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Hot Springs Accentuates The Offbeat to Its Marketing AllureLock Icon

9 min read

HOT SPRINGS — So what does an inventive and industrious tourism marketer do when he already has many of the state’s top attractions?

In Hot Springs, one answer is coming up with weirder, stranger things.

Ever seen a race between bathtubs on wheels? Hot Springs has had one for 13 years.

Or a St. Patrick’s Day parade that’s shorter than a leprechaun, ending about 50 paces from where it starts?

March 17 will bring the 15th anniversary of the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade, which spans the full 98-foot length of Bridge Street downtown.

Luring people to the state’s No. 1 tourist destination isn’t hard, says Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs and executive director of the Advertising & Promotion Commission.

But don’t fault a guy for trying harder. “The city sells itself,” Arrison said. “We’re America’s first resort. Native Americans were visiting the thermal waters before recorded history. We have the National Park, Oaklawn, Magic Springs amusement park and Crystal Falls water park — so many great things. We get a lot of credit, but people really want to come here.”

Bill Solleder, Arrison’s marketing director, kept up the litany: “There’s the lakes, Garvan Woodland Gardens, Mid-America Science Museum, and a history of gangsters, illicit gambling, Bill Clinton. Hot Springs is rich with stories, which also makes it an easy sell.”

Some 6 million visitors traveled to Hot Springs last year, with about 3 million staying overnight, spending enough at hotels and restaurants to deliver $6 million in local advertising and promotion tax receipts, up 3.5 percent from 2015.

Totals from the city’s 3 percent tax on hotels and prepared food have risen every year since 2009, and in that respect Hot Springs, a city of 37,000, trails only Little Rock and North Little Rock, the state’s population center with over 250,000 people.

City Manager David W. Frasher emphasized tourism as a key to the local economy in his State of the City Report in February, noting that tourism supports 7,500 jobs. “Visitor spending generated more than $57 million in tax revenue for state and local governments in 2016, making the area the state’s second-highest recipient of tourism dollars, and the highest on a per capita basis,” he said.

So Arrison and his team have looked for new and inventive events to spur interest beyond the usual tourism suspects.

Spa-Con, a comics convention co-sponsored by the Garland County Library, drew 4,000 visitors last year — a remarkable turnout for a debut — and brought original “Star Trek” cast member Nichelle Nichols to town. This year, organizers are expecting 5,000 people eager to see stars of TV’s “Twin Peaks” and “Stranger Things,” not to mention a dead ringer for a young Leonard Nimoy who bills himself as Spock Vegas. Cosplayers, who make their own costumes and inhabit their heroic characters, will join the celebrities, professional gamers and even the Batmobile at the Hot Springs Convention Center Sept. 22-24.

“We’ll have Sheryl Lee, who played Laura Palmer in ‘Twin Peaks.’ ” Solleder said. “We’ll have another beloved character from the show, Audrey Horne, played by Sherilyn Fenn, and we’re bringing in Shannon Purser, who played Barb on ‘Stranger Things.’

“The timing is just fantastic because the conclusion of the current ‘Twin Peaks’ season, which is a reboot after 25 years, falls the week before Spa-Con, and the second season of ‘Stranger Things’ comes out on Netflix just after Spa-Con, so we’re sitting right in the middle.”

Oldies but Goodies
Most Hot Springs visitors flock to time-honored attractions like Oaklawn Racing & Gaming, where the horses first ran in 1905, and the National Park, dedicated in 1832 as the federal government’s first preserve dedicated to future recreation. The National Park drew 1.54 million visitors last year, its best attendance since 2003.

Oaklawn, owned by the Charles Cella family since World War I, had attendance approaching 600,000 for its 2017 live racing meet from mid-January to the Arkansas Derby on April 15, and is considered one of the finest horse tracks in the South, if not the nation. The Ouachita Mountains and the area’s lakes, including Hamilton, Catherine and Ouachita, attract millions of anglers, campers, boaters and waterskiers.

But beyond the tried-and-true attractions, Hot Springs has also recognized trends — right now it’s trail riding and mountain biking — and has embraced its own oddities.

An ad aimed at convention planners that appeared in Arkansas Business in 1985 is perfectly normal in its text, hawking the area’s 3,000 hotel and motel rooms, modern convention center and outdoor wonders. But the accompanying photograph focuses on a hairy-chested conventioneer in a hot tub with three women. Everyone is holding drinks. “You’ll Never Meet Anyplace Like It,” reads the headline.

“Yes, we have oddities,” Arrison said. “There’s Tiny Town, a miniature town that you have to see to believe. The Arkansas Alligator Farm is probably the oldest operating tourist attraction in the state, and that’s where Babe Ruth hit a famous 500-plus-foot home run into an alligator pond 100 years ago last March.”

Hot Springs became the birthplace of major league baseball’s spring training after A.G. Spaulding, president of the Chicago White Stockings (later the Cubs), sent his players to town in 1886 for a preseason cleanse. He figured soaking in the waters might help the players rid their bodies of “alcoholic microbes,” and other teams eagerly followed Chicago’s lead after the Stockings reached the 1886 World Series.

“More than 40 percent of the Baseball Hall of Fame members played here,” Arrison said. “Baseball fans can learn all about that when they visit by following our Historic Baseball Trail.”

Bathing, the area’s original draw, is also the touchstone of one of the town’s zanier 21st-century concoctions, the Stueart Pennington Running of the Tubs, which for 13 years has featured bathtubs on wheels (teams wishing to push an unwheeled tub must apply for a “moron waiver”) racing down Central Avenue.

The course is Bathhouse Row, home to the early 20th-century bathhouses — several now restored — that helped make the town famous. Named for a downtown businessman whose early death prevented him from seeing his dream of a tub race realized, the Pennington event may be known as the World Championships by the time it rolls around next June.

“There are tub races that are held intermittently, and there’s a tub race that’s on water,” Solleder said. “But as of right now it seems that we are the only longstanding tub race on wheels. So I think we’re going to call it the world championships next year, and start accepting entries from outside the state.”

Gambling and Gangsters
Hot Springs also capitalizes on the tourism appeal of its darker side: the era of drinking, burlesque entertainment and illegal gambling that attracted some of the biggest names of the gangster era, both real and celluloid, from the 1920s and ’30s up into the early 1960s. By the time a state crackdown essentially ended illegal gambling in town in 1967, a local boy named Bill Clinton had graduated from Hot Springs High School and headed off to Georgetown University and Washington, D.C., where greater things awaited.

One of the historical photos Arrison selected to line a long hall in the convention center shows Hot Springs native Alan Ladd, star of Hollywood’s “Shane” and “This Gun for Hire,” dipping a giant thermometer into a thermal spring. Movie racketeer George Raft is pictured with Owney Madden, the real-life gangster who survived 11 bullets from a New York ambush and later enjoyed a 30-year “retirement” in Hot Springs, where he lived peacefully after marrying Agnes Demby, daughter of a local postmaster.

Al Capone, or at least a reasonable life-size facsimile, sits for pictures outside Arkansas’ oldest bar, the Ohio Club at 336 Central Ave. Inside, photos pay tribute to him, Babe Ruth, Mae West and others who performed or watered at the bar, established in 1905. “Where else can you sit at the very same physical bar where Mae West, Babe Ruth and Al Capone once drank?” asked Arrison, who grew up in the hotel business in Memphis and has been Hot Springs’ tourism guru since arriving here from Pine Bluff two decades ago.”

Madden and Capone have their own galleries at the Gangster Museum of America, down the street at 510 Central, where crowds see Tommy guns and John Dillinger masks. Opened in 2008 and owned by Historical Attractions Inc., the museum charges a $15 general admission.

Hot Springs was considered a safe neutral zone where visiting mobsters could leave their feuds behind, just as warring native tribes had done in visiting the natural thermal springs for hundreds and even thousands of years.

‘Something for Everybody’
Arrison, 61, has 52 employees and commands an $8 million annual budget overseeing the Convention Center and promotion efforts. He grew up “raking shag carpeting and folding linens” while his dad ran properties for the Holiday Inn chain.

He says most Hot Springs visitors are from elsewhere in Arkansas or from Texas, and that tourists most frequently drive in. While four-lane widening work has caused delays on U.S. 70, the main artery between Interstate 30 and Hot Springs for drivers heading southwest, U.S. 270 from I-30 in Malvern to Hot Springs offers a four-lane path that’s ideal from the south and only a few minutes longer for travelers coming out of Little Rock.

Visit Hot Springs and its marketing agency, CJRW of Little Rock, came up with “America’s First Resort” as a tagline, Arrison said. “We don’t want to be America’s last resort.” He said having capable marketing agency help is crucial in an age where internet users have vast information about any potential destination at their fingertips.

“It’s easier to get the word out, but it’s a tougher business now, and CJRW understands Arkansas and the product we have to sell. You’re not just competing with Memphis down the road now. You’re competing with Connecticut, or California. We draw people from those places, but they’re also drawing visitors from places they didn’t used to reach. So you have to have the best on your account.”

Shanon Williams, a CJRW vice president and senior account manager who works with Arrison, said Hot Springs offers “a product for all ages” and that her firm is “extremely proud” of its partnership with Visit Hot Springs.

Arrison said promoting Hot Springs is as simple as “reminding people we’re here and telling them about new things.” Still, he loves innovations like the St. Patrick’s Day event, which has featured celebrities like Bo Derek, the wrestler Ric Flair, Kevin Bacon and the weirdest of them all, Gary Busey.

Last year’s attendance? “About 30,000 came for the one-day event, but we couldn’t see the end of the crowd on Malvern Avenue,” Solleder said. “So it has become a town joke that the crowd was 1.5 million.”

Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission

Variance Report 2016 & 2017 | End of month: May 31, 2017


  2016 2017 Var.
January $359,501.05 $377,163.70 4.91%
February $331,336.70 $367,207.03 10.83%
March $375,902.76 $384,879.85 2.39%
April $475,215.75 $488,417.61 2.78%
May $388,165.95 $405,625.93 4.50%
June $412,204.36 $107,982.21  
July $417,692.40 $163,274.66  
August $468,830.98 $173,708.61  
September $361,977.02 $102,270.66  
October $376,623.53 $106,623.92  
November $345,331.14 $102,128.96  
December $335,924.58 $87,044.08  
YTD VAR $4,648,706.22 $2,023,294.12 4.83%

Motel & Hotel

  2016 2017 Var.
January $52,729.11 $52,486.97 -0.46%
February $62,441.80 $60,111.29 -3.73%
March $97,902.32 $108,979.25 11.31%
April $148,165.62 $155,987.63 5.28%
May $131,966.86 $162,565.93 23.19%
June $107,982.21    
July $163,274.66    
August $173,708.61    
September $102,270.66    
October $106,623.92    
November $102,128.96    
December $87,044.08    
YTD VAR $1,336,238.81 $540,131.07 9.51%

Total Collections

  2016 2017 Var.
January $412,230.16 $429,650.67 4.23%
February $393,778.50 $427,318.32 8.52%
March $473,805.08 $493,859.10 4.23%
April $623,381.375 $644,405.24 3.37%
May $520,132.81 $568,191.86 9.24%
June $520,186.57    
July $580,967.06    
August $642,539.59    
September $464,247.68    
October $483,247.45    
November $447,460.10    
December $422,968.66    
YTD VAR $5,984,945.03 $2,563,425.19 5.78%

Tourism Tax Collections (by city)

City 2016 2015 % Change
Bentonville $2.238 million $2.152 million 3.95%
Conway $3.934 million $3.832 million 2.66%
El Dorado $353,293 $381,471 – 7.39%
Eureka Springs $1.407 million $1.32 million 6.62%
Fayetteville $3.335 million $3.066 million 8.76%
Fort Smith $888,959 $799,821 11.14%
Harrison $669,730 $639,922 4.66%
Hot Springs $5.984 million $5.784 million 3.47%
Jonesboro $692,266 $639,096 8.32%
Little Rock $13.741 million $13.153 million 4.47%
North Little Rock $6.817 million $6.603 million 3.25%
Pine Bluff $1.555 million $1.626 million – 4.37%
Rogers $806,618 $823,680 – 2.07%
Russellville $411,698 $419,079 – 1.76%
Springdale $478,608 $426,905 12.11%
Texarkana $1.196 million $1.149 million 4.16%
Van Buren $489,273 $454,817 7.58%
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