BILOXI — Some conventioneers, particularly those with religious and educational groups, may avoid staying at casino hotels because they don’t think it will look good on the invoices for reimbursement. But overall the casino’s new, upscale hotels have had a tremendous positive influence on convention business on the Coast and in river towns like Vicksburg where gaming is legal.
“Right off the bat people will tell us if they are not interested in staying in a casino hotel,” said Lisa Nossfer, director of sales marketing for the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “If that is the case, we turn them to non-casino hotels and meeting places. But for the most part we haven’t had a problem.”
Nossfer said a lot of the groups meeting in Vicksburg represent religious or educational groups, and there are occasional concerns about staying at a casino hotel.
“Some say they want it as an option, but would rather not have it as a host hotel,” Nossfer said. “Some education groups say their district would rather them not be at a casino hotel. But generally I think they still go to the casinos. Most people at least pop into one while they are here for a little while. It’s pretty much accepted now to go to a casino. They just don’t want it on their invoice.”
Nossfer said the casinos give conventioneers something to do in the evening, and have had a positive overall impact on the town’s meeting and convention business by adding to the attractions in Vicksburg.
Bill Holmes, executive director, Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center, heartily agrees that casinos have been a great boost to the convention business.
“Since casinos were legalized in 1992, our business has grown considerably,” Holmes said. “Before we didn’t have a lot of first-class rooms, and we do now. And those older properties, for the most part, have been renovated.”
Holmes said even groups like the National Baptist Association have no problem with meeting in casino areas. Two years ago the National Baptist Convention met in Las Vegas.
“Even some of the religious groups you wouldn’t think would want to house at a casino haven’t expressed opinions one way or the other with us,” Holmes said. “It hasn’t deterred any of our business. One thing a person needs to look at hard and long is what were we doing in all the communities the casino industry resides in today prior to casinos? And I can tell you that the Coast was losing conventions to Florida and Alabama, and there were tremendous amounts of money leaving the state.”
Holmes said the new casino industry has taken the Coast to an entirely new level in average salaries and benefits, and has improved the quality of life not only in gaming areas but throughout the state because of casino revenues that go into the state’s general fund.
“Hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into the general fund to support all Mississippians,” Holmes said. “When it comes to casino industry, I can tell you first-hand what it has meant not only to this community and region, but this state. We wouldn’t have the number of shows we currently have if it weren’t for people having more money to buy tickets and novelties.”
Holmes said the Coast’s convention business now outstrips the Panhandle of Florida, the southern half of Alabama and southern Louisiana by a two-to-one margin. He said that is happening because the Coast’s market has proven to be very solid. The Coast is in the top 10% of the league for hockey attendance at Sea Wolves games, and has the highest attendance in the league in indoor professional football.
As a result of heavy bookings, the Coast Coliseum and Convention Center no longer relies on tax revenues for support.
“Last year was the best operating year the facility has ever had,” Holmes said. “This year we had a lot of repairs due to Hurricane Georges, and utilities were up 30%. But we were still only $62,000 off last year. We still had the second best year in the history of the facility. Now we’re trying to concentrate on our Sunday through Thursday business.”
The coliseum recently expanded the convention facility by 80,000 square feet, and this year already several groups have used the entire facility, which totals 180,000 square feet.
Most of the casinos have convention and meeting facilities, but Holmes said the competition hasn’t been a concern.
“Casino facilities have taken some of our pre-existing business because of the fact that they are totally self-contained, and a lot of meetings want to be self-contained,” Holmes said. “But guess what? It is a billion dollar a year meeting and convention industry. If we are going to worry about the six or eight conventions we have lost, shame on us.”
While the convention center competes with casinos for meetings, Holmes said the casinos have also brought major improvements in air service that are bringing in more visitors and conventions. The casinos are also credited with improving ground transportation by buying a local cab company and improving the standard of service.
“All of these ground and air transportation improvements add up to getting more meeting business on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Holmes said. “Before we lost conventions and couldn’t bid on conventions because we didn’t have jet service coming in that would be able to carry the exhibitors exhibits.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.