Q&A: Kalene Griffith, CEO/President, Visit Bentonville

Bentonville Biking

BENTONVILLE BIKE FEST 2024 may have been cut short because of the tornado, but that apparently hasn’t dampened anyone’s spirit or enthusiasm for cycling in the city that proudly touts itself as the Mountain Biking Capital of the World™, complete with Trademark symbol! For our Welcome to Summer issue, we touched base with Visit Bentonville’s Kalene Griffith to hear how biking became such a local focus and how it’s changed the city.


Kalene Griffith So, Kalene, tell me about Bentonville as the “Mountain Biking Capital of the World.” Is that for real?

Absolutely, it’s real! Back in 2020, a group of leaders in our community came together to create a clear and concise identity for Bentonville as a premier cycling destination. The phrase “Mountain Biking Capital of the World™” emerged, and we decided it was a perfect fit. Bentonville has trails throughout the city and then trails regionally connecting to the other communities in Northwest Arkansas. But one of the ways we’re most different from a lot of cities is that we have accessibility to those trails. You can park your car and get on our mountain bike trails right from our downtown square. That’s a unique amenity that a lot of cities do not have.

Also, Bentonville has adopted a cycling culture that is supportive and truly embraces the sport. Bentonville hotels have bike lockers, and they allow guests’ bikes to go into the rooms. Many of our hotels feature bike toolkit stations where they have air pumps, tools, towels, and bike washing facilities—anything a bike owner could want and need. So, we’re just ahead of the game in that sense as a community.

A majority of restaurants have bike racks outside for the convenience of bike-riding guests. Our retailers are bike-friendly. Our museums are bike-friendly. We’re not just saying we are the “Mountain Biking Capital of the World™.” We’re saying that Bentonville invests in biking amenities and attractions, and it places cycling culture at the forefront of what’s happening in our community. That is what sets us apart. 

And then there’s Walmart! The company’s goal is for 10 percent of their associates to commute by bike to their new campus once it opens in 2025, so Walmart has launched an initiative and an entire department dedicated to focusing on cycling. There are bikes that associates can check out for weeks at a time to test before they buy their own—at which time they turn in the Walmart bike for other associates to try. So, Walmart is creating this environment that makes cycling part of their story. 

Let’s take it one step further. We have what we call the Razorback Greenway, a paved bike trail that runs from Bella Vista south to Fayetteville, and on the way, it goes right through the center of Walmart’s corporate campus. That’s very unusual—to have a community trail go right through the center of a major corporation. That shows that Walmart wants to be integrated into what’s happening in our community as a cycling destination, and they’re using it to their advantage, but also creating an asset for our community’s residents.

This community support and the hotels and the restaurants and all that—was that part of your effort starting in 2020 or was that already in the works?

That effort started way earlier. Our first set of trails was in 2007—that was five miles—and our next trails opened in 2009 and 2010, bringing the total to 17 miles. Over the next 10 years, we opened more than 100 more miles of trails. In 2016, we were chosen by the International Mountain Bike Association to host their World Summit. But even before that, we had started educating all of our residents, our businesses, and our community leaders about how important cycling is for both residents and for tourism. 

It was not an overnight thing. It was really and truly the long-term dedication of a group of people. Because I was not an avid cyclist, I think it was a benefit for me to be able to talk about cycling and the importance of it from an economic standpoint, rather than from the more emotional standpoint of a dedicated cyclist. It allowed us to tell a different story. 

Then in 2017, the Walton Family Foundation and People for Bikes did a study, and that was a game-changer in telling that story. I share that impressive data with cities all over the United States. It shows how cycling benefits our community from a health-and-wellness perspective, in addition to advancing tourism and general economic development. That study’s a really great resource.

There’s also a great 2022 study that the University of Arkansas did. It showed the difference in the numbers between 2017 and 2022, and the growth is very impressive. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about Bentonville’s annual Bike Fest event, which in May was cut short due to the terrible weather, which included a devastating tornado. 

Yes, Bike Fest is always the result of a year-long planning session for a team of dedicated cyclists. It’s led by Kenny Belaey, a professional cyclist from Belgium who has a home here in Bentonville. Kenny is with the Red Bull team, and he and his folks give themselves about a month to build themselves back up after putting on a Bike Fest, and then they start planning for the next one. They contact all of their sponsors, all of the professional cyclists, all the cyclists internationally, and then start inviting them in for that event. We’re fortunate, we support them financially and also work with them on some of the logistics within our community, making sure they’re connected. 

Bike Fest is a must-see or a must-be-part-of for some of those cyclists who come to participate, and they come from all over the world. They have demo bikes for guests to try out. All the cycling vendors are there. So if you want to touch base with a cycling company, or even a lot of nonprofits that are in that cycling world, Bike Fest is the place to do it. And then they also do trials, which is where the guys on the bikes jump from rock to rock or log to log, and they’re super, super talented. We also have the guys that are going off those ramps and doing flips and jumps and the things that I’m in awe of. And so you get to experience and see what other people are doing, but you also get to interact with professional cyclists. But you’ll enjoy it even if you’re a non-cyclist, and you can just talk to folks about what’s going on in the cycling world. Last year, 2023, I think they had a little over 15,000 people come. This year they were well on their way to exceeding that number before they had to cancel Day Two of the event. The Bike Fest team reacted swiftly the morning following the storms prioritizing the safety of attendees, partners, and staff and advising them to shelter as directed and follow public safety directives. Since that day, the community has shown up in a huge way to rebuild. We are making a lot of headway in getting our trails back in operation, and that’s because our people came together to help. 

Your website also touts Bentonville as a capital of entrepreneurship, and I’m wondering if this push toward mountain biking has any connection to that? Is it a way to attract young tech people as well?

Tom Walton is an avid cyclist and also the CEO of Runway Group, which is committed to making Arkansas the best place to live. He moved back to the area and saw there was a need for outdoor recreation opportunities. However, the reason those first five miles of trails went in was for talent recruitment. How do we get people to move here and want to stay here? Because a lot of people were moving in, putting in their time as a vendor/supplier for Walmart, and then moving out after two years. So that was when they created those initial trails. It was all about talent recruitment. Tourism was the byproduct of that investment in keeping talent. 

I do think that people who are entrepreneurs are probably also adventurers. Not everybody, but if you’re an entrepreneur, you’re also wanting to try new things. I also think people are looking for places where there is an opportunity for work-life balance. Our region has a lot to offer residents, from our trail development to the emphasis on arts in our community with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art to the state’s innovative ecosystem, supported by Toby Teeter and his team at the University of Arkansas’ The Collaborative. The Collaborative is all about how we migrate or keep our creators—how we bring them in and fuel them with information and support them in their growth. It’s right here in Bentonville. And then there’s GORP, which stands for Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program. It’s an incubator program focused on the development of entrepreneurs in products or services for outdoor recreation.

GORP was created underneath The Collaborative, and it has a ton of programs, including the Arkansas Small Business Technology Development Center. GORP also works with the Greenhouse Business Incubator, a beta in Bentonville that’s a catalyst for startups. And a lot of those startups have to do with the outdoors. GORP and The Collective are great programs, and we have people from all over the world coming here for the opportunity. Visit Bentonville collaborates with them if there’s something from a tourism standpoint or an initiative that they’re doing about the outdoors. If we can partner with them, how can we launch? Maybe we’re a pilot program for them? Or we might guide them to someone else in the city that’s right for what they’re doing.

I tell people I’ve been here 19 years, and my job was a whole lot different 19 years ago when I started. Back then, we really were “just” the home of Walmart; now we’re the home of Walmart and so much more.