LRCVB Hopes to Boost Tourism with 10-Year Master Plan

Gina Gemberling is the president and CEO of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau and a key player in plans to draw more tourists to the capital city.
Gina Gemberling is the president and CEO of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau and a key player in plans to draw more tourists to the capital city. (Karen E. Segrave)

As the tourism industry recovers from the effects of COVID-19, the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau has a plan to move forward.  

Last month, it released a 10-year tourism master plan that lists priorities and recommendations to entice visitors to Arkansas’ capital city, such as highlighting the Statehouse Convention Center and Robinson Center. The plan also includes infrastructure investments so visitors can easily move from one destination to another. 

“Clearly, they’ve identified no shortage of infrastructure improvement needs,” said Gabe Holmstrom, the executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership. “And we’re going to have to come together as a community to figure out how to address that.”

The 60-page report, however, didn’t include a cost for the projects or how to pay for them. “Funding is always a challenge,” Holmstrom said.

But Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. has hinted at proposing a sales tax increase.

Scott was unavailable for comment last week. His 1% tax proposal to “Rebuild the Rock” failed in 2021. The revenue from the tax would have helped fund a variety of projects including infrastructure and parks.   

In the meantime, some of the master plan’s short-term goals are being checked off the to-do list, said Gina Gemberling, president and CEO of the LRCVB. “But then there’s some of these that are long-range goals with big-time price tags.”

The tourism industry is a vital part of the city’s economic health, according to the report by Jones Lang LaSalle of Chicago. 

Tourists spent $1.6 billion in Little Rock in 2021 — about a fifth of the state’s total tourism revenue — and the city accounted for about 11,000 tourism jobs. Totals for 2022 were not available.

Destination marketing continues to be competitive, Gemberling said. “You know, everyone’s looking for those tourist dollars, because they are so critical to a community’s economy,” she said. “So we need to remain competitive against our competitive cities regionally, as well as nationally.”

Welcome to Little Rock 

Gemberling said the LRCVB has started working on some parts of the master plan. To improve visitor experience, the city will hire a company to put employees on the streets to welcome visitors downtown. She said the employees will also be “the eyes and ears on the street for the police department” and city workers, alerting them that a light fixture is out downtown, for example.

Gemberling said she hopes that the city “ambassadors” will be on the streets by the summer, because providing visitors with a great time is a top priority in the master plan. A good experience can lead to more visitors. After a trip, tourists spread the word to family and friends. 

Gina Gemberling of the LRCVB says “everyone’s looking for those tourist dollars, because they are so critical to a community’s economy.”
Gina Gemberling of the LRCVB says “everyone’s looking for those tourist dollars, because they are so critical to a community’s economy.” (Karen E. Segrave)

“So we have to really be sure that we look good, … because that word-of-mouth marketing is more than any destination marketing organization could afford to pay in direct marketing dollars,” said Gemberling, who became the president and CEO of the LRCVB on March 1 and has been in the industry for about 25 years.  

LRCVB is also working with Zartico of Salt Lake City, a company that uses technology to help tourism officials compile visitor information. “This platform helps us be strategic in our marketing efforts with specific audiences,” Gemberling said in a follow-up email. “It tells us when visitors are in our destination, where they are from, where they are visiting while in the destination, and how long they are staying.”

Zartico’s annual cost is $58,500. 

Top Projects 

The master plan also said the city should make better use of Statehouse Convention Center square footage and Robinson Center to attract visitors.

In the three years before COVID, events at the convention center used about 45% of the venue’s square footage. But over the next five years the LRCVB plans to increase that use to 60%, which still falls short of the benchmark of 70%, the report said. 

“This target is an aggressive goal given the competitive landscape of the convention industry and the current product positioning of both the convention center and associated hotel packages,” the report said.

The LRCVB is off to a good start this year. It has several new regional and national conventions scheduled for 2023, including Delta Sigma Theta Southwest, the National High School Mock Trial Championship and the National Association for Interpretation.

Attracting conventions will boost the city’s hotel occupancy rate, which was 55.8% last year, about the same as it was in 2021, Gemberling said. In 2019, the year before the pandemic, the hotel occupancy rate was 58.8%. During 2020, the first year of COVID-19, the occupancy rate was 40.9%.

Robinson Center
Robinson Center (Angelo Felix)

Robinson Center, which opened a conference center in 2016 after a $70 million renovation, also has room for growth, the report said. “But the pathway to that growth is more nuanced and is potentially capped at an earlier stage than that of the Statehouse Convention Center due to the nature of touring show seasonality and scheduled releases,” the report said.

The report said performances at Robinson take up about 150 days a year, leaving “opportunities to seek out and book additional ticketed events in the performance hall.”

Gemberling said that the LRCVB has been working closely with the sales team for both facilities to book events. “That has been a big piece of this master plan,” she said. 

Statehouse Convention Center
Statehouse Convention Center (Angelo Felix)

A long-term strategy for the Statehouse Convention Center includes an expansion and renovation study. “Currently, the building is positioned with its ‘back’ along the river which is not the highest and best use of river frontage,” the report said. “Furthermore, design trends from attendee flow and trends for indoor-outdoor space suggest that a riverfront convention center could be better positioned to leverage the outdoor amenity and create a more desirable convention center when competing for new business.”

Ottenheimer Market Hall in the River Market
Ottenheimer Market Hall in the River Market (Wil Chandler)

Another of the report’s top recommendations is to renovate Ottenheimer Market Hall as the anchor destination for the River Market District. 

“It’s time for that to be reimagined and reworked,” said Holmstrom, of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership. “But they recognize that and they point that out in the plan.”

The River Market District is the home to several attractions including the 33-acre Riverfront Park — with its art, playgrounds and splash pads — and the 7,500-seat First Security Amphitheater. 

The report said hosting youth sports tournaments is also valuable for cities. In 2015, the LRCVB suggested that the city build an indoor sports venue, but the funding wasn’t available.

“Without moving the funding aspect forward, the conversation will be slow to start, but it is an important component in Little Rock’s overall visitor offering and its construction is vital to the city’s positioning relevant to other destinations in its competitive set,” the report said.

Starting the Survey

A master tourism plan “was something we had considered pre-pandemic, but coming out of the pandemic, we felt this was really good timing,” Gemberling said. The LRCVB hired JLL in 2021 and it started working on the plan last year. JLL held meetings with focus groups and received more than 225 survey responses from tourism stakeholders about what they wanted for Little Rock.

The LRCVB extended its contract with JLL through the end of this year. JLL’s contract is worth $337,500. 

“We as a team started thinking how are we going to implement this and what are our next steps?” Gemberling said. “Because you know so many plans and studies are done, and then unfortunately life goes on and they sit on a shelf somewhere.”