Residents 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, with many more improvements coming in the next few years. This state capital is on the rise as it prepares to host the sixth annual Small Market Meetings Conference, September 27-29.
“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 and 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.
The downtown Statehouse Convention Center will host the 2015 Small Market Meetings Conference. It is attached to the official conference hotel, the 418-room Little Rock Marriott, which recently underwent a fabulous $18 million renovation. The last time the SMM conference was in town, in 2011, the building was a Peabody Hotel, a somewhat outdated boutique-style lodge. The Marriott is more modern and 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. The meetings are important, sure. But another big thing is whether the traveler walks away having had an experience.”
In addition to the Marriott, two other high-quality lodgings are across the street and down the block. The Capital Hotel, opened in 1872, has quite a colorful history. Yet it is also a modern, elegant establishment with 94 rooms, including semisuites and suites. Its restaurant and bar are outstanding places to relax and chat.
The 288-room DoubleTree Little Rock will soon undergo a $6 million renovation that will include all guest rooms, meetings spaces, the lobby, the restaurant and the bar. The big news is that the hotel will then be connected to the historic Robinson Center, a top performing-arts venue undergoing a $68 million renovation of its own.
“The center’s performance hall will be upgraded with beautiful new meeting space built on the back of the building with glass walls and views north and west of the Arkansas River and the soon-to-be-renovated Broadway Bridge,” said Steve Holcomb, DoubleTree’s general manager. Holcomb predicts the building will go from infrequent use to very frequent use.
“It will become a first-class music hall seating 2,200,” said Alan Sims, vice president of sales and services at the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It will have incredible meeting spaces built onto it. For visitors, it will be a seamless transition into the DoubleTree Hotel’s meeting space. The two will complement each other.”
Also, the circa-1909 Boyle Building in the River Market area is being renovated into a 140-room Aloft Hotel. Look for 4,000 square feet of meeting space, an upscale restaurant and a rooftop pool in the 12-story hotel.
More Interesting Venues
Only a handful of American cities have presidential libraries, 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 visitors center staffer. “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.”
The center has meeting and event space for rent. Business meetings and lectures, or private luncheons, dinners and cocktail receptions are some of the activities held in the 10,000 square feet of space that includes the Great Hall. There are also unique extended spaces throughout the library that can be used.
There is additional meeting and event space available next door to the center at the Clinton School of Public Service, a branch of the University of Arkansas. 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.
Visitors can purchase an animal, and Heifer International will donate it on their 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.
The site, known as Heifer Village, welcomes meetings of up to 200 participants; even more can be served for a reception. A new outdoor pavilion accommodates 380 people. The nonprofit’s nearby headquarters building also has meeting space, as does Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas, an hour away.
Sports, entertainment and business events can also be held in the 18,000-seat Verizon Arena located across the river in North Little Rock. The arena provides ample space for conventions, exhibitions and meetings. Speaking of sports, Dickey-Stephens Park, home of the Arkansas Travelers, a AA-level professional baseball team, is a short distance from the arena.