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