El Dorado News-Times
Tourism professionals take bows at the Henry Awards
Gov. Sanders speaks to conclude conference
The 49th annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism came to a close Tuesday evening with the Henry Awards, where marketing professionals working in the tourism industry from across the state were recognized.
Gov. Sarah Sanders capped off the awards banquet, speaking about the role tourism plays in Arkansas’s economy.
“People are embracing the outdoors like never before. Our state’s tourism industry grew by 23% last year alone as people found new ways to explore our beautiful, natural spaces,” she said. “The tourism industry now contributes billions to our economy, invites millions of visitors to our state and employs well over 100,000 people.”
Tourism is second only to agriculture in driving the state’s economy, she said, attributing its quick growth, in part, to her father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who, in the first months of his tenure as the state’s top executive, boated the length of the Arkansas River in support of raising the state sales tax to improve the state’s park system.
“Inevitably, whenever I strike up a conversation with someone that is involved in this industry in our state, most of them all have the same story to tell. It’s about my parents; my parents, not too long ago, went on an adventure to promote Arkansas tourism,” Sanders said, noting that while her dad took a bass boat down the river, her mother rode a jet ski.
“Thankfully, my parents’ ride did the trick, and that proposal passed by statewide referendum and it has fueled Arkansas parks tourism and outdoor recreation ever since,” she continued.
These days, her husband is the one promoting the Natural State. Bryan Sanders was recently named by the governor to the newly-formed Natural State Advisory Council, and he will be visiting all 52 of Arkansas’s state parks this year to promote outdoor recreation in the state.
Also on the Council is Mindy West, chief financial officer at Murphy USA.
“Bryan likes to talk a lot about our state’s unique selling proposition. We both agree that it’s ‘the Natural State,’” Sanders said. “It drives growth. It revives out-of-theway communities and helps put our state on the map as the best place, not only to visit, but to live, to work and to raise a family.”
This year was the first time the tourism conference has ever been held in El Dorado, and Sander said it was a good opportunity for the city to showcase what it has to offer.
“It’s not at all hard to see why people from all across the country are discovering the magic that Arkansas has to offer,” she said. “Here in El Dorado, you certainly outkick your coverage, with one of the liveliest art districts in the region.”
In the coming years, Sanders said she hopes to see the tourism industry grow even more.
“We’re going to aggressively market the Natural State. From amazing food and
beverage and warm, Southern hospitality to world-class museums like Crystal Bridges and the soon-to-be open Arkansas Fine Arts Museum – our state needs to be on every single person’s travel bucket list,” she said. “Arkansas’s natural beauty is a glimpse of heaven, and I want all of the world to discover what we in this room already know: Arkansas is God’s country.”
The Henry Awards, named after explorer Henri de Tonti, “recognize outstanding accomplishments in Arkansas’s tourism industry,” and are presented annually during the Governor’s Conference on Tourism by the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.
Up for grabs Tuesday were the Natural State Tourism Development Award; Tourism Organization of the Year award; Tourism Attraction of the Year award; Rising Star Award; Tourism Region of the Year award; and the Tourism Person of the Year award.
Nominees for the tourism development award were Beans, Greens & Cornbread/ Delta Roots Music Fest, presented by the City of Helena-West Helena; Experience Fayetteville’s ArtCourt; and Railyard Park & Butterfield Stage, presented by the City of Rogers. Experience Fayetteville took home the Henry.
“(The ArtCourt is) a place where art and play converge to create an immense and experimental community space,” said Mike Mills, secretary of the Dept. of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, who presented the awards Tuesday.
Experience Fayetteville also took home the Tourism Organization of the Year award. Their competitors included the North Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Searcy Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“Experience Fayetteville … (filled) 2022 with innovative initiatives and events, setting the city apart from peers, drawing visitors from around the state, nation and world,” Mills said.
The Tourism Attraction of the Year award went to the Delta Dirt Distillery, based in Helena-West Helena, which garnered a standing ovation upon the announcement of their win. Also nominated were the Buffalo National River and the Museum of Discovery in Little Rock.
Mills described the distillery as “a catalyst for the redevelopment of the downtown Harrison-Helena and positioning itself as a highly visible tourism attraction to the state and world.”
The Rising Star Award was presented to Grace Pepler, of the Dogwood Hills Guest Farm. The other finalists for the award were Lacey Hendrix, of the Beard and Lady Inn, and Luke Wiggins, of Visit Rogers.
Mills said Pepler has been “a member of Arkansas’s agritourism industry from a young age” and that she also recently opened the state’s first “micro-dairy.”
Arkansas Delta Byways won the Tourism Region of the Year award, beating out the only other finalist for the honor, the Arkansas River Valley Tri-Peaks.
The Tourism Person of the Year award went to Norma Sims, a tourism ambassador for Explore Harrison. Sims also received a standing ovation, including from several prior Tourism Person of the Year winners, like Madison Murphy of El Dorado.
“I love it,” Sims said. “Thank y’all so much. I’m too nervous to talk. Thank y’all.”
Tuesday evening’s event concluded with a performance by Capitol Offense, former Gov. Mike Huckabee’s band. Murphy joined the band on-stage, playing guitar and singing The Band’s “The Weight.”
Beth Brumley, executive director of Main Street El Dorado, who sat on the conference planning committee, said she thinks the three-day event was a success.
“Everyone on the committee thinks it did exactly what we were hoping it would do, which is bring hundreds of people to El Dorado, several of whom had never been before, and show them all our assets and what we have to offer,” she said. “We squeezed a lot into four days.”
The Conference started on Sunday, when attendees were treated to a concert by the South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and saw some of El Dorado’s local art, including an exhibit from the South Arkansas Arts Centers and a demonstration by artists-in-education Jorge and Maria Botti Villegas.
On Monday, attendees got the chance to learn more about El Dorado through an introductory meeting, then attended tourism, marketing and branding-related workshops throughout the day before getting a “Taste of El Dorado” at the Union County Courthouse, where they had the opportunity to sample local cuisine.
Workshops and roundtable discussions continued on Tuesday, and the event came to a close with the Henry Awards and closing reception.
Brumley said she thinks the conference gave the state as a whole a new impression of El Dorado. She said the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism may consider holding Destination Downtown, a tri-state tourism conference, here in 2025.
Some local businesses have also already seen the economic impact of the conference. Brumley said several of the tourism officials she knows told her they shopped local during their stays in El Dorado.
“I know several of the boutiques had several people in them — Sports Alley, Shelly’s Shoes,” she said.
With Shamrockin’ on the Square, scheduled for March 11, quickly approaching, Brumley said that while she’s glad the conference was held here, now that it’s over, she’s taking a short break before getting back to work to prepare for the St. Patrick’s Day event.