State agency woos travel groups – Arkansas Online

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EUREKA SPRINGS — Conspiracy is Jim Marrs’ full-time job.

Between appearances on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens and promoting his books across the country, Marrs stops in at four or five UFO conferences a year. He attended the 29th annual UFO Conference, held April 8-10 in Eureka Springs, one of the oldest such conferences.

“If you don’t understand the reality of UFOs, you will never understand the history of the world,” Marrs said. “You are throwing away a big piece of the puzzle.”

The Ozark Mountain UFO Conference drew about 600 aficionados to the small Carroll County town last weekend. Speakers from all over the world, including Erich von Daniken, the best-selling Swiss author who claims extraterrestrials visited Earth thousands of years ago, headlined the annual conference.

At the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, the group-travel section jockeys with other states for conventions such as the UFO conference and other business meetings and gatherings. State tourism Director Joe David Rice said group travel is one of the most attractive tourism markets.

“It’s a very lucrative business,” he said.

Tourism is a growing sector of Arkansas’ economy. Travel expenditures grew about 8.6 percent in 2015, with 28 million visitors spending $7.2 billion and paying $374 million in state taxes and $137 million in local taxes, according to the tourism department’s annual report.

Most travelers to the state, about 40 percent, are visiting friends or relatives, according to a Parks and Tourism welcome center survey. Only about 11 percent are business travelers.

But without family or friends to stay with, group travelers such as business people and conference-goers are more likely to spend money at hotels and restaurants. Rice said the average business traveler will spend about $200 a night in the state.

Group travel also helps balance out seasonal travel. Most tourists come to the state from Memorial Day to the end of summer, Rice said. Business meetings and conferences are held throughout the year.

“It’s not so seasonal,” he said. “Any week is open.”

For Julia Cannon, the UFO conference is a family affair. She and her sister took over organizing it in 2013 after her mother died.

“We kind of inherited it,” she said. “We can’t let it die.”

Cannon also writes for Ozark Mountain Publishing, a metaphysical and spiritual book company, and one of the conference’s largest vendors. Cannon’s book Soul Speak makes her a popular figure at the conference.

The UFO conference’s attendees aren’t just from Arkansas — people travel from as far as the United Kingdom to roam the vendors of healing crystals and spiritual magazines and to hear the speakers.

“They come from all over the world,” she said. “It’s anyone and everyone.”

The rest of the state also tries to attract group travelers. Texarkana opened a convention center last year and Jonesboro has two convention centers in the works, Rice said.

The tourism department’s group travel section aggressively markets Arkansas to potential clients, groups featuring 10 or more participants in the motorcycle tour, reunion, sports, wedding and motorcoach-tour markets.

In Eureka Springs, Cannon says the Best Western where the conference is held is always happy to welcome the visitors the UFO conference brings. Prices at the Best Western are about $90 a night for the three-day conference, she said.

“They are always happy to see us,” she said.

SundayMonday Business on 04/17/2016

State agency woos travel groups – Arkansas Online