Travel & Tourism

A juggler is needed to give sizzle to tourism on the Coast

Early morning light colors the Biloxi sky near the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino. The sunrises and sunsets over the beach are among the attractions the new tourism director will promote when the search is over and a person is hired for Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Early morning light colors the Biloxi sky near the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino. The sunrises and sunsets over the beach are among the attractions the new tourism director will promote when the search is over and a person is hired for Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

The search continues for a new executive director of tourism in South Mississippi, a person to tout the three Coast counties and tell travelers worldwide why they should visit.

“We’re in the hunt,” Bill Holmes, president of Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, said after the tourism board’s meeting Thursday. The search committee interviewed a candidate earlier in the day and has one more interview planned, he said.

Holmes is serving somewhat as an acting director, attending community meetings in the absence of the director and said “excellent candidates” have applied for the job.

The person interviewed Thursday is from outside the area, he said, and all of the prospective candidates are employed in the industry.

The search began in May after the board voted not to renew the contract of Renee Areng. She became director in 2014, when the Harrison County visitors bureau became Visit MS Gulf Coast to promote the three Coast counties.

Qualifications for the job show the directors, who are top executives from a variety of tourism businesses on the Coast, are looking for a juggler. The person will need to be fun enough to represent a beach destination and skilled enough to work with these strong board members, the staff, the supervisors of the three counties, mayors of the 12 cities, casino operators who answer to major corporations in Las Vegas and with mom-and-pop operators of hotels and attractions — all on a tight budget.

The person they choose will be charged with developing the Visit MS Gulf Coast brand as “a premier destination, meeting and tourism area.”

Twelve years after Hurricane Katrina, the number of hotel rooms across the three Coast counties is finally coming back to pre-storm levels, but it’s been a challenge to bring back tourists in the numbers who came before Katrina.

The Mississippi Gaming Commission reports show the 12 Coast casinos had 3.6 million visitors from April through June this year compared to 5.9 million visitors for the second quarter of 2005, months before Katrina.

How much money the board has to promote tourism in South Mississippi is tied directly to how many visitors stay overnight on the Coast. For the fiscal year that started in October, occupancy tax receipts are down 0.8 percent as of July.

That could change, Holmes said. September was a big month for casinos and hotels that boomed when people evacuated to Mississippi from Florida as Hurricane Irma approached.

“We won’t know September revenues until November,” he said.

Revenue at the Coast Convention Center grew substantially from October through August, Holmes reported, up 10 percent from the previous year.

The board also has a job opening for a digital content marketing manager for its website and is hoping to promote from within to fill the opening for a public relations director.

Erin Rosetti resigned to work for St. Patrick High School, and Anna Roy, who works at Visit MS Gulf Coast, is transitioning to the PR director job. She has the education and experience, said board member Kim Fritz, and previously worked as a travel writer in Madrid, Spain.

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