In her office at the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau (LRCVB), Gretchen Hall has a photo of herself shaking hands with former President Bill Clinton. And, to keep things even, she has a photo of her meeting former President George W. Bush. She also met President George H.W. Bush and a few other former presidents.
“I think the variety that we deal with in our world of tourism is really what drives me,” said Hall, president and CEO of the LRCVB. “We can go from managing a presidential event and hosting multiple presidents, which we’ve done, to managing a taekwondo tournament that is our largest annual convention each year to bringing in a Broadway production.”
She said, “There is no 9 to 5; there is no standard day, which fits my personality.”
In some ways, Hall’s career in tourism began with her playing basketball. She grew up about an hour south of Little Rock but played high school basketball in the city. She was a good player, and the game was good to her because it “afforded me a good education” playing for Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas.
After graduating from Lyon, instead of playing basketball, she started working in the sport, handling logistics for national tournaments. When a job opportunity came up to work for the CVB managing events at the convention center, “it ended up being the perfect marriage,” Hall said.
“I was managing sports events and all the logistics that go along with youth tournaments, and they needed someone to handle the variety of meetings and conventions and sporting events that come into the convention center.”
“I was in the right place at the right time to discover a whole new world that became my career.”
Hall worked on the operations sides for the Statehouse Convention Center for several years and then moved into marketing and communications for the CVB before being named interim CEO in early 2011. She was named president and CEO in May that year.
During her time leading the organization, “building a team is probably first and foremost” among her duties, she said.
The Little Rock CVB is different than most CVBs because it manages over 1 million square feet of tourism-related space in the city, including the Statehouse Convention Center, the Robinson Center, River Market and several parking facilities. In addition, it serves as the liaison for two city-owned hotels.
That means 80 percent of the CVB’s staff fall within the operations division while the other 20 percent work in sales and marketing, so having the right people is imperative, she said.
The CVB, with Hall at the helm, oversaw and managed the $70 million renovation and expansion of the historic Robinson Center. Crews broke ground on the project July 1, 2014, and the center remained closed during two and a half years of construction. All told, from shovels in the ground to ribbon cutting in November 2016, the project took five years. During its first season, “The Phantom of the Opera” played there, making its debut in the state, and “The Lion King” will open there in April for a three-week run.
Hall has a passion for live theater, so managing the Robinson project became a labor of love for her. Now that it’s done, she and her colleagues get to take a breath and take it in.
“From time to time, we get to step back and feel the effects of our industry,” she said, adding that the Robinson Center is “one of those things that make a difference in our own community and that makes us feel good.”
When it comes to making a difference, it’s difficult to overstate the effects of the Clinton Presidential Center since it opened in 2004. Clinton chose to build his library and museum in a defunct industrial district that was “literally scrapyards and abandoned warehouses,” Hall said.
Now, the center is glass jewel box perched in the middle of a 30-acre urban park on the banks of the Arkansas River that’s an extension of the city’s walkable downtown. With it came the opening of the city’s streetcar, a boom in hotel development and a slew of restaurants, breweries, museums and other attractions. Heifer International chose to build its headquarters and educational village next to the center.
“It has spurred a tremendous amount of activity in downtown,” Hall said. “I was on the operations team when the Clinton Presidential Center opened, so I’ve seen firsthand all the redevelopment that has happened.”
In November, the city will mark the 25th anniversary of Clinton’s winning the presidential election — the same month Hall marks her 16th anniversary with the CVB. And she shows no signs of slowing down.
Name: Gretchen Hall
Title: President and CEO
Organization: Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau
Location: Little Rock, Arkansas
Born: Pine Bluff, Arkansas
Education: BA, Lyon College; MBA, University of Arkansas Little Rock
Career History: Been with LRCVB in a variety of roles since November 2001 and was named president and CEO in May 2011
Family: Single, two (nonbiological) adult children, one niece and one nephew
Hobbies: Travel and coaching her niece and nephew in basketball
Meeting Tips from Gretchen Hall
• Make the content valuable. Everyone is busy, and time is so precious in today’s world; if you want to attract people to your meeting, make sure the content and program offer value to the attendee.
• Layer in some fun and unique experiences. No one wants to attend a conference without experiencing some level of local flavor. Work with the local CVB to add some fun, maybe making use of an unusual venue, a hands-on experience, a casual networking event or a local volunteer opportunity.
• Don’t go overboard on technology. Not all attendees are up on the latest social media platforms and mobile apps; make sure your conference offers a mix of communication platforms that work for all generations within your targeted audience.