By Mac Lacy
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — It was all about art and authenticity at Travel South Showcase, February 17-20, as nearly 600 delegates descended on this city for the country’s premier regional tourism marketplace. Included in that number were state travel directors or designees from 11 Southern states, dozens of tour operators seeking new travel stops and 32 media delegates, most of whom arrived early for statewide familiarization tours.
“For our annual meeting, the term ‘Showcase’ is really apropos,” said Travel South USA executive director Liz Bittner. “Our strategy is to showcase the entire state and host city to these tour operators and travel media. The ultimate goal is for these influential guests to help us grow new business. We sell it by making sure they see it.”
This year’s conference found its theme — Arkansas: A Work of Art — through various artistic achievements there in music, architecture and art. None has had more international impact than the opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. Envisioned and built through the efforts of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, this acclaimed gallery drew more than 600,000 visitors to Arkansas from its opening in November 2011 through 2012.
More important, Crystal Bridges has inspired more development — like the 21c Museum Hotel that opened recently in Bentonville. Because of Wal-Mart, Bentonville has entertained international businesspeople for decades. Now, the 21c Museum Hotel offers corporate and group travelers a defining lodging experience while there.
Arkansas has long used the travel theme “The Natural State.” Arkansas state travel director Joe David Rice said, “Yes, I guess you could call us the ‘Natural for Art State’ now. That will work.”
While many states are struggling to keep welcome centers open and staffed, Arkansas has spent $40 million to build six new centers, with two more on the way.