The people of Little Rock should feel good about their city these days. There have been remarkable changes in Arkansas’ largest city over the past 15 years, and many more improvements are coming down the pike. This state capital is on the rise as it welcomes new visitors and eager returnees.
“We are a best-kept secret in the Southern region,” said Jennifer Jones, sales manager for the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. “When we seek business, we meet two kinds of people: those who’ve been here and love it and those who’ve never been here and know nothing about it. Once we get those people here, they’re amazed at how much the city has to offer.”
Historic-building renovations, new construction or upgrades of major downtown hotels, a major-bridge replacement over the Arkansas River and community quality-of-life enhancements are just some of the impressive things happening in busy Little Rock. Select Traveler Conference attendees will enjoy many of these features when the annual event returns to Little Rock February 7-9, 2016.
“We have learned that if we get people here — let them see it, taste it, feel it — they pretty much have the same reaction, and that is ‘I had no idea. This city is such a surprise,’” said Alan Sims, vice president for sales and services with the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. “To see the development, progress and the transition of the city is amazing. Little Rock is such a pleasant surprise.”
A Hotel Renaissance
The Select Traveler Conference will take place at the Statehouse Convention Center. It is attached to the official conference hotel, the 418-room Little Rock Marriott, which recently underwent a fabulous $18 million renovation. The Marriott replaced the old Peabody Hotel and is a more modern property that brings with it the cache of a gold-standard brand name.
“We’re sitting in the lobby, and it reminds you of a warm museum,” said Marriott general manager Bill Spencer in describing the largest hotel in Arkansas. “The ceiling is high; it has a lot of grace to it, a wonderful feel. We also have a dynamic staff that is very engaging.”
Nellie Freeborn, Marriott’s director of sales and marketing, agreed. “Everything with travelers today is experiential. [It’s about] whether the traveler walks away having had an experience.”
In addition to the Marriott, other top hotels in the downtown district are the Capital Hotel, opened in 1872, and the DoubleTree Little Rock, which is undergoing a $6 million renovation. A new Aloft Hotel is being built inside a historic building in the River Market area, and it will open in summer 2016.
Only a handful of American cities have a presidential library, and Little Rock is one of them. The William J. Clinton Presidential Center presents an absorbing look at our 42nd president’s two terms in office.
“It is the 12th of the 13 presidential libraries in the National Archives System, every one of them different,” said Ann Kamps, a visitor’s center staffer. “It’s history. It is the only place in the world where you can see the last eight years of the 20th century played out from a presidential perspective.”
Exhibits include a full-scale replica of Clinton’s Oval Office; a re-creation of the White House Cabinet Room, with each chair labeled with its occupant’s title; and a 110-foot timeline that shows the major events of Clinton’s two terms. Life inside the White House is also featured in numerous displays throughout the 20,000 square feet of exhibit space.
Visitors may want to stop at the Clinton School of Public Service, a branch of the University of Arkansas, located next door. The school is housed in the historic Choctaw Station of the old Rock Island Railroad.
There is a fascinating worldwide charitable organization located next to the Clinton Center. Heifer International works to eradicate hunger and poverty and offers a chance at self-sufficiency to destitute people in scores of countries.
Anyone can purchase an animal, and Heifer International will donate it on your behalf to a needy person, family or village.
“We provide over 20 different animals ranging from cows and water buffalo down to as tiny as beehives and anything in between,” said Anneliese Maus, a guide at Heifer International. Those who receive such a gift nurture it and then must pass on animal offspring to others in need as a way of sustaining the gift; a pay-it-forward scheme. A tour of this interesting site, known as Heifer Village, would be worth a group’s time.
Sports, entertainment and business events are held in the 18,000-seat Verizon Arena located across the river in North Little Rock. Dickey-Stephens Park, home of the Arkansas Travelers, a AA-level professional baseball team, is a short distance away from the arena.