization tours twice a year. These tours give every welcome center employee the opportunity to see and experience attractions, restaurants, lodging, parks, etc. in all areas of the state.
That in turn gives staff the ability to give personal recommendations to places when talking to visitors. This creates a more authentic conversation with guests, and delivers that “southern hospitality” our state is known for. Consider doing familiarization tours within your own community, offering ways for your citizens and workers to explore and rediscover.
In the northwest corner, the Visit Bentonville team has created a web-based orientation for all frontline staff in the hospitality industry. The web orientation showcases the many attractions, events and customer service training for all new staff and employees. The materials are provided online to make it easy for frontline staff to be informed in case they are unable to experience all of the amenities or special events first-hand.
Moving from the mountains to the Delta, Helena-West Helena is an epitome of southern hospitality. When visitors from the American Queen or American Duchess dock at the town's River Park, volunteers greet them with complimentary bags full of information about the town and its historic past. Helena-West Helena and her residents also become "hosts with the most" each October, as the historic downtown welcomes thousands from across the globe for the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival. Hundreds of volunteers give their time to make festivalgoers feel at home in the Arkansas Delta.
In Central Arkansas, the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau provides complementary on-site ambassador brand training for employees within the hospitality industry, including taxi drivers. Through the interactive and engaging instruction, attendees learn about the impact visitors have when they spend money in Little Rock. They also learn about the importance of their role in being knowledgeable and courteous frontline employees and how that translates to a positive visitor experience.
Hospitality by definition is “the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.” In Arkansas, the tourism teams across the state know that genuine hospitality extended to all visitors will guarantee growth in travel numbers and overall economic impact. Working with your hospitality and tourism partners to develop service and experience design trainings can offer a profound and positive impact on economic development strategies and move a community into the next generation of place development.