Hot Springs National Park is a beautiful destination for folks looking to relax, but it too is no stranger to the Coronavirus and the worries that it brings. Hear from Bill Solleder, of Visit Hot Springs, about how his organization is planning and pivoting as necessary – on this episode of the Main and Mulberry Podcast.
AB: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of Main and Mulberry. I’m Anna Bell and today I’m really excited to have with us the Marketing Director for Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, Visit Hot Springs, Arkansas, Bill Solleder. Bill, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us today.
BS: No problem. Greetings from Hot Springs and Hot Springs National Park, Anna.
AB: Great. How’s the weather over there today?
BS: Well, it’s cleared up. Yesterday, we had this deluge of rain, which is a real bummer to me because I’m an avid mountain biker. We have this great world-class trail system here called the North woods trails, and so I couldn’t go out yesterday. Usually when the trails are wet, you know, a proper etiquette is to stay off the trail. So hopefully after a little while today, I’ll get to go back out on the trails.
AB: Awesome. That sounds fun. Speaking of being outdoors, I’d kinda like to kick things off, Bill, if we can talk about what tourists can experience when they come and visit Hot Springs. You know, my mind immediately goes to the outdoors, your beautiful lakes and all those amenities, but Hot Springs offers outdoor and indoor attractions. Kind of tell us about those if you will.
BS: Yeah, you’re right. You know, Hot Springs is so unique because if you imagine the downtown area, which is really divided by one street, Central Avenue or Highway Seven and one side of the street is the national park, and the other side of the street is actually the city of hot Springs. And then behind that one street and the city side is, is of course the national forest and national park. So the town is surrounded by the Ouachita forest and the Ouchita mountains and Hot Springs national park. So it goes without saying that we have so much to do when it comes to outdoor activities, like I mentioned, mountain biking is really huge in Hot Springs and hiking, of course, you know, the three lakes: Lake Catherine, Lake Hamilton, Lake Ouchita. So, you know, there’s fishing, there’s boating, there’s hiking, there’s just being outside pretty much everywhere you go. And I’ve seen, some images and video where people pretend like that they can reach outside of their tent or their camper, and then just reach out and a barista, hands them a latte, you know, because it’s like the ultimate glamping experience.
AB: I was just about to say that’s glamping at it’s finest.
BS: Yeah. So you’re in the woods and the next second you’re actually in a small town, urban environment.
AB: Too funny. Oh, that’s so cool. But that downtown area is something beautiful and, and somewhere for sure you want to come visit. I kind of like to touch on though for a moment the COVID-19 pandemic shut down and, and how that’s really affected Hot Springs. How has Hot Springs managed during this time? Was the city completely shut down and did tourism have to come to a complete halt? Can you kind of tell us about that too?
BS: Yeah. Yeah. It was hard. Back in late February and March, we were planning for the world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, but it happens on a 98 foot stretch of street called Bridge Street, which is right downtown. And, pretty much we bring in, about 40 entries. This year we had a Cheech Marin, you know, from Cheech and Chong, and Danny Trejo, and Blues Traveler, and Fog Hat, and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders were all coming to the parade, and 30,000 people come to this event. So we were watching things begin to unravel with the pandemic. And then of course we were about to host all of these people for this parade in front of 30,000 people and we were waiting like what, what what’s happening? And everybody I think was questioning, you know, the severity of what was going on, is it really in the United States, and all of these things. And so just a few weeks out, we canceled the parade and then it didn’t take long right after that for the dominoes just to begin falling. So the, my office I’m on the marketing side, of course, at visit Hot Springs. So we’re in the Hot Springs convention center, which is the largest convention center in Arkansas. And the conventions just started to cancel one after another. So, the second half of March, April, May, now June, all conventions stopped, and we actually went completely dark. At the same time, you know, it’s in my, my fabric, to invite people to Hot Springs. But it’s not a good time to do that. So we had to halt all of our advertising, you know, whether that’s cable, radio, and socials, and to stop and then think about what we need to do and what we need to say. And really at that point, we just became a portal of information like, you know, the restaurants or this restaurant is closed, or this attraction is closed, what you can do, what you can’t do. And then listening very closely to the governor about his directives and, you know, what, what it is we needed to, you know, how we need to follow him. So it wasn’t until about Memorial Day when things started to open up again, which was really nice. So, I think people are really, if they feel good coming to Hot Springs, because we are a national park and we’re surrounded by forests and you can, you can social distance, you know, whether you’re biking, or hiking, or boating, or fishing, or what not, or swimming. So we’ve, after that first hump, we’ve really bounced back fairly quickly.
AB: I’m so glad to hear that. I mean, cause like you were touching on earlier, we don’t have a game plan, really an outline, if you will, of how to handle this, we’re just kind of taking baby steps at a time. And I know you’re in that boat. How has the CVB as an entity though been affected, you know… have any businesses closed their doors permanently?
BS: You know, we have heard of just a handful. It hasn’t been a lot. Of course, everybody’s shut down. Oaklawn, uh, the Oakland racetrack, horse racing track, which is, you know, arguably the largest tourism attraction in the state of Arkansas. They continue to race, but they wouldn’t allow spectators. So on a normal day, when you saw 25-30,000 people at the races, there were no, there were no spectators right up until the Arkansas Derby. There was nobody there, so they continued. The casino that’s attached to Oaklawn closed down. They’ve since opened back up at, you know, capacity rules and social distancing and no smoking in the casino for now. So they’re getting by. Mid-America science museum has opened, Garvin Woodland Gardens is open. Even Magic Springs, the waterpark and amusement ride are, they are now open with strict guidelines. So we’ve, we’re seeing a lot. Downtown seems, when you go, you’ll see, you know, tourists walking up and down the street and it really doesn’t seem any different than it was last year at this time, except for we’re wearing masks, you know? So that’s the only difference. Yeah, hotels are doing fine. Um, we did, uh, you know, as far as the numbers go, we did take us severe hit as far as, uh, we survive on a 3% tourism tax on prepared food and lodging. So that pretty much just was like crushed for a couple of years. A couple of months. Sorry, I don’t want to say years.
AB: Can you tell us, you know, the extent of the damage, the pandemic really has cost the city? If you can talk about that.
BS: Yeah, I would say for, for us, at the end of, at the end of this last month, at the end of May, we’re probably around 1.5 million upside down. That would be from regular revenues, from the conventions, from the conventions coming in and from, the collection of the tourism tax. So that’s the story of where we were at. We’ll continue to see not our usual numbers because, conventions are canceling. A lot of them are staying. We have a big enough building where, uh, I think convention goers can come and still be able to abide by the guidelines. So I think, I think a bouncing back is on the way, at least I’m hoping, yeah.
AB: Yeah, sure. I know everybody’s got their fingers and toes crossed right now that we’re on the rebound. Right?
BS: Can you imagine being, you know, even you a destination like Memphis or a larger metropolis, like a, you know, like New York or Chicago. where people live in apartment buildings and they’re quarantining, and there’s an apartment above them, there’s an apartment below them, and there’s apartment to their left and to the right. They’re surrounded by people, they’re living in a little, maybe a one bedroom or a studio apartment. And their view is out into the, to an alley and how stressful and hard that must be for those people. And I, my heart goes out to them, but in hot Springs, uh, it just, sometimes I can just walk out and just be in my yard and I’m in, I’m in a national park and you forget about it because it just, because we can’t see the virus. So a lot of us in these small towns and beautiful towns, like hot Springs, we continue to live because it’s not so apparent, you know, it’s a different perspective. Do you know what I mean?
AB: No, that’s so true. Yeah, absolutely. The ability to have a backyard somewhere to walk out and get a big gulp of fresh air, you know, sometimes that Vitamin D will do a world of good for you, you know, especially now. Yeah.
BS: I can literally walk from my house to a trailhead and be on a trail and it’s just business as usual for me, you know.
AB: That’s awesome. We were touching on, you know, phasing back into business there for a minute and, and the restrictions loosening up, can you give us any more updates on the current status of what you guys are working under the current restrictions?
BS: Yeah, sure. So restaurants, large events and what not are at 66% capacity. So, so say your capacity was at a thousand, now you’re at, you know, 660 or so. And of course you have to still maintain a social distancing. So, um, you know, you can have your capacity, it might be six, six 60, but with six foot social distancing, that’s probably gonna make your capacity way lower, more like 200. So, you know, we have events planned or other community partners have events plan now where they’re trying to figure out, you know, do they have to raise their ticket prices? Do they have to move to larger venues to be able to get their ticket prices, uh, to get their ticket numbers up, to be able to pay for their events that are supposed to be happening now? Our plan for the, a world championship running of the tubs. So, you know, water is, is the essence of Hot Springs. You know, people have been coming here for the thermal waters, you know, since, you know, the native Americans were here for, for so, so long and they continue to do so. So water is all about it. And of course we have historic bathhouse row downtown where all the bath houses are. So about 15 years ago, um, a gentleman named Stuart Pennington came up with this idea to have teams put bathtubs on wheels and race them down bathhouse row. So this happens, you know, it still happens. So people get dressed up in these wild costumes, and spectators come and they line the streets and they shoot them with water cannons as they go by. It’s as fun as it is competitive.
AB: Yeah. How fun.
BS: Anyway, I was saying, so we were getting ready for the world championship running of the tubs, and we have to,submit a health plan to the Arkansas Health Department. So that was approved. And so now we’re working on implementing that plan, you know, so things like when you enter the area, you know, there’s signage and there’s announcements to try to, uh, maintain your distance, uh, keep your masks on. You know, when you’re in the area, hand, sanitized has, uh, stations at every single entrance to the area. So that’s something that we’re working on. And so many people are working on is how to, you know, produce events and do them safely.
AB: When is that event is supposed to be held?
BS: Oh, you should come! So it’s Saturday, July 11th.
AB: Okay so in July. Ok, alright. That’s what I was curious to know.
BS: So, you know, there are a, we’re getting word today, another event in November, which is a race, a popular race here, and it looks like they are scaling back their event, and that’s not until November, uh, conventions inside the building. Uh, we’re still holding about a dozen of them for July. Uh, some of them include a high school graduations, so, uh, people have postponed their graduations, uh, until now. So we’re hoping all of those events, uh, stay on the books for us.
AB: Bill, since the pandemic started, what has Hot Springs been doing differently? And do you think any of these practices will continue into the future?
BS: Uh, well, you know, um, that’s a mouthful. Every business you go to has, has its sign up, you know, due to COVID-19, you’ve read the sign. I don’t even need to repeat it.
AB: I think, I think the phrase is in these challenging times, isn’t that challenging?
BS: There’s all of that. I think people are starting to carry masks in their pockets. You know, you may see them walking down the street without a mask. And, but, you know, in order to go into a restaurant, you have to mask up. So, uh, we’re seeing that’s changed. Uh, all our hands are all very clean now these days, um, which is good. Um, we just saw a story come out, um, on the shortage of bicycles because people were quarantining and they wanted to get out, and they couldn’t go to Planet Fitness, so people were buying bikes. So the story just came out that there was a shortage of bikes cause they’ve gone so far up.
AB: Getting outside.
BS: I think you have just as many couch potatoes as you do people are getting outside and hiking and biking. So I don’t know, maybe there won’t be a change in fitness, but, um, you know, there’s a, there’s a serious side to all of it, and it’s uncertainty and whether or not it’s why we do it, why we wear the masks and, uh, you know, I wear this mask, you know, not so much for me is I wear it for you, you know? And some people are like, you know, they, they, it’s a, it’s a thing for their rights. They don’t, they, they don’t believe they should. So there’s a little bit of, I think, and as further we get into it, and the more that, uh, our leaders, uh, talk about wearing masks, like our mayor, you know, he says, you know, stay safe, wear a mask, clean your hands. Our, uh, city manager, the Governor of Arkansas. You know, if these people that we look up to for guidance, continue to tell us how we should behave, not only for ourselves, but for our neighbors. I think that, I think that masks and being clean and social-distancing and saying, ah, we’ll make the difference, but it’s going to take our leaders to tell us to do that.
AB: What’s the climate like, or has there been a lot of pushback or do you see most people out and about, you know, with their mask on? What’s the climate like?
BS: You’ll see a lot of, um, Facebook can be a mean place, but I’ll use it as an example. You know, a lot of people commenting: “I was downtown and it was there’s tourists everywhere, and no one’s wearing a mask.” And that was when it, when it first started. And then you start to see more and more people wearing masks, and then you realize that they’re all carrying their masks. They just take them off. Like for instance, I just wear mine around my neck and then eventually out of this, you know, that’s how I, that’s how I do every day.
AB: It’s become your habit. Huh?
BS; Yeah. See, that’s like a, my new tie. It looks like an Ascot. Doesn’t it?
AB: Well, Bill, now that you’ve kind of painted this picture for us of what the last few months have looked like, what do you anticipate for the last half of the year? You know, the last half of 2020, are there plans to try to finish strong?
BS: Yeah, well, you know, my motto has been since late February is to plan and pivot when need be. So, um, you know, half of my job is marketing and half of my job is special events. So, you know, we’re, we’re planning for, you know, the, the running of the tubs where we’ve actually moved the St. Patrick’s Day parade with all of its celebrity guests to October, and we’re calling it Shamrocktobar. So we’re actually holding a St. Patrick’s Day parade in October because we believe that people need a parade. And again, it’s another example of planning and pivoting, if need be, you know, we have, um, Hot Springs is the birthplace of major league baseball spring training, another cool factoid about Hot Springs. So we always have a hot Springs baseball weekend and that’s an, that’s an August. So we’re planning for that. And we pivot if we have to, we host more of the conventions, you know, from all around the world, come to Hot Springs and have their conventions and same deal. We prepare for their arrival. And if we have to, we pivot and reschedule for another time. So I guess the, my motto is plan and pivot and hopefully not have to postpone or cancel.
AB: Yeah. Do you think the people in Hot Springs are really looking forward to those events? I know events, especially around where we are outside of Memphis in Collierville, Tennessee, um, there’s so much community happening when we come together for those events. Do you think people are longing for that sense of community right now?
BS: Absolutely. I don’t know about you, Anna, but I’m a hugger and, you know, and I miss that so much and I miss it. Uh, I’ve really, I’ve become accustomed to this format to, you know, video format. And in a way I can sort of, I have a new, like this virtual hug feeling and, um, I think people are getting used to that, and this is it’s a new way for us to communicate and relate to each other. And I think we’re all adjusting to Zoom and Google Hangouts and, you know, Facebook and all this, uh, way to talk and say “hello” to each other. And I think that’s important. And I think everyone should try to embrace that and try to have, you know, even if it’s just a FaceTime with, um, you know, your dad, or your mom, or your daughter, or an old friend, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s still good for your soul. Maybe not as good as that hug will be when you, when you can do it, but for now
AB: You’ll appreciate it so much more though, won’t we? When we can.
BS: Yeah, indeed. Yeah.
AB: As we kind of wrap things up, Bill, can you kind of tell us from a tourism standpoint, what have been your biggest takeaways during this particularly trying time?
BS: For me? My takeaway is, as marketers and and DMOs, we work hard to come up with a message that will resonate with our guests and, uh, and our potential guests. I’ve seen, uh, when this whole thing started you, you noticed a lot COVID messaging, you know, with big sweeping soundscapes and drones of the destination and how we’re, where we can do this, we can do this. And, and I think everyone did it. And I, and I think that my takeaway is to try to tell those messages that everyone’s telling or delivering and do them in a different way. So I’ve been very, like, I’ve been very careful of how I’m saying it’s okay to plan now and play later. It’s okay for, you know, Hot Springs for the people even close to Hot Springs, that this is the best vacation in town, but do it safely. So how can you like, and all, all of us, as destinations as, as, um, destination marketers of, we should all learn not to say the same message that our neighbor is saying, or the way they say it, try to figure out a new way to say it. It’s a great time to be creative and imaginative, and we should all put that to work.
AB: Yeah. It sounds like you’re saying it’s important to be very conscious during this time and choose, choose our words wisely.
BS: I am. I’m also saying to do it in a unique way.
AB: Well we appreciate your time and your insight so much today. Bill, thank you for helping us better understand what things are like over at Hot Springs, Arkansas right now. So thank you.
BS: You bet, Anna, and everyone’s always welcome. You can always find all my contact information at hotsprings.org, uh, and then all the information about our attractions what’s happening. There’s a great, COVID-19 updates blog on there that you can lock the read through and you can see what’s open, uh, what’s happening, you know, in town. And, please, we would love to host you in, in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
AB: Yeah. That’s something to look forward to – plan ahead, right. Something to look forward to. Yeah, alright. Thanks again, Bill. Until next time, I’m Anna Bell sending you all well wishes.