Here's why the Coast falls short as a family-friendly vacation destination, survey says

The sun sets along casino row in downtown Biloxi.
The sun sets along casino row in downtown Biloxi. amccoy@sunherald.com

Locals tend to think of South Mississippi as a coastal playground for families, with affordable family-friendly activities.

But that's not what tourists think, according to a new survey.

Visit MS Gulf Coast asked a marketing research company called Longwoods International to ask people across the country what they thought of the Biloxi area.

They surveyed 1,000 people, and received responses that may surprise residents.

It shows the area must overcome three challenges to bring more tourists and families to the Coast:

Limited family appeal. The Biloxi area and South Mississippi draw two age groups — retirees age 55 plus and young adults age 25-34, most of whom have annual income of $75,000 or less. The challenge is to bridge this age gap with entertainment, food or another means, said Milton Segarra, new CEO of Visit MS Gulf Coast.

Image. Those who never visited South Mississippi said they aren’t sure they’ll feel welcome and don’t think the area is a well-known destination or appropriate for children. Just get people to the Biloxi area and the survey shows their perception rises dramatically, up 20-43 percent depending on the category compared to a 10-15 percent increase at other destinations. People were surprised by what they found when they visited, the survey showed. Among recent visitors, 64 percent said it was exciting compared to just 39 percent of people who had never visited.

Affordable but not unique. Those surveyed said they consider the Coast a budget-friendly place to vacation — a plus — but with nothing unique to offer when compared to other destinations in the Southeast such as the beaches of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, Daytona Beach and Tampa/St. Petersburg in Florida and Virginia Beach.

Hurricane Katrina changed the perception and personality of the Coast in 2005. Gone are many of the mom-and-pop hotels, waterslides and putt-putt golf courses that drew families to the beach.

Since then, the major draws are the casinos that provide top restaurants and national entertainment — and spend millions of dollars every year advertising the area as an adult destination. Art museums, fishing charters, golf and the wine and beer festivals reinforce the area as an adult getaway.

South Mississippi doesn't have amusement parks or hotels with indoor waterparks that are becoming popular at big cities across the country. Yet Reader's Digest just named Biloxi the Top Spring Break Getaway in Mississippi and exceptional family attractions like Infinity Science Center, Lynn Meadows Discovery Center and Pascagoula River Audubon Center have been built or expanded in recent years.

Kim Fritz, a board member of Visit MS Gulf Coast, which promotes tourism across the three Coast counties, said many of the new attractions aren't as visible as those that were on the beach before Katrina. To help visitors and locals find attractions,she said an application was made to the Restore Act, which directs 80 percent of the fines from the BP oil spill to South Mississippi and other affected coastlines, to pay for signs for signs in all three counties.

Just seeing advertising for South Mississippi makes people 2.5 times more likely to visit, said Fritz, and she said Visit MS Gulf Coast will increase marketing to families as more attractions open.

“That was always the goal,” she said, and it starts now.

At the March meeting the board agreed to hire Curiosity, a native advertising service that creates information about a destination and will target parents. "They like to go places where their children can learn things, too," she said.

The organization also hired a team to create a new and dynamic brand for South Mississippi tourism.

"We have the best of the best to do this with us," said Segarra. The process began last week when contracts were signed with The Kliman Group, whose clients are the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and other top destinations in the country, to create a brand for the Coast and the Resonance Company to develop the brand.

By September the foundations should be in place to take the Coast to rebranding, he said.

"We're creating perhaps the future, the foundations of a brand that certainly could transform this destination," Segarra said. When complete, he said, it will create more wealth for the area and better lifestyles for the community.

It also may restore South Mississippi as a great place for a family vacation.

Mary Perez: 228-896-2354, @MaryPerezSH