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Statewide Culture 0

Insider Interview with Arkansas Tourism Director

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No segment or industry experienced the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic like hospitality and tourism. Travis Napper, Arkansas tourism director, sat down with us to share the current state of tourism and what he has learned during his first year as director of the department.

Share a little about your background and what brought you to Arkansas.

I grew up in Monroe, Louisiana, but moved to Ruston to attend Louisiana Tech University. After college, I worked on staff in recruiting and event planning for special programs. Then my path led me to Experience Ruston where I became president and CEO. I enjoyed my job and time there and wasn’t looking for something new. But after receiving my name as a lead, Cabinet Secretary Hurst contacted me about the job with Arkansas Tourism.

I did have connections to Arkansas with memories from a childhood visiting my grandparents and extended family in the summers and on holidays, so it wasn’t all foreign to me.

Tell us a little about your transition to Arkansas; we hear it was an adventure.

Thankfully, I attended the 2020 Governor’s Conference on Tourism before I started the job to hear the conversations and meet some of the people around the state. But two weeks later, the world shut down. I was able to work remotely for the first couple of weeks while we finalized our move. Then I met all my staff team virtually. Until I got everything established and into my office, I used my kid’s Chromebook and the cellphone they mailed me.

What excites you most about being in Arkansas?

Our product is tremendous. We are the Natural State and while we lead with that, we also let it tell the story. Our natural resources just fit with tourism, and they are in abundance. I’m impressed by the variety and diversity of opportunities across the state. We also have strong emerging urban communities and revitalization on main streets, with local communities bringing their flair.

Image provided by Arkansas Tourism

What are the main focus and areas of service for Arkansas State Tourism?

We are the chief marketing agency for Arkansas, which means we support local communities as they attract new businesses and add jobs. Still, our main focus is on connecting with visitors. We also work on relocation and retirement attraction, quality of life resource development and connecting the dots for local community leaders. Some may be surprised to know we have a research and development team that helps us drive data-driven decision-making and support the welcome centers and 12 regional directors across the state.

What are some of the pivots that Arkansas Tourism made in 2020?

  • We paused marketing and shifted messaging to communicate in the unknown season. Then, we turned our marketing messaging to in-state residents who were comfortable getting outdoors.
  • We found ways for people to experience Arkansas even when we were unsure when they could get here. Those things included Zoom backgrounds of attractions around the state, a virtual experience video series, online activities for children and other creative ways to continue to connect the world to the state.
  • We launched Arkansas Ready for Travel in response to the state’s lead with ArkansasReady.com and tried to communicate in one place what our community partners were doing to create safe travel opportunities statewide. We wanted the person on the fringe of fear and comfort to know we were a safe place for them to come and make memories.
  • Now, we are telling success stories of what worked despite COVID-19 and the restrictions on our partners.
  • We also added user and follower-generated images to our website. These change daily as people get out and experience Arkansas and share about it on their social media platforms.

What are some highlights from the trips you made in your first year in Arkansas?

Those grandparents that I visited as a child lived in Hot Springs, so when we toured, I asked the people with me to indulge me. Tiny Town was still the quirky place I remembered.

In the fall, I hiked Mount Magazine to Signal Point and then headed over to Pinnacle Mountain. After that came Petit Jean and a trail at Devil’s Den. My favorite spot had to be the day at Little Missouri Falls, and if I could do it all over again, I’d ask if I could just work remotly from there and take my lunch break to dip my toes in the water.

Of all the good food I had along the way, two dining experiences stood out: the duck nachos at Table 82 at The Cow Pen in Lake Village and the burger at Deluca’s in Hot Springs. Some call it the best burger in the state, which may sound strange at a pizzeria, but it’s a simple bite that’s just bread, meat, cheese and homemade pickles. You won’t find any other toppings around. I have an extensive list I’m building for post-COVID adventures, and I can’t wait to experience more of the state.

Coming off the Arkansas Tourism Conference and looking ahead to 2021, where is your team focused?

We are looking ahead with a few specific things in mind:

  • Providing reemerging resources to our community partners. We now lead with this message: As you are ready to reemerge, we have prepared to receive you!
  • Getting ready for the 2021 eclipse. We are looking to speed up the conversation across our state. We want to take the lead in providing what community leaders need to get started.
  • Expanding the data we have available and using it to make our decisions. We will also offer those numbers to community partners as they make critical decisions with infrastructure and financial resources.
  • Evaluating operations to make sure we are innovative and efficient and providing good service with our partners.
  • Building our relational reputation by growing and improving partnerships with real people in communities across our state. We love to weave our network and support what is happening in rural and urban Arkansas communities to connect visitors, retirees and new residents with all that Arkansas has to offer.

Hear more from Travis directly during a recent podcast episode on The Ouachita Chronicles, one of five “must listen” Arkansas podcasts launched in 2020. And if we open the doors to Travis’s 2021 Arkansas Bucket List, what should be in his Top Ten?

Meet the
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Keisha (Pittman) McKinney lives in South Arkansas with her husband and sweet Boxer, Bailey and one-year-old son! Keisha is passionate about connecting people and building community, seeking solutions to the everyday big and small things, and encouraging others through the mundane, hard, and typical that life often brings. She put her communications background to work as a former Non-profit Executive Director, college recruiter and fundraiser, and Digital Media Director at a large church in Northwest Arkansas. Now she is using all of those experiences through McKinney Media Solutions and her blog @bigpittstop which includes daily adventures, cooking escapades, #bigsisterchats, the social justice cases on her heart, and all that she is learning as a #boymom!

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