The disruption of the covid pandemic was widespread, touching practically every aspect of day-to-day life.
It could be argued the tourism industry felt the impact of covid in the most acute and immediate way. Once it was clear that people had to stay at home to stop the spread, plans to travel and especially gather in conventions were scuttled.
In Little Rock nobody had a better idea of what this meant than the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, the official destination marketing arm of the city. The mission of the bureau is to sell Little Rock as a meeting, sports and leisure travel destination. The bureau also manages the Statehouse Convention Center, Robinson Center Performance Hall, the River Market and a few downtown parking lots.
At the start of covid, bureau President and Chief Executive Officer Gina Gemberling had a front row seat as cancellation calls rolled in and the usually busy downtown Little Rock streets emptied.
"Early on in the beginning stages you could hardly believe it was happening," Gemberling says. "The cancellation calls started coming in. At that time, you thought it would be over in six months. So you re-booked conventions for six months later. Then it wasn't over in six months. It was a scary time for our industry. On a normal day, you see people up and down Markham where we have our offices. It was a pretty eerie time."
That was then. The just-released 2022 annual report by the bureau reflects a city putting covid-related issues in the rear view mirror.
"I believe that we will look back at 2022 as the year the foundation was laid for a new era of growth and vitality for Little Rock's tourism economy," Gemberling says.
A few of the highlights from the report:
429 events held at bureau-managed facilities (Statehouse Convention Center, Robinson Center, River Market Ottenheimer Market Hall and outdoor pavilions, First Security Amphitheater)
262 record-breaking Robinson Center facility user days -- up 38% from 2021
269,000 Statehouse Convention Center total attendance -- up 136% from 2021
169 future meetings secured with an estimated $48 million in direct spending impact -- $107.30 million in local and state tax revenue generation
$16.95 million in food and lodging tax collections --up 15% from 2021.
The arrow is pointing up for Little Rock and hospitality industry veteran Gemberling, who celebrates this month her one-year anniversary as head of the bureau. She was hired by the organization in 2018 as vice president of sales and services and was quickly promoted.
"From my 10 years in the hospitality industry, I can say the leadership role at bureau has a steep learning curve and I can also say that Gina fits this role perfectly," said Nick Roye, Little Rock Advertising & Promotion Commission finance chair when Gemberling was picked for the top job. The commission is the governing body for the bureau.
"The hospitality industry is complex and evolving rapidly," says Jim Keet, Little Rock Advertising & Promotion Commission chairman. "A seasoned professional with decades of experience in every facet of the business is hard to find. Gemberling is not only respected by her peers, commissioners and the staff, but she has done an excellent job in her senior leadership role at [the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau]."
Not surprisingly, Gemberling sees a bright future ahead for Arkansas' capital.
"The hospitality industry is all I do," Gemberling says. "It's what I know and what I have a passion for. Little Rock is a great destination."
CHORES ON THE FARM, 'HOTEL' ON THE TV
Right in the middle of Illinois sits the tiny village of Emden. The last population count put the number of souls calling Emden home at almost 500. Gemberling grew up on her family's corn and soybean farm sitting just outside of Emden. She and her three older sisters grew accustomed to farm chores and the rhythm of small town life.
"We all felt very fortunate in my family," Gemberling says. "We were raised by great, wonderful people. We were not spoiled. We were expected to do chores like mow the five acres around our house. My parents were always there and supportive of us."
To emphasize how small Emden is, Gemberling explains that her high school senior class had 18 students. This meant, "everybody was involved in doing different things," Gemberling says.
"I was very heavy into sports. Track was my thing. I was a state track finalist three out of four years in high school. Coming from a small community like that, being able to go to state, was a pretty big deal back then."
What was the appeal of running track?
"Just wanting to be a little bit faster and a little better," Gemberling says. "I had a solid track coach back in the day."
The community of Emden was a quaint and familiar place to Gemberling and her friends and family. The hustle and bustle of a big city such as Chicago was as different from Emden as could be possible. On television, a TV series called "Hotel'' starred James Brolin and was set in San Francisco's St. Gregory Hotel. That window into another world caught Gemberling's attention.
"['Hotel'] was set in this glamorous hotel," Gemberling says. "I think that is what got me interested in the hospitality industry. That looked like an interesting life to me."
SELLING THE INTANGIBLE
Inspired by "Hotel'' and ready to begin her working life, after high school Gemberling soon was employed at Jumer's Hotel in Illinois. She started out as an assistant banquet manager. She happily jumped to different assignments at the hotel, learning more about the business as time went on.
"Jumer's was a five-star hotel and very European. I was fortunate to land a position there. What I found interesting at the start was that each day you worked you were always with different people. You were meeting people from all over. It's been that way my whole career."
In 1993, Gemberling made a leap from hotel work to the Springfield (Illinois) Convention and Visitors Bureau. She would end up spending 24 years there, serving in various sales and marketing roles before becoming the organization's executive director.
Being in sales for a convention and visitors bureau is not like selling cars on a car lot or selling houses in a real estate market.
"Convention sales is a long process," Gemberling says. "It's so much different [from] selling a specific product. We are selling the intangible. It's a long sales process trying to bring in groups we worked with for 10 years or more to choose your destination. If you make a bid for a convention for a group and it doesn't happen, you might not have the opportunity to bid again for years."
With the time and the work needed to make a sale, Gemberling points out that the sense of accomplishment is significant.
"Those who remain in the tourist industry have the satisfaction of seeing these large groups enjoying your community. You see that and take great pride that you took a part in making that happen."
Though Gemberling's work took her away from her small hometown, she didn't stay away completely. Friends and family remained in Emden and Gemberling's life changed during one visit back home.
"My husband, Steve, is one of those 18 classmates of mine," Gemberling says.
"I was home for a visit and we reconnected. It was 15 years after high school and we happened to run into each other."
Even with years apart, the pair's friendship quickly grew into something more. Gemberling cites a shared history as a factor in the mutual attraction.
"When you are from a small town, you are practically best friends from all the way back in kindergarten. The familiarity of our backgrounds brought us together at the start."
THE FUTURE CITY
As Little Rock climbs out of the pandemic and returns to something that resembles normal, the bureau felt the time was right to look to the future by releasing a 10-year tourism master plan, which the organization says will be "a roadmap for long-term planning, helping to guide the city's tourism over the next 10 years."
An outside organization assembled focus groups and held surveys to help Gemberling and the Convention and Visitor's Bureau compile the master plan, which came out in January. The day of the master plan's release was a good day for Gemberling.
"We released the [master plan] to our team first," Gemberling says. "To hear their comments and see their enthusiasm was very special. To see that many people together who care about the community in one place was wonderful. Now we have a lot of work to see it through. The nice thing about the master plan is it is a combination of stretch goals and things that can happen in the next few years."
There is a lot to absorb in the master plan but Gemberling talks up polishing Little Rock's already impressive tourism infrastructure, making it easier for visitors to get from one place to the next. An amateur sports facility is another item on the wish list. Gemberling also talks up taking advantage of the river near so many downtown attractions.
"What more can we do along the river?" Gemberling wonders. "Can we do more at Riverfront Park? Can we add businesses and restaurants that face the river? There are some restrictions in doing this but it's worth considering for sure."
It's easy to see that Gemberling is captivated by her work and that, though Little Rock is her adopted home, she has no regrets moving here from Springfield and her home state.
"We love it here in Little Rock," Gemberling says. "We live in the downtown area. In Springfield, I was a mile or two from the downtown core."
Being downtown where the tourists stay, shop and play is where Gemberling wants to be.
"It's important to me to be close to the downtown area and to be where the tourists are. I like to keep my eyes and ears to the ground in our downtown. Every time we are out and see a visitor, it's a special thing to us. We are watching and listening to what [the tourists] are saying and where they are headed."
Today Gemberling's view from her office of downtown Little Rock is a lot different than it was two years ago.
"I see a lot of movement down there. It's exciting."
SOMETHING I LEARNED AT AN EARLY AGE THAT HAS REMAINED WITH ME TO THIS DAY: No matter the task -- large or small -- always give 100%.
MY FAVORITE MEAL: I love scallops with risotto and anything Thai, although pizza is always my go-to.
WHAT I WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT LITTLE ROCK: I want people to know that Little Rock's got "it." Whatever you think that "it" is, we have it. Deep history. Culture. A vibrant arts scene, great dining. Festivals, entertainment, and easy access to the outdoors and nature. It's all at our fingertips, and, especially as locals, sometimes we need to take a step back and realize how lucky we really are.
WHEN THIS IS ON TV, I'LL GO OUT OF MY WAY TO WATCH: Anything on Food Network. I love to cook.
A SKILL I DON'T HAVE BUT WOULD LOVE TO LEARN: Sailing
WHAT I WOULD TELL SOMEONE JUST STARTING OUT IN THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY: You're making a difference in your community every single day. Until you're in the industry, it can be hard to comprehend just how powerful of an economic driver tourism can be. It has a huge impact on the city services and amenities we use every day.
ONE WORD THAT SUMS ME UP: Loyal