GULFPORT -- What if a tourist could take an interactive tour of South Mississippi and get a personal experience of some of Mother Nature's most beautiful Coast sights -- all without leaving the comfort of their couch? Well, they can, thanks to Google.
Renee Areng, executive director of Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, said in last summer officials at Google approached her agency -- organized in July 2013 to promote a unified tourism message for the three Coast counties -- about taking one of its new inventions for a spin to record content of South Mississippi that a car couldn't reach.
The tool, called Google Trekker, used innovative technology to capture panoramic views of its subject by using dozens of cameras that took photos every few seconds. The Trekker, although kind of heavy, could be toted around like a backpack, making the filming options virtually unlimited.
Areng said she knew the Trekker would be huge for promoting the Coasts tourism industry.
In a recent study, she said, "the perception of the Mississippi Gulf Coast was least favorable if they had not seen an ad or been here and most favorable had they been there."
Representatives of Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, along with its partners and members of the media, were invited to participate in capturing video footage on the Trekker from September to November.
"We went everywhere," Areng said. "We went to 40 locations. We worked with 20 of our part
ners and we got some crazy hours."
The agency sent back 70 to 80 hours of content just after Thanksgiving.
The Google Trekker went to the top of Beau Rivage and the IP Casino. It took a tour of the Pascagoula River and got a beautiful view of Bayou Caddy from atop of the Silver Slipper parking garage. The Trekker set sail at sunset with North Star Sailing Charters from Gulfport Harbor to watch dolphins play in the Mississippi Sound.
Google published online 25 locations from across the Coast. The content went live in May.
From a tourism perspective, using the Trekker gives potential tourists a chance to taste what they're biting into when booking a trip to South Mississippi.
"We kind of framed it as, 'Do you want to look at the hamburger or do you want to eat the hamburger?'" said Erin Kenna, Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast's public relations director.
Areng said the interactive display shows the power of video in the tourism industry.
"It's huge video is king," she said. "This is 70 hours of video that we'll potentially have to share with the world." The final product, she said, appeals to Millennials with buying power who are attached to their smartphones, and for Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers who have never been to the Coast.
Kenna's favorite Trekker experience was filming the Possum Walk near Infinity Science Center in Hancock County. The Coast native had never been out to the scenic environs of Logtown, near Pearlington.
"It was beautiful, it was almost haunting how beautiful it was." She hiked the 7-mile trail by herself. She said, "I was very alone, but it was calming."
Kelsey King, social media coordinator at Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, said she really enjoyed going down the Pascagoula River.
"We spent all day out there, going down different bayous," she said. "I had never been out there and it was just a lot of fun."
Typically, agencies or others interested in using the Trekker must apply to be considered, but Areng said Google approached them about filming on the Coast.
At the time Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast began filming, Areng and Kenna said there were only 12 locations across the world that had used the Trekker and been published.
The device loaned to South Mississippi had also been used in Kenya, Kenna said.