Hot Springs, AR explores business opportunities with sister city Hanamaki, Japan

In September 2012, a five-member delegation from Hot Springs, Arkansas visited their sister city Hanamaki, Japan, to explore opportunities for business development. Hot Springs delegation members Mary Neilson of Visit Hot Springs!, Jackie Arrison of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, Kay Brockwell of the Hot Springs Metro Partnership, Don Gooch of the Arvest Bank, and Steve Arrison of the Hot Springs Visitors and Convention Bureau conducted a 10-day trip, made possible by funding from Sister Cities International’s Leading Asia: Renewing the U.S. and Japan Sister Cities Network program.

The Leading Asia program provides funding for US cities with a Japanese sister city to launch programming in the following areas: business development, sustainability, creative economies, and young professional development. Both cities are famous for their natural hot springs and tourism is a key economic driver. Hot Springs Sister City Program therefore was keen on exploring business development opportunities with sister city Hanamaki. During the trip to Hanamaki as well as Tokyo, the delegation aimed to meet with several business leaders and local officials and discussed possibilities for collaboration in tourism as well as expanding import-export opportunities for local business.

In their first meeting of the trip, the delegation met with Hanamaki Mayor Mitsuo Oishi. At the meeting, they agreed that a planning committee consisting of three to four members from each city would be set up to explore the best way to stimulate economic exchange between the sister cities.

The delegation’s next meeting was with the President of the Hanamaki Onsen Company, Yoichi Imai. The company owns four premium hotels in Hanamaki as well as three in Honolulu, Hawaii. After a tour of the hotel and its famous onsen (bathhouse), the delegation discussed the hotel business in the two cities. Mr. Imai expressed interest in opportunities that Hot Springs has to offer and is considering a visit with an official Hanamaki delegation in 2013.

The next day, the delegation toured the 200-year old Japanese Inn onsen and met its Managing Director. With both cities famous for their bath houses, there was a lot to discuss and share, including tourism numbers, employee training, and design and architecture.

In a meeting with the Hanamaki Chamber of Commerce officials, including the head, the two groups discussed challenges facing each Chamber as well as their communities. At the end of the meeting, the two parties agreed to share best practices during the entire year. They also exchanged a list of local manufacturers and the Chambers will make efforts for the manufacturers to work with a sister city counterpart. The Chambers also agreed to host interns from each other cities

As part of the Hanamaki segment of the trip, the delegation also toured a sake producing facility. After the tour, producers of this boutique sake generously offered to host an apprentice from Hot Springs to train at the facility to become a sake master. Given the fact the Arkansas is a large rice producer and Hot Springs is home to unique mineral water, the collaboration would allow the city to explore a new business venture that takes advantage of naturally available resources.

To further discuss opportunities in tourism, the delegation met with Assistant Director of Tourism at Hanamaki City Hall, who is in charge of Hanamaki’s 400-year old street festival. In the meeting, they discussed sponsorships and logistics of hosting such a large scale event  that draws in thousands of visit, as well tourism in general. At the end of their trip to Hanamaki, the delegation was fortunate enough to attend the city’s historic festival.

The delegation then visited Tokyo for more meetings. To further discover opportunities in the tourism sector, the delegation met with JTB Travel and HIS Travel, two of the largest Japanese travel agencies. The delegation briefed them on Hot Springs’ tourism potential and well as showed them a Hot Springs promotional video translated in Japanese. Hot Springs is now set to follow up with them with their Los Angeles branch.

The delegation also explored opportunities for exporting Hot Springs’ very own McClard’s BBQ sauce to the exclusive Arco Iris Mediterranean Restaurante in Tokyo. The restaurant’s chef, Yoshiaki Furukawa is a native of Hanamaki and expressed interest in serving it at Arco Iris. He was familiar with McClard’s sauce having received it a while ago from a Hot Springs visitor. Another grocery shop that sells goods only from Hanamaki is now considering making an exception and interested in stocking McClard’s sauce on its shelves given that it’s from a sister city!

At the end of the trip, the delegation met with the US Ambassador to Japan, John V. Roos. Ambassador Roos, a strong support of US-Japan citizen exchanges, particularly student exchanges, commended  Hot Springs’ strong commitment to the sister city program and also applauded the program for raising $26,000 in aid for Hanamaki after the 2011 tsunami. He looks forward to the cities strengthening ties in the future.

Ms. Brockwell sums up the success of the trip, “The business exchange did what we hoped it would do. It opened avenues of communication between our city’s business community and the Hanamaki/Iwate Prefecture business community, and as a result, we are working together on programs which will be economically beneficial to both our regions. We have follow-up plans on programs which will grow tourism exchanges as well as manufacturing exchanges. .. We can’t wait to expand on these relationships and grow this business connection.”

The two cities will be celebrating the 20th year anniversary of their sister city relationship this year and the Mayor of Hanamaki is expected to attend. With a history of strong student exchanges, the two cities are now looking forward to cooperating in the business arena in the coming years.

Leading Asia: Renewing the U.S. and Japan Sister Cities Network is a three-year program funded through a grant award from the The Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership. To read more about the Leading Asia Program, click here.