Mike Mills, who grew up on a farm west of Lowell, was appointed to lead the state Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. He replaced Stacy Hurst. Mills is the founder and owner of the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca and was Arkansas’ director of tourism from 1982 to 1986. He has served 40 years on the Tourism Development Foundation, 39 years on the Arkansas Travel Council, 28 years on the board of America Outdoors Association and 25 years on the Ozark Mountain Region Tourism Association. He started the program Partners in Tourism, was a founding member of Arkansas Resorts and a charter member of Arkansas Scenic Highway 7 and Arkansas Scenic Rivers Commission. He spent 18 years on the Arkansas Parks, Recreation & Travel Commission. Mills also served two years in the Marine Corps.
Mills has an undergraduate degree from Hendrix College in Conway and a graduate degree from the University of Arkansas.
What is the goal of the new Natural State Initiative and National State Advisory Council? How do they work with other parts of state tourism, including the Arkansas Office of Outdoor Recreation?
All of us who know and love Arkansas recognize that our state is home to some of the most beautiful natural resources in the world. Arkansas’ rivers, lakes, forests, mountains, caves and trails are truly world class and offer limitless opportunities for outdoor adventure. There’s no doubt that outdoor recreation is a powerful economic engine for Arkansas — in fact, the outdoor economy grew by almost 23% in the last year. The goal of the Natural State Initiative is to further establish Arkansas as a leader in the outdoor economy and as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts from around the world. The council will encourage teamwork and partnerships among various entities within state government and private industry, including the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism (ADPHT), the Arkansas Department of Commerce, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and the Office of Outdoor Recreation, which is a part of ADPHT. We’re going to make sure that the Natural State reaches its full potential to be a true leader in the outdoor recreation economy. With support from the highest levels, I have no doubt that Arkansas is soon to experience unparalleled economic growth in the tourism and outdoor recreation sectors. I can’t wait to work with the new administration and dedicated partners from across the state who care so deeply about this place we call home.
What parts of Arkansas tourism don’t get enough attention and could be better promoted?
Arkansas is blessed to have an abundance of outdoor recreation and tourism attraction offerings. At the state level, our job is to promote the entire state — the well-known attractions as well as those that are lesser known. And we’ve done a great job of that through the years. I think the challenge is to get Arkansas as a whole on the map with a larger national and international audience. We’ve made great strides over the past few years in reaching these groups, but now is the time to take that reach even further. And the Natural State Initiative will go a long way in helping us do just that.
Is the pandemic camping/RV craze going to be permanent? Are there other trends the state can take advantage of?
Certainly, camping and RV visitors hit a new high during the pandemic. Many of those patrons were exposed to Arkansas for the first time, and it’s logical that many of them will return since they have discovered how much Arkansas has to offer. Cabin rentals and lodging in general also saw a new peak over the past few years. Outdoor recreation is one of Arkansas’ strongest assets for visitors, and there’s no reason to think that trend won’t continue.
What is the state’s tourism industry doing to promote Arkansas as a destination to view next year’s total solar eclipse?
I can tell you, Arkansas’ tourism industry is going to make the most of the 2024 eclipse! At the state level, we’ve done a lot of research into the dynamics of the eclipse, and we’re sharing that information with communities across the state to help them prepare for what will be historic visitation to Arkansas. The 2017 eclipse proved to be a historical economic event for nearly all the states that were in what is called “the path of totality,” where the sun goes completely dark. Arkansas will be in this same situation for 2024. For example, communities in 2017 experienced as much as triple their population. Hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, campsites and any entity offering overnight lodging altered rates (sometimes as much as triple normal prices) because it became a supply and demand situation. Minimum stays were increased, and cancellation policies extended due to the possibility of last-minute cancellations. Restaurants offered eclipse-themed specials and saw large increases in customers. In Arkansas, we’re encouraging communities to offer similar events and activities before, during and after the eclipse to encourage visitors to extend their stay. Arkansas Tourism is also partnering with the Arkansas Hospitality Association to offer eclipse viewing glasses to our tourism partners throughout the state. The reasoning behind this is to get communities and partners the cheapest price possible on glasses instead of each community or organization having to order individually and incur a higher price per pair of glasses. We’ll have a special session on eclipse planning, as well as other great take-home information about destination marketing, traveler trends and more at the Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism Feb. 26-28 in El Dorado.
What are the metrics that best indicate the success of the state’s tourism initiatives?
The 2% tourism tax reflects the success of the industry and is the best indicator we have of the health of Arkansas’ tourism industry. As of this writing, that tax has gone up each month for 22 consecutive months compared with each month from the year before.
Although you have previous experience in state government, you’ve spent most of your previous career as a business owner. What do you bring from that private business perspective to your current role?
My business philosophy was to compete at the top, not at the bottom. That is where I would like to take the state of Arkansas. In many ways we are already there. We have one of the best state park systems in the nation. Our outdoor recreation will compete with any state. We are just going to keep getting better.
Where is your favorite place in Arkansas?
The Buffalo National River from Ponca to Kyles Landing.