Regional CVB is organized, ready to go

meperez@sunherald.comJune 28, 2014 

BILOXI ­-- July 1 marks the first year on the job for the three-county Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau -- a year when they hired a new executive director and advertising agency who together with the board will establish the identity of Coast tourism.

Renee Areng, the assistant director of tourism for Visit Baton Rouge, was hired Tuesday as executive director. She vacationed on the Coast as a child and brings both a fresh perspective and the knowledge of the local market that competes for tourists with Baton Rouge.

She will be very busy, said John Hariston, who pushed legislation to create a single tourist promotion agency for South Mississippi.

The board also has hired a professional organization to set goals and a way to track progress toward those goals, he said. The new director will get those numbers in front of the stakeholder organizations and the three boards of supervisors.

"Her overall mission is to assure the CVB has clear vision, measurable goals, complete transparency, a motivated and well-compensated staff and forward progress," he said.

Duncan McKenzie is completing his term as president of the Regional CVB and gives the group a grade B-plus for its first year efforts.

The reason it's not an A, he said, is because the board needed to spend so much time on organization.

"We've got a good plan in place," he said, one which will represent every county and the tourism businesses.

"We're standing united now," he said.

He is leaving his post as general manager of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi, but is not leaving South Mississippi.

"I still plan to be a very active board member," he said.

Among the priorities of the second year for the CVB are looking at new funding sources and completing the

new advertising campaign. McKenzie said he doesn't know what the source of funds for promoting tourism will be, but added, "A greater investment in tourism is going to be an investment in South Mississippi."

What tourists are looking for are authentic experiences, said board member Kim Fritz, and the new advertising campaign will show people tasting their first oyster, landing a fish, gathering around a beach bonfire or "mudding," depending on their age and interests.

"Be careful with alligators," board member George Schloegel told the advertising agency. "That's not what we are." He said the stereotype of Civil War and redneck has promoted South Mississippi in a negative way over the years.

"We have to question some of these perceptions because we know what we have," said board member Bill Holmes. "We don't want to be known as redneck city. We want to be known as a true, premium, destination site."

The board members and associate members must sign ethics and conflict of interest statements and the CVB changed its bank because several members had ties to Hancock Bank. McKenzie said all the committees of the CVB will report on their first year efforts and the board is organizing a tourism summit.

"I am very proud to see this organization getting its legs under it -- no grandstanding or chest-pounding -- just nose to the grindstone work," said Hairston. "The appointed board members, legacy and new, came together as a team and are creating the regional tourism leadership organization the Coast deserves. I can't wait to see the progress of the next year."

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