Arkansas governor taps OBU grad, CJRW account exec for state tourism director

Dalaney Thomas | Arkansas Parks, Heritage and Tourism Department

Arkansas’ new tourism director is Dalaney Thomas, an account executive with Little Rock advertising agency CJRW

By SONNY ALBARADO | Arkansas Advocate

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders made the announcement Monday. Thomas served as account manager at CJRW for the state’s $13.4-million-a-year tourism advertising budget and as media and creative campaigns manager for Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort’s $3 million advertising budget.

“Dalaney has spent nearly a decade working with Arkansas Tourism from the outside, brainstorming new ideas to get the word out about our state,” Sanders said at a morning press conference. “She’s spearheaded nationwide marketing campaigns and has the creative chops we’ll need to compete with other states.”

Sanders has made tourism and outdoor recreation a focus of her first 10 months in office. She created the Natural State Advisory Council to promote the state’s outdoor opportunities, naming her husband, Bryan Sanders, chair of the council.

Thomas graduated from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia in 2015 and joined CJRW that year. In her time at the firm, she managed the creation and implementation of creative campaigns, paid media strategies, nationwide public relations endeavors, social media content strategies, partnerships and cooperative initiatives, the governor’s office said in a statement.

“I love Arkansas and am honored and humbled to serve as director of tourism,” Thomas said. “Travelers are seeking authentic experiences and we have that in abundance in Arkansas. Tourism is Arkansas’ second-largest industry, and I look forward to helping grow that economy.”

Travis Napper, the previous tourism director, left the division in June to take a job in the United Kingdom.

Sanders said Thomas “joins an incredible team that is going to help us take our state to the next level. This administration is making sweeping reforms to make our outdoor spaces even better.”

Shea Lewis, secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism, described Thomas as “a natural fit” for her new role, saying she has worked in the industry, built relationships statewide “and has the knowledge, experience and vision to lead the Tourism Division.”

Tourism in Arkansas produced an economic impact of $15.7 billion in 2022 from direct and indirect spending, Lewis said Monday, announcing the results of a fresh study of the industry.

Direct spending by tourists totaled $9.2 billion, a 15.4% increase over 2021 and $1 billion more than pre-COVID numbers, he said.

The number of people who visited Arkansas rose 17.1% in 2022 to 48.3 million, he said.

“We’ve really leaned into digital marketing, which allows us to target key audiences,” Lewis said, citing the reasons for the robust growth in visitors and tourism spending.

State and local tax revenue saw significant boosts last year over 2012, Lewis said. State tax revenue from tourism grew 14.8% to $536 million while county and local tax revenue went up 16.1% to $216 million.

Sanders noted that three years ago, as COVID-19 crippled many businesses, Arkansas tourism “was on the rocks.”

“Some were saying our tourism industry would never bounce back from the pandemic. But as Shea laid out earlier, we’re back and better than ever,” Sanders said.