Shelby Woods wishes he could say he’d had a grand plan.
That his meticulous mind had plotted it all: Go into marketing while still in college, unify a bunch of independent boat dock and resort owners into a political force, and build the state’s $7.6 billion tourism in-dustry from the ground up.
Along the way, he became the state’s top tourism marketer, publishing the Arkansas Tour Guide for 50 years and helping rebrand Arkansas as a “Natural State” for visitors.
“But I didn’t have any plan,” Woods said, laughing and fiddling with a carefully culled trove of memorabilia he’d laid out on a conference table at CJRW, the Little Rock advertising agency that got its W from Woods’ name.
“Somehow we fell into a niche,” he said. “Before I graduated from the University of Arkansas, I was already working with Doyle Morgan on the Tour Guide. Back then, there was no tourism industry in Arkansas.”
So Woods, now 74, and his brother, Wayne, “grew up” with Arkansas tourism, forming the Woods Brothers Agency in 1971. “All of our clients were in the tourism business.”
This spring, to no great surprise, CJRW won a heated competition to keep Arkansas’ tourism marketing account, the state’s richest advertising contract at $15.2 million a year. The outcome extended a four-decade grip on the account, a duration that both amazes and frustrates CJRW’s competitors.
“I think Shelby considers winning that last contract his crowning achievement,” said Kane Webb, executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. “They had some stiff-ass competition.”
Dapper in coat and tie on July 5, Shelby Woods ventured back in time, pushing an artifact across the table. A black-and-white photo shows him at 23 or 24, beaming as he and Morgan, who ran the tourism-specialty firm Morgan Publishing Co. in Fayetteville, peruse the first Tour Guide with Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in 1967.
A nearby poster featured the covers of all 50 of the annual guides, which the state sends to inquiring potential visitors.
“People go where they’re invited, and back in the ’60s we didn’t have enough money to send out invitations,” Woods said. “I remember very well that the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs had a larger marketing budget than the state tourism office did then.”
But over the decades, he said, “we were able to bring an industry together, help it tax its own customers to pay for marketing, and watch as it grew into the state’s second-largest industry.” In 2016, the state drew nearly 30 million visitors, and well over 100,000 Arkansans had jobs in tourism. “We primed the pump,” Woods said.
Richard Davies, who retired as ADPT executive director after 42 years with the agency, put it this way: “Shelby Woods was there when I got there, and he was there when I left. I don’t think he ever missed a commission meeting.”
A Two-Sided Saga
Woods’ career is a study in single-industry marketing and the saga of a half-century business relationship largely viewed in one of two ways. CJRW either richly deserves the state’s tourism business or has retained it only through political savvy, depending on who’s talking.
“Oh, they’ve shifted right in the last few years,” a competitor said, “and that’s let them benefit in a state gone Republican.” CJRW co-founder Jim Johnson offered the other view: “The key reason we maintain that account is that the Parks & Tourism commissioners all love Shelby, and he’s just good at it.”
That narrative, echoed by Davies, Webb and state tourism chief Joe David Rice, casts the Woods brothers as tourism linchpins, along with innovators like White River resort owner Jim Gaston and Buffalo River entrepreneur Mike Mills.
Marshaling hundreds of allies, they fueled the industry with two landmark tax campaigns, a consistent message rooted in the state’s parks, and a solid, enduring brand: Arkansas: The Natural State.
“Shelby lives and breathes Arkansas tourism,” Webb said. “He’s smart as a whip and he worries everything to death, which is one of his strengths.”
Darin Gray, CJRW’s CEO, called him “probably the most respected advertising executive in state history.” If that sounds like hyperbole, consider this testament from a competitor: “I don’t know anybody who truly knows Shelby Woods and doesn’t like him.”
Arkansas’ waters and mountains have drawn anglers, hikers and hunters for as long as Americans have taken vacations. But there were no major efforts to advertise, or much state money for it. When Woods started, surrounding states outspent Arkansas by as much as 20 to 1 on marketing, and the state’s only known “products” were Hot Springs, Eureka Springs and the Ozark Mountains, he said. “Small resorts couldn’t afford to promote themselves individually, so they had to cooperate and work together.”
So he and Wayne fell in with a dozen regional tourism associations prodding the state to offer matching money for tourism promotion. In 1971, they got it, and by 1975, the match was $2 for every local dollar.
“Little Rock ad agencies didn’t want to go up to Mountain Home to service $10,000 worth of business,” Woods said. “But our agency got operators together for cooperative marketing, and we could go up there and service $100,000 worth of business.”
Mills, who started the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca (Newton County) in 1976, recalled a 1977 example. “I had no money whatsoever when a guy named Wayne Woods walked in and tried to sell me an ad. I didn’t have $20, much less $200, but he said take out the ad and pay me when you get the cash. We became lifelong friends, and the Woodses taught me a lot about marketing.”
Mills learned more after becoming state tourism director in 1982, and the main lessons were frugality and patience. “We would go and ask for funds for parks or tourism,” said Rice, Mills’ lieutenant at the time. “But we’d always get the same answer: As soon as we take care of roads, as soon as we take care of education, your turn will come. But our turn never came.”
So tourism leaders forced the issue. “When Betsey Wright [Gov. Bill Clinton’s chief of staff] told us not to push until schools and roads were taken care of,” Rice said, “Maurice Lewis, who was head of the Hospitality Association, told her, ‘Try to stop me!’”
Tourism tax advocates and friendly lawmakers hit the road for 14 legislative subcommittee meetings around the state, appearing before 1,500 voters. The panel found “virtually unanimous support for the initiative” from about 150 witnesses, and the proposal drew praise from groups like the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, now the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.
Act 38 of 1989, signed by Clinton, was a watershed, setting a 2 percent tax on hotel stays, cabin and boat rentals, camping fees and admission to attractions. It now yields more than $15 million a year, all to plow back into marketing.
“Before that, nobody wanted the state tourism account,” said Mike Sells, CEO of the Sells Agency in Little Rock. “Only Shelby wanted it. There wasn’t much money in it.”
Davies quoted Gaston, the earthy resort owner: “Jim said now we had enough money to screw it up.” Instead, Arkansas’ tourism numbers have been climbing ever since.
“We can’t take credit for everything, not some big things like the Clinton Library in Little Rock and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville,” Shelby Woods said. “But we were able to get a dedicated fund for marketing and later state incentives for tourism businesses to come here. We have a product that visitors love, and it’s very affordable. You can have a great vacation here for $1,000 a week, as opposed to $1,000 a day in cities like Chicago or New York.”
The 2 percent tax also set the stage for the 1990 marriage of Woods Brothers and Cranford Johnson Robinson Associates, at the time the largest advertising merger in state history. CJRA was a large and diverse firm with clients like Entergy and some $26 million a year in capitalized billings; Woods Brothers had about $11 million in tourism business at the time and was poised to bring in more.
Cleaning Up After Pigeons
The next seismic shift was a 1996 public vote for a 1/8-of-1 percent conservation sales tax. The measure rescued a dilapidated state park system, with state parks and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission splitting 90 percent of the proceeds; each got $31.5 million last year.
Park upkeep wasn’t always a great priority for state budgeters, Davies said. “We joked that everybody loves to build statues, but nobody wants to clean up after the pigeons.” At one time, the state was taking mildly worn siding off the back of park buildings and cosmetically putting it on the front. After the conservation tax, state parks were restored as tourism jewels.
The 2 percent tax, also raising millions, revolutionized tourism marketing just as quickly.
In late 1988, several ad agencies were competing for a $640,000 state marketing contract. By 1991, Wayne and Shelby Woods were on the cover of Arkansas Business for handling a state tourism account worth $4 million a year. That article, headlined “Conflicting Accounts,” detailed CJRW’s $11 million a year in total tourism business and the heartburn it was causing competitors.
“For all these years, we’ve been street fighters [in tourism],” Shelby Woods said at the time. “Now we’re street fighters with money, and that makes us dangerous.”
Mills, who remains a member of the state Parks, Recreation & Travel Commission, called Gaston and Shelby Woods “the knife’s points of tourism, Gaston as organizer, Shelby in marketing.”
Communications pros like Sells and Denver Peacock, former CJRW employees themselves, and Montine McNulty of the Arkansas Hospitality Association all say that the Woods brothers’ influence was immense. “They led the charge for what you see today,” McNulty said.
Wayne drove “between 75,000 and 100,000 miles a year” working with small tourism operators and local groups, Shelby Woods told Arkansas Business. “He became an authority on municipal advertising and promotion,” guiding cities through votes to impose food-and-lodging taxes of their own.
Today, more than two dozen Arkansas cities have a “hamburger” tax.
Shelby and Wayne Woods appear on the May 27, 1991, cover of Arkansas Business.
Even those who parted ways with CJRW, like Peacock and the filmmaker Gary Jones, praise Shelby Woods’ character and business sense. Woods was the boss when Jones was shooting footage, still used by the state, of Mount Nebo State Park and a hundred other natural wonders. Arkansas’ beauty doesn’t grow dated, Jones said, and his high-resolution 35mm work wears well in the digital age.
In Jones’ view, Woods’ genius was in account management. “There’s creativity in keeping clients happy, even if the campaigns weren’t always purely creative. They were technically solid and had elements that could be recycled. That helped limit costs. The print ads were often beautiful.”
As to CJRW’s political shift, several marketing pros cited the hiring of Gray, a conservative-leaning former Parks, Recreation & Travel commissioner, and the firm’s January 2015 acquisition of Heathcott Associates, led by Gary Heathcott, who has done work for Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
But Shelby Woods notes that for most of his career Arkansas was led by Democrats.
“Seemingly everybody has an opinion, but the bottom line is relationships must be backed up by performance,” he said. “You may not get an opportunity to represent someone without first having a relationship, but if you don’t perform, you’re not going to keep that. You’re going to lose the business.”
And just because a marketing contract has a multimillion-dollar face value, that doesn’t mean the ad agency banks the whole amount. Only a fraction becomes company revenue — “a common number for ad firms was about 15 percent,” Davies recalled. “The rest largely goes for the placement of ads.”
Fifteen percent of the $15.2 million-a-year state contract is a significant $2.3 million. And while Gray keeps a tight lid on CJRW’s financial details, in late 2014 he said company revenue was about $9 million a year, and capitalized billings approached $70 million.
A marketing executive who sought anonymity offered this breakdown: “The new state marketing contract is just north of $15 million a year, but the lion’s share will go to external vendors ... research firms, broadcast production units, website development firms, radio, TV, cable, outdoor, magazine and newspaper advertising, and other media.”
One subcontractor will be the Miles Partnership of Florida, performing digital duties previously handled by Aristotle Inc. of Little Rock under a separate contract. The state announced last fall that it was looking for one advertising agency for both “traditional” and “digital” marketing, and Aristotle was not one of the 13 firms to make a bid.
“It’s 2017, and I feel that digital and traditional advertising have to feed off each other and be flexible,” Webb said. “Also, I wanted one person to yell at.”
The Real Champions
Shelby Woods believes he is given “too much credit” for tourism’s rise. “We had great people on the account, but the real champions of Arkansas tourism are people like Gaston; state Sen. Allen Gordon from Morrilton; Dave Bird, who owned Inn of the Ozarks in Eureka Springs; Mike Mills; all the members of the commission; and governors like Dale Bumpers and Mike Huckabee.”
Woods said Huckabee, a Republican and former Baptist minister, backed the conservation tax and was later “labeled as a tax-and-spender” for that. “But as a minister, he believed that vacationing together promotes family values.”
Seeing governors as crucial, Davies and Woods helped midwife the Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism, a baby now 43 years old. “We called it the Governor’s Conference for a reason: We wanted the governor to attend,” Woods said.
These days, Asa Hutchinson is “a very good governor for the industry,” Woods said. “He understands that tourism development IS economic development, and that wasn’t always understood.
Our product today and the people who developed it, including all our partners at the Department of Parks & Tourism through the years, deserve their success.”
Arkansas Tourism Marketing: A Modern Timeline
Nearly 30 million visitors spent more than $7.6 billion in Arkansas in 2016, according to the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism.
The average travel party stayed four nights and spent $450. But when Shelby Woods started his career, Arkansas tourism wasn’t the economic engine it is today, and the state spent only a few hundred thousand dollars a year for promotion. Here are some milestones as that changed:
Two young advertising men from the Tom C. Hockersmith Agency, former newspaper reporter Wayne Cranford and artist Jim Johnson, start Cranford Johnson. It will grow into the state’s largest ad agency, with major success in tourism.
Shelby Woods, a Dumas native studying at the University of Arkansas, takes his first marketing job with Doyle Morgan, a publisher and club owner in Fayetteville. Woods and Morgan later become partners in a bar called The Library.
Morgan and Woods produce the first Arkansas Tour Guide. “Doyle Morgan … came up with the idea,” Wayne Woods recalled. “He and Shelby went in on it as partners with Doyle doing the publishing and Shelby selling the ads. At some point, they went separate ways with Shelby taking the Tour Guide and Doyle retaining the bar.”
Jim Gaston, owner of Gaston’s White River Resort and a lifelong tourism dynamo, is Gov. Dale Bumpers’ first appointee to the new Arkansas Parks, Recreation & Travel Commission.
Wayne Woods graduates from UA and joins Shelby to form the Woods Brothers Agency in Little Rock.
All of their clients are in tourism.
ADPT Executive Director Bill Henderson hires Richard Davies, a fellow UA journalism graduate, to write about Arkansas. Davies will spend the next 42 years at the parks agency, the last quarter-century as executive director.
The first Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism is held at the Dogpatch theme park in Newton County. The conference becomes a signature annual event.
Tourism slogan “Arkansas Is a Natural,” the brainchild of Cranford Johnson copywriter Jackye Shipley, evolves into “Arkansas: The Natural State.”
With Jim Johnson’s logo, it appears on Arkansas license plates.
(For more, see Branding Arkansas Came Naturally for CJRW.)
Mike Mills, founder of the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca, becomes state tourism director, one of the first with deep experience in running a tourism business. He hires Joe David Rice, an environmental planner, into the tourism division.
Rice becomes state tourism director and is soon traveling Arkansas attending hearings to promote a state tourism tax. More than 1,500 Arkansans attend hearings around the state, and some 150 witnesses are heard.
The Arkansas General Assembly approves Act 38, imposing a 2% sales tax on hotel rooms, cabin rentals, camping fees, admission to attractions, etc., to finance a tourism marketing trust fund. The tax brought in about $15.4 million last year.
Arkansas establishes its toll-free number for tourism, 1-800- NATURAL, and it uses part of the windfall from the two-percent tourism tax to staff the line 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The Woods Brothers Agency merges with Cranford Johnson Robinson Associates, forming Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods, now simply CJRW. Shelby Woods becomes chairman of the executive committee.
Gov. Bill Clinton appoints Davies as ADPT director, extending a family tradition. Davies’ grandfather Samuel G. Davies was the first state parks director, and his father, Ladd Davies, helped to build Petit Jean State Park.
State voters approve Amendment 75, raising the state sales tax by 1/8 cent on the dollar.
The Parks & Tourism Department and the state Game & Fish Commission reap 45 percent each, the Department of Arkansas Heritage gets 9 percent and the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission takes 1 percent.
House Bill 1338 lets the state entice tourism investors with sales tax credits equal to a percentage of the cost of building an attraction. “It made a tremendous difference in attracting top-quality attractions,” Shelby Woods says.
At Gaston’s urging, the state puts up a tourism website after Marla Johnson of Aristotle Inc. secures the domain name Arkansas.com.
“Jim was always telling us we had to be online,” Rice said. “Shelby and I would dismiss it, saying the internet would be like the CB radio craze and fade quickly. Of course, Gaston was right.”
Ross Cranford, son of co-founder Wayne Cranford, joins CJRW.
He becomes senior vice president of tourism services.
CJRW buys Jones Productions from founder Gary Jones. A second Cranford brother, Chris, comes on board as creative director for Jones Productions; a vice president of the agency; and cinematographer, editor, etc. for all ADPT work.
A third Cranford brother, Jay, joins the agency as chief creative officer and senior vice president. He becomes responsible for all agency work for seven years.
Darin Gray is named CJRW president, and his arrival precedes the departure of longtime employees including Denver Peacock and Ross, Jay and Chris Cranford. The Cranfords go on to form the Cranford Co.
CJRW acquires Heathcott Associates under undisclosed financial terms. Gary Heathcott joins CJRW as a consultant, reflecting what some competitors see as a rightward political shift at the agency.
In July, Gray is named as the next CEO at CJRW.
Gaston dies at 73 in Mountain Home. Shelby Woods recalls him as his “best friend.”
In December, Wayne Woods retires as CEO of CJRW; Shelby Woods remains on the executive board as chairman emeritus.
Kane Webb, a former journalist and aide to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, succeeds Davies as ADPT director. He aims to “sell Arkansas nationally and continue to mine niche markets like motorcycling and biking.”
CJRW publishes the 50th edition of the tour guide, rebranded as the Arkansas Travel Guide.
Celebrating 50 years of tourism marketing, Shelby Woods recognizes 14 key players from the Woods Brothers days:
- Mike Dandurand
- Bernie Jungkind
- Dan Baw
- Glen Smith
- Chuck Robertson
- Elaine Burks
- Gloria Hodgson
- Robert Burnham
- Charles Massey
- Charlie Ross
- Diana Curry
- Charlie Burton
- Twanette Clark
- Teresa Williamson
(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series of business history feature stories. Suggestions for future Fifth Monday articles are welcome. Please contact Gwen Moritz at (501) 372-1443 or GMoritz@ABPG.com.)