The city of El Dorado has pulled out all the stops as the first-time host of the Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism.
The annual conference starts today and continues through Tuesday and the selection of El Dorado as the host city marks several firsts in the 49-year history of the statewide event.
Not only is this year the first time the AGCT will be presented in El Dorado; 2023 is also the first time the conference has been held in a town with a population that is less than 20,000.
Additionally, this is the first time since 2015 that the AGCT has been held south of Hot Springs. The 42nd annual conference was held in Texarkana.
The odds of El Dorado landing a bid for the AGTC were long.
The annual conference is presented by the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism and is considered the premier tourism event in the Natural State, celebrating tourism and highlighting its impact as one of the top industries in Arkansas.
Rarely does the AGCT’s planning team look south past Hot Springs, a resort city and popular tourist destination in the state, for potential sites to host the AGCT.
However, in recent years, the state has taken notice of efforts by local civic and community leaders to rebrand El Dorado as “The Festival City” and entertainment hub that is centralized between major cities in Arkansas and neighboring states, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri.
The long-term goal of the branding strategy, which was unveiled in the late 00s following a study by noted destination developer Roger Brooks, was to reverse the city’s economic fortunes, which were hit hard in the aughts by industry closings that resulted in heavy job and population losses.
An award-winning, historic downtown; an active Main Street program that produces several events per year — one of which, MusicFest, is a seven-time winner of the Arkansas Festival of the Year award, presented by Arkansans Love Festivals and Events (ALFiES); and the development of the Murphy Arts District entertainment complex have set the state abuzz.
The grand opening celebration for MAD was held in 2017 and local leaders thought the time was ripe for El Dorado to shoot its shot with a bid to host the 2019 AGCT.
In early 2018, conference organizers announced that El Dorado had won the bid, edging out powerhouse AGCT host Fayetteville.
The excitement would be short-lived, however.
The Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism notified city officials in October of 2019 that the AGCT would be moved to Fayetteville after all due to a lack of adequate hotel space in El Dorado to accommodate an average-sized AGCT crowd of 400 - 500 attendees from Arkansas and neighboring states.
Unforeseen conflicts with industry turnarounds, which can bring hundreds of contract workers to town on a short-term basis, put the kibosh on plans to hold the conference in El Dorado.
Down but not out, the city tried again three years later and the second time was the charm.
The city was required to wait three years before it could rebid for the AGCT, per rules that are set by the ADPHT.
A local steering committee put together a presentation to vie for the 2023 event and they rang in the new year in January of 2022 with the announcement that El Dorado had won the bid.
With meticulous planning, the group sidestepped the conflicts that derailed their efforts in 2018 and made sure lodging accommodations — now numbering 700 hotel rooms in the city — would be plentiful in the city.
Two hotels, Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott and The Haywood El Dorado, Tapestry Collection by Hilton, have opened and added 145 rooms since the 2019 conference was relocated.
Upon announcing that the 2023 conference would be held in El Dorado, the local committee — who is coordinating details of the conference with the ADPHT — said planning the event would call for a collaborative effort from the entire community.
“This is a big deal for El Dorado,” committee member Sara Coffman has repeated over the past year.
The group said the AGCT comes with many moving parts and as they headed into crunch time in early February, the checklist began to get shorter, thanks to many in the community rallying together to assist with preparations.
By Feb. 9, committee members had learned that nearly 360 attendees had signed up for the conference, few hotel rooms were available in the city for Feb. 26 - 28 and tickets for the AGCT awards dinner, the Henry Awards, had been sold out.
Beth Brumley, committee member and executive director of Main Street El Dorado, noted that the pre-registrations pertained to attendees, not family or friends who may accompany them to the conference.
“So, that could bring five to six hundred people to our town,” Brumley said.
She and other steering committee members said many attendees will be visiting El Dorado for the first time, and whatever the number, the committee said it would be ready.
Schedule and activities
The Haywood is the host hotel for the AGCT and the newly-opened MAD House 101 restaurant is the caterer.
The El Dorado Conference Center will serve as ground zero for AGCT sessions.
Greg Withrow, steering committee member and tenacious community volunteer, was the primary on the task of arranging shuttle service for conference attendees while they are in town.
Withrow tapped J&T Charters, LLC, and said busses will ferry visitors to and from their hotels, the conference center, designated restaurants and other locations in and around El Dorado during the conference.
Committee members Pamela Griffin and Joanna Benson, MAD president/CEO and marketing coordinator, respectively, said they hope attendees would begin arriving on Feb. 25 to take in a concert featuring acclaimed country music singer and Arkansas native Ashley McBryde.
McBryde was set to take the stage at 8 p.m. in the MAD First Financial Music Hall.
She added Grammy Award winner to her list of musical accolades on Feb. 5, taking home a trophy for Best Country Duo/Group Performance for the single “Never Wanted to be That Girl,” a duet performed with Carly Pearce.
Griffin noted that Pearce has also performed at MAD.
“We encourage (AGCT attendees) to get here early to see Ashley McBryde,” she said.
Steering committee members said many local businesses, shops and restaurants, will keep special hours during the AGCT.
They said attendees will be able to dine in a variety of local eateries, including the El Dorado Golf & Country Club and Mystic Grill at Mystic Creek Golf Club
Withrow said the EGCC, Mystic Creek and Lions Club Municipal Golf Course will also offer special rates for attendees who want to get in a few rounds of golf while they are in town.
The EGCC and Mystic Creek will kick in discounted rates for apparel in their pro shops, said Withrow.
With entertainment scheduled at various spots downtown during the governor’s conference, including a hospitality room at MAD, the El Dorado City Council approved a request from the steering committee for special hours during the city’s entertainment district.
The entertainment district, which was established in 2019, permits the public consumption and carrying of alcoholic beverages — including mixed drinks, beer and wine — within the boundaries of the district.
Per the city ordinance, the open-carry allowance is active from noon until 2 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and Brumley and Griffin asked that the hours be extended to the days of the conference.
A request for special hours is permitted in the ordinance.
The entertainment district encompasses a nine-block area that is roughly bordered by Oak, Hill, Pony and Cleveland streets in downtown El Dorado. The boundaries are marked by yellow crosswalks.
Over the past few weeks, the city of El Dorado, volunteer groups and individuals have come together coordinate community cleanups and help out with other details in making the city “conference-ready”.
The city took on several projects, including replacing sidewalks on Locust Street as a part of an ongoing, decade-old project to replace damaged sidewalks downtown; sprucing up Old City Park and other city parks; and repaving the parking lot of the El Dorado Municipal Auditorium.
As attendees arrive on Feb. 26, they will be treated to a historic tour of El Dorado on the city’s trolley bus at 1:30 p.m. and an opening night event, starting at 5:30 p.m. in the municipal auditorium.
The evening will include hor d’oeuvres, exhibits from the South Arkansas Arts Center, a live art demonstration from artists Jorge and Maria Villegas (in conjunction with the Arkansas Arts Council), a performance by the South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and the 3 Phantoms in Concert — featuring opera tenors Craig Shulman, Gary Mauer and Keith Buterbaugh.
Committee members said Mayor Paul Choate and Madison Murphy, of Murphy Oil and Murphy USA and a founding member of El Dorado Festivals and Events, Inc., - which developed MAD -, will deliver the welcome address.
“Get to Know El Dorado” will be the opening session of the conference at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 27.
Brumley; Don Hale, president of the Diamond Agency, the city’s ad agency of record; downtown developer and business/property owner Richard Mason; and Sylvia Thompson, director of the El Dorado Promise scholarship program, will team up to lead the session.
After the last session of the day, which is set for 4 until 5 p.m., AGCT attendees will head two blocks north to the Union County Courthouse for a “Taste of El Dorado.”
“Taste” will include a light snack with samples provided by local restaurants. Crews and Associates, Inc., Little Rock, a brokerage dealer that specializes in public finance, will sponsor the event.
Local dining guides will be distributed and attendees will be able to fan out to the restaurants of their choice, including boarding busses that will shuttle them to the El Dorado Golf and Country Club and Mystic Grill, which is just outside city limits on Club House Drive.
The annual Henry Awards banquet, which includes the highly coveted Tourism Person of the Year Award, will begin with a reception at 6:30 p.m. at MAD House 101.
The night will feature a performance by former Gov. Mike Huckabee and his band, Capitol Offense. Madison Murphy will make a special guest appearance during the show.
Banquet attendees will also be entered into a drawing to win a commemorative pendant that was crafted by Murphy-Pitard jewelers.
Proceeds from the raffle will benefit the Arkansas Tourism Development Foundation.
The diamond encrusted pendant is shaped like the state of Arkansas and is valued at $7,000.
Steering committee members said they will also make sure that other attendees will not leave El Dorado empty-handed.
They will have the opportunity to win a grand prize with the Downtown Passport.
Visitors will receive passports that may be stamped while they shop at participating businesses.
The passports may then be entered into a drawing to win prizes, including a grand-prize package with a free a weekend stay at The Haywood, tickets to MusicFest, etc.
Steering committee members said they not only want to put on a successful conference, but they also want to showcase El Dorado and the hospitality of its residents to help the city’s chances of becoming a repeat host site.
“We want them to come back,” said committee member Dianne Hammond, also a member of the El Dorado City Council and El Dorado Advertising and Promotion Commission.
Committee members encourage local residents to attend the conference and activities for which they are eligible, saying that conference will include tools, resources and topics that can be useful to everyone.
Other members of the steering committee include Maria Simpson, general manager of The Haywood; Brenda Clark, manager of the Arkansas Welcome Center - El Dorado; Holly McDonald, administrative assistant of Main Street El Dorado; Barry Bagwell and Caroline Callaway, director and sales and marketing manager, respectively, of the El Dorado Conference Center; Kelsie Madison, hosted events manager of MAD; and actor and dancer Emilia Meinert.
For more information about the AGCT, including the agenda, visit www.arkansas.com. To attend part or all of the welcome night activities in the auditorium, call 870-310-2244 or visit southarkansassymphony.com.