JACKSON — The Mississippi Development Authority’s Division of Tourism took home the State Organization of the Year award from the Southeast Tourism Society’s Shining Example Awards ceremony held in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 8.
The award, which is given to the state travel organization that has demonstrated measurable growth through creative advertising and promotional campaigns, was Mississippi’s first.
“We’ve never won that before, and the awards program has been going on for 17 years,” said Darienne Wilson, director of tourism development for MDA. “It was very exciting and rewarding to be recognized in front of our peers and to be recognized for moving in the right direction and to be acknowledged as a tourist destination with a program that other states are starting to copy. It makes people look at Mississippi in a different light.”
Despite a slowdown in the economy, Mississippi tourism increased 9% last year and contributed more than $6 billion to the state’s economy. During that time period, inquiries to the tourism industry, the second largest employer in the state’s service sector, increased 28%.
This spring, MDA’s tourism division launched “Welcome to the Weekend,” a creative comprehensive brand identity campaign that capitalized on the advantages of a quick getaway to Mississippi and the potential for extended weekend visits at the state’s numerous historic, entertainment and recreational opportunities.
“We totally rebranded Mississippi,” Wilson said. “We changed the way we marketed the state completely, down to the postcards. The GodwinGroup took what I had in mind about how I wanted people to see Mississippi and put it on paper. I don’t know how they did that. They are terribly talented and passionate about being able to work for the state in which they live. It’s been a really nice partnership for us.”
Philip Shirley, president and CEO of Jackson-based GodwinGroup, MDA’s agency of record since August 2000, said, “GodwinGroup’s motto is, ‘We succeed by helping our clients succeed.’ Success in this case can be translated to the increase in the number of inquiries to our state. We consider ourselves partners with the Division of Tourism in helping promote Mississippi, and this honor caps the first year of what we believe will be a long and successful relationship with the State of
Wilson, who grew up on the Gulf Coast and is a 19-year veteran of the tourism industry, joined MDA as director of tourism development last March. She was the first tourism director of the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau and also served as the executive director of the Mississippi Tourism Association (MTA), the state’s private sector association, for 10 years.
Wilson received MTA’s Tourism Achievement Award of the Decade in 1999, was named one of the 100 meeting planners to watch in 2000 by Convention South magazine, one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Tourism by Travel Agent magazine and one of Mississippi’s 50 Leading Business Women by the Mississippi Business Journal in 2001.
“It’s amazing to have seen the changes in Mississippi throughout the years and to be involved in such a successful marketing campaign,” Wilson said. “The entire team made it happen.”
The state’s tourism division has 27 employees; 50 people work in Mississippi’s 12 welcome centers located around the state.
“When we started this campaign, we went through an extensive self-evaluation, much of it done in-house, and addressed these questions: Who is our customer? What is it they think of us? What makes us different from our competing states? What do we have to offer?,” Wilson said.
Research highlighted the diversity of Mississippi’s tourism products, she said.
“If you want to hunt and fish, if you want to gamble and have big-name entertainment, fine dining and resorts, or if you want to stay in a B&B in a small, quaint Southern town, we offer that,” she said.
The study also confirmed that, in the last two years, Mississippi has become a tourist destination.
“Ten or 15 years ago, we were happy if people spent the night here on the way to another destination,” she said.
The study also confirmed that nearly all visitors to Mississippi (89%) traveled primarily by car within a 500-mile radius, which includes large metropolitan centers such as Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and New Orleans, and smaller cities like Nashville, Little Rock, Baton Rouge and Birmingham. Most visitors are couples on a getaway weekend.
“You have to admit that’s because of gaming,” she said. “We’re not primarily a family destination.”
With a $2.5-million budget for paid media during the campaign, Wilson said $1 million was spent on television, $1 million in magazine print and $500,000 in newspaper advertising, primarily targeting Atlanta, Birmingham, Baton Rouge and Little Rock. The campaign also included video and Web site creations.
“We saturated 500 miles,” Wilson said. “I didn’t have the money to spend in Minnesota, even though 30 people there one day might come here, but there are thousands of people in Little Rock who might. My theory is that a consumer is also a travel agent, watching TV at night. We tried to layer our marketing program and that seems to have worked.”
The campaign in selected cities typically included a six-week run on television followed by a newspaper insert. With a team of 25 making 100 sales calls, the tourism division headed to Atlanta and ended a three-day “Come to Mississippi” blitz by distributing red and white-checkered tablecloths and picnic baskets filled with products made in Mississippi.
“People were just blown away,” Wilson said.
Wilson said this year’s campaign would target Houston and St. Louis.
“At the same time we won this big award, we were cut $2.5 million so we don’t have the dollars to expand,” she said.
“We’ve held onto $2 million for paid media, and that’s by cutting everywhere possible because the most important place to spend our money is promoting the image of our whole state. We’re doing television and magazine again, going into Houston and St. Louis this year. I don’t think we’re doing newspaper this year. We’re hoping if we could get approved for a little larger budget, we’d start moving out.”
The Southeast Tourism Society is the largest membership organization promoting travel to the Southeast, and includes the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 853-3967.