Jim Gaston on Tourism, the Recession and Technology (Exec Q&A)

Jim Gaston has been operating Gaston's White River Resort in Lake View since 1966, transforming it into a world-class destination for trout fishing.

Bio: Jim Gaston
Background: Gaston's resort began when Al Gaston, Jim's father, in 1958 bought 20 acres along the White River. The acreage included six cottages and six boats. In 1966, Jim's father died and a bank sought to foreclose on the resort's property. Jim Gaston developed a business plan, and with a $15,000 bank loan, he eventually transformed the resort into a property consisting of 400 acres, two miles of river frontage, 79 cottages, more than 70 boats, a restaurant, swimming pool and nature trails, among other amenities.

Civic leadership: Gaston has held various leadership positions with the Arkansas Hospitality Association and the Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce. He has been president of the Arkansas Tourism Development Foundation since its founding in 1970.

Q: How have the recession and slow recovery affected your business? Are you seeing people cut back on vacations because of the economy? Do fewer or more visitors come from out of state now?

A: Yes, the "company trips" are down. Personal vacations are also down. The economy plays a part, but I think the problem is that companies and people in general are more concerned about what will happen next. They're simply watching their money and waiting to see what happens. They have lost faith in what is taking place in Washington, D.C., and the world. About three or four years ago Arkansas residents accounted for about 30 percent of our business. Now it's about 50 percent. However, I do see this changing this year, with more non-Arkansas visitors returning to the resort.

Q: Does your business serve mostly men? What's the mix of men and women at Gaston's?

A: It is a mix of 50-50.

Q: Did last year's flooding of the White River affect your resort?

A: Oh, yes! We lost the months of May and June. Had that not happened, 2011 would have been very close to a normal year for these times.

Q: Have evolving attitudes toward environmental preservation and resource conservation changed your business?

A: Environmental preservation, etc. is top on everyone's list, which is a very good thing for our business, the White River and Arkansas.

Q: How have technological advances affected your business?

A: The technological advances have been great, ranging from guest services to almost all the marketing. I fear that most of the tourism industry has not kept up to date. It takes time and a lot of work; those who are behind the curve will have a very hard time playing catch-up. Marketing, too, is a moving target. One must review marketing on a day-to-day basis. What is good today may very well be history in six months or less.

Q: How have tourism in Arkansas and the marketing of tourism in the state changed over the years?

A: Wow! Has it ever changed! The Internet, websites, social media - all these have taken the place for the most part of the print media.

Q: As a business owner, what do you know now that you wish you'd known starting out?

A: I started out at 20 years old, so I thought I knew everything! I found out along the way that was not the case. At age 70, I am still learning. I always wanted to own my own business, only to learn that the business owns me. Throughout, there have been and will continue to be many changes. I have come to learn there are two things one cannot change: Mother Nature and the rules of capitalism.