You can thank basketball for the massive renovation of the Robinson Performing Arts Center.
Well, kind of.
You can at least thank the sport for leading Gretchen Hall, President and CEO at Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau (LRCVB), to where she is today, heading up the $70 million project.
“I kind of stumbled into the industry,” says Hall. “Basketball had a lot to do with it, as strange as that sounds.”
Growing up, Hall always imagined she would be an architect, but when she got an offer from Lyon College to play basketball, she couldn’t resist — and they didn’t have an architecture program. Hall ended up double majoring in business and economics, but even then wasn’t thinking about entering her current field.
“I went through school, didn’t know anything about what the tourism industry was; the meeting and convention industry — never really thought about it or knew anything about it,” she says.
Through her basketball experience in college, she built relationships with people in the sports industry. Her first job out of school was with a national basketball association running tournaments in Arizona, Colorado and Texas. Hall says that managing and logistics “came second nature” to her, probably due in large part to the management role model she grew up with.
Her mother worked in management for Hall’s entire life, and that’s where she picked up her leadership style.
“She was always my mentor and leader and best friend,” she says. “Watching my mother, that’s all I knew growing up was having a professional businesswoman in the house.”
After a few years running basketball tournaments, Hall decided it was time to move on — the company was downsizing, so she began looking for new opportunities and stumbled upon a job posting for an event manager at the Statehouse Convention Center, under the LRCVB umbrella. Although her background was a little different (basketball tournaments aren’t quite the events that the Convention Center hosts), she jumped right in and simultaneously worked to earn her master’s degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Not only did Hall stumble into her job at the LRCVB, she also never really intended to return to Arkansas.
“I don’t know that I really did want to come back,” Hall says. “I mean, I’m thrilled that I’m here now, but I don’t know that I really thought about it that much at the time.”
Hall was promoted to CEO in 2011, and during her tenure at the LRCVB, she has been able to take part in several historic events.
When she first joined the organization in 2001, she was witness to the opening of the Clinton Presidential Library.
“I was really part of that project as it related to all of the events that took place in the convention center,” Hall says. “So I got to see the building of the library, how that changed the dynamic of Little Rock and the landscape of Little Rock.”
A few years later, she served on the committee that helped to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the integration of Central High. It was the last major event where all nine students were together.
“That was a very exciting project to have all of the nine back together on a single stage and to really see and understand to a better degree what they went through,” Hall says. “That was pretty cool from my standpoint, and from my career standpoint.”
Now she’s working on her own historic undertaking: the gutting and renovation of the Robinson Center, a 28-month project set to be complete in November 2016.
She has helped to keep the renovation on time and on budget, and so far they have already announced that “Phantom of the Opera” will take the Robinson stage, something that would not have been possible in the old space.
“I personally feel that you can’t be a really great city and great destination without a world-class performing arts center,” Hall says. “I think arts and culture is such a huge piece of the quality of life issue within our community … This facility has such a historical significance within our community, and I’m so pleased we’re able to restore that historical significance.”
Although she has a couple of other smaller projects on her plate and the day-to-day tasks to keep up with, the Robinson is Hall’s main focus and will be until it is complete.
“To be in this position and have an opportunity to manage a $70 million construction project that’s going to be a cornerstone and showpiece in the community that you’re in — that’s pretty special,” she says. “I want it to open in grand fare.”
Currently, she’s in the process of updating the LRCVB’s marketing plan. She says it’s a fun project to work on, but even with that, she’s keeping the Robinson in mind by looking at how they can capitalize on the Center once it’s back into commission.
The LRCVB’s mission, however, is much bigger than the Robinson Center. In fact, it’s very similar to that of the Department of Parks and Tourism.
“It’s our job to increase visitation or tourism to the city,” Hall says. “Parks and Tourism does that on a statewide scale.”
So next time you visit a park, theater, meeting venue, performing arts facility or really anything that makes you love Little Rock, it might be in part due to the work of the LRCVB.
“I can see in our organization how we make a difference and an impact in the community we live in,” Hall says. “And that’s very important to me personally and to the success of this organization. I think that’s what keeps me moving.”
But don’t worry — even though Hall says she’s “married to the job,” she hasn’t forgotten her athletic past. She is a volunteer basketball coach for her niece’s team at the Boys and Girls Club. Now in her third season, she says it helps her to put work aside and do something she loves.
“I talked to all the parents, I said ‘I’m extremely competitive so if I get a little too aggressive with your second grader, you’ve got to tell me to reel it back,’” Hall says laughing. “The kids are great, it’s a lot of fun. I love sports and love basketball and have forever, and to watch the kids grow and progress when something finally clicks — that’s a great feeling.”
RAPID FIRE with Gretchen Hall
Coffee or tea? Coffee
Run or walk? It should be run. Unfortunately, it’s walk.
Netflix or cable? Cable
Favorite music genre? Country
What are you reading right now? A lot of business publications
Jeans and a T-shirt or dress and heels? Jeans and a T-shirt
Sunrise or sunset? Sunset
Favorite dessert? Blackberry cobbler, but only my dad’s.