With Katrina and oil spill behind us, South Mississippi is moving forward

THE JOURNALMay 21, 2012 

South Mississippi has always overcome its pitfalls, and years removed from Katrina and the BP oil spill, eyes are once again turning to South Mississippi as a destination for good times.

Amid the ongoing recession, tourism and travel accounted for 4percent of the state’s gross domestic product in 2011. Including indirectly induced jobs, they also accounted for 17.9 percent of statewide employment. All of this is according to the Mississippi Development Authority’s Economic Contribution Report for Travel and Tourism FY 2011.

Casinos

For all the beauty, history and artistry that make up South Mississippi, gaming remains the strongest draw. Recent investments in Coast gaming, including Golden Nugget’s purchase of the Isle Casino Hotel and the near completion of Margaritaville, both in Biloxi, indicate the Coast’s return to prominence as a gaming leader.

Beth Carriere, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, said gaming is not only another feather in the cap for the Coast, it also provides greater promotional assistance and pulls international clientele.

“It’s been an extremely good thing for our product,” Carriere said. “We’ve gone from a sleepy-town reprieve for families to attracting international businesses as a destination. Each casino has a large advertising budget and you multiply that times the number of casinos. Even though they’re inviting them to a specific property, they’re still on the Gulf Coast and it’s not just on the tourism bureau.”

Small-town destinations

Getting people to take heed of what South Mississippi offers is the greatest part of the battle, according to Margaret Miller, executive director of the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce.

Unique shops, tree-lined streets, an “artsy” reputation and a seemingly endless cache of festivals have made Ocean Springs a model for tourism. In fact, the city continues to garner national attention for all of these things.

Miller said that while the impact of the city’s largest event, the Peter Anderson Festival, grew from $13 million in 2010 to $23 million in 2011, overall success for the city is not all about the financial gain or the number of people a festival draws. Rather, she believes any event garners publicity and is ultimately a winning situation for all aspects of the city.

“A very successful event can be something small and intimate. It’s about the few people there enjoying themselves. It’s always been about the quality of the event and not based on numbers.

“That’s what Ocean Springs for the last 25 years has centered upon. When we hold an event it’s as much about the people who don’t’ come as it is about people who attend. It gets (publicity) and its very positive for weeks and months following. People ask how we’ve created Ocean Springs and done what we’ve done and that has been our secret weapon.”

Hattiesburg, the state’s “Hub City,” has much to offer with its proximity to Jackson, the Coast and Camp Shelby, along with being home to the University of Southern Mississippi. Its biggest tourism draws include outdoor recreation, history, and festivals. It also ranks second in the state in retail sales.

Rick Taylor, executive director of the Hattiesburg Tourism/Convention Commission, said building back from the poor economy is a challenge, but he is pleased to see a slight increase on visitor spending from $225 million in fiscal year 2010 to $233 million in 2011.

“Trend-wise, we feel there’s optimism in the air and we’re seeing it at the cash register,” Taylor said. “We’re continuing with our focus on trends that have served Hattiesburg well.”

That means the draw of sports tournaments, convention business, and the retail needs of a large rural area. There also is a valuable market in ecotourism, which draws regional visitors with its canoeing rivers, the Paul B. Johnson State Park, and Rails to Trails, a 42-mile bicycle path that follows train tracks from Hattiesburg to Prentiss.

Taylor realizes that many of their ecotourists are not just there for a cheap outing. He said many of these tourists ride bikes valued at $7,000 or more on the Rails to Trails path and stay overnight at the city’s nicest hotels. In other words, it is an important part of their marketing push.

“As we did through some leaner periods, we’ve kept our marketing efforts at full speed,” Taylor said.

While things can be seen as taking a positive turn, South Mississippi composes itself and dresses itself up to once again be a tourist destination. In the meantime, there will likely be lags in the transition period.

Lodging

Primarily, there is a need for overnight lodging in South Mississippi. No one knows this better than Bill Holmes, executive director of the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center.

The Convention Center came on after Hurricane Katrina as a state of the art facility offering 400,000 square feet of exhibit and meeting space with improved telecommunications, audio and visual equipment and 4,000 parking spaces, including RV accommodations. The gaping need, however, is the lack of full-service hotels, specifically the desired 500-room headquarter hotel that could entice large conventions.

Holmes said estimates show that such a hotel could bring an additional $14 million to Coast casinos. However, the project lacks the funding needed and is indefinitely on hold. Holmes said the threat of gaming coming to Florida expedites the need to diversify what the Coast has to offer and move forward with it. Carriere has a “Field of Dreams” stance on full-service lodging. She said if a strong need is shown, the hotels will come.

New campaigns

The Coast is hoping to see tourism numbers rise this summer through new campaigns aimed at attracting repeat business from the southeast region. Memorial Day will be the beginning of a campaign that will ask visitors to search for the fictional character “Beach Foot” and gather footprint stickers from area businesses. Carriere said this campaign could be used to drive visitors to museums or shopping sites that might be less frequented than casinos. The campaign will continue through Labor Day and those who complete their collection of footprints will be entered into a drawing for a new vehicle.

Other drives to build repeat business will be the “Play Your Way” media ads and Club Gulf Coast, a rewards card program that can lure visitors to participating businesses with special offers while collecting data about visitors’ spending habits.

The Gulf Coast Regional Tourism Partnership, a three-county nonprofit corporation that is administering a $16 million tourism grant from BP America, will invest almost $10 million in advertising and event sponsorships by the end of 2012, all promoting the Mississippi Gulf Coast, according to Partnership chairman John McFarland. A new advertising campaign called “Trip Tickets” utilizes print, television and digital advertising to share golf, family and getaway experiences with prospects in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas and across Mississippi. The ad campaigns, created for the Partnership by the GodwinGroup, are targeted to specific types of tourists and offer specific packages, McFarland said. The campaigns were designed around new tourism research conducted by the Partnership and by the Mississippi Development Authority.

Event grants provided by the Partnership have paid for out-of-market advertising to promote existing events like Cruisin’ the Coast, Smokin’ the Sound and the Crawfish Festival, provided marketing support for the opening of the Infinity Science Center outside NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, and paid for live television coverage on the Golf Channel of all three rounds of the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, a PGA Champions Tour event.

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