OPINION | GREG HARTON: Making sure the tourists who come to town aren’t too funky

The Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission voted last week to spend $203,000 for a consulting firm to develop a 10-year master tourism plan. Arkansas tourism is a multibillion industry. Towns and cities across the state are constantly evaluating how to attract people ready and willing to spend money in the local economy.

One of the key reasons Fayetteville's tourism promoters chose the particular firm they did was its intention to conduct a resident sentiment survey. Not a survey of tourists, but the folks who live in Fayetteville. Why? To make sure the kind of tourism the city lures is acceptable to the folks who live there year round.

"It should be about what residents in Fayetteville want tourism to do for them, right?," said Molly Rawn, executive director of the city's tourism bureau, Experience Fayetteville. "Look, there is great tourism in Sturgis. There is great tourism in New York City and McKinney, Texas, and Asheville. You know, those all look different."

It was no accident Rawn referenced Sturgis, the town in South Dakota known for a massive, annual motorcycle rally. A former police chief, chamber of commerce president and a local restaurant owner, all three motorcycle enthusiasts in Fayetteville, got together in 2000 to develop a charitable motorcycle rally in Fayetteville. It started with 300 bikers, but grew to attract tens of thousands for a four-day rally every year. In 2008, state tourism promoters hailed the rally for its impact in drawing visitors to the state.

The rally's 2023 version just wrapped. No longer are any rally events held in Fayetteville. The event is now headquartered in Rogers, with some events in Eureka Springs.

At last week's A&P Commission meeting, City Council member Sarah Bunch detailed, in part, why rally organizers might have felt like moving away from the city where the event was founded.

"You know, bringing up Sturgis: One thing a few years ago, we started getting, as council, we started getting tremendous pushback on Bikes, Blues and BBQ. It was pretty hostile. It was really hostile. ... Of course, some people liked it, but the majority of people I heard from were 'This is not what we want in our community.'

"It kept coming back to, 'This does not represent our community as much as we would like it to,'" Bunch said.

The rally is one of the most successful festivals I've ever watched develop. Many communities would love for a local festival to hit such stratospheric attendance numbers. Funky Fayetteville, champion of diversity, came across as a bit snobbish in its growing antagonism toward the rally and its four days, out of 365, of what many considered disruption to their community.

But it's wise for tourism promoters to seek out residents' thoughts about future tourism so that new events target the right kind of tourist and events organizers know they're welcome, at least until they're successful enough to be viewed as a disruption. Some people view Razorback football games as a disruption, but maybe they're safe.

It seems odd to me for a tourism-oriented community to turn away tourists with enough disposable income to buy motorcycles costing $50,000-plus and to travel, but that's just me. I guess I'll say that if the consultants ask.

Rawn did update commissioners about an event Experience Fayetteville is quite proud to host this very weekend, the Fayetteville Tandem Rally, which features riders of two-person bicycles.

"It includes a parade down Dickson Street Saturday morning," Rawn said. "What a lovely sight to behold, with 50 couples on tandem bikes parading down Dickson Street."

Well, it's not tens of thousands. But I welcome all 50 to town.

I don't want to sound snobbish.

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