JACKSON — Hospitality, travel and tourism leaders from around the state gathered Oct. 24 at the Jackson Hilton to discuss the downturn in the economy and ways to increase tourism in Mississippi.
At the tourism summit, hosted by the Mississippi Development Authority’s (MDA) Tourism Development Division, industry leaders discussed challenges and compared notes about tourism around the Southeast and the U.S.
“The economy was already slowing down in tourism around the country before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but because we’re primarily a drive market, we rebounded fairly quickly,” said Darienne Wilson, director of tourism development for MDA. “However, we thought we needed to do something to spur tourism and encourage travel within our own state.”
Wilson unveiled MDA’s new tourism campaign, “It’s Your State. Go See It,” which kicked off Oct. 25 with 60-second television spots airing on local stations in Biloxi, Greenwood, Hattiesburg, Jackson, Meridian and Tupelo. The spots air primarily in the early morning, noon and late afternoon. Enticing images of antebellum homes, Civil War battlefields, the beach and small towns and athletes playing football and hockey and participating in balloon races are reflected in the ads.
“We don’t suggest particular destinations to visit,” Wilson said. “For example, the Civil War battlefields could be in Corinth or Vicksburg. The point is to suggest to people…have you visited your grandfather’s hometown? Have you walked the battlefields of your country? Have you spent a wild night in a casino?”
Danny Mitchell, chairman and CEO of Jackson-based GodwinGroup, said, “It’s been a long time since my wife, Patty, and I have been to Natchez, and after one of the commercials aired this morning, we decided to take a weekend trip there soon. We’re hoping other Mississippians will see the spots and decide to make similar plans.”
Local CVBs and the state tourism department actively market to a 500-mile radius and 89% of all visitors drive to Mississippi. With roughly 425 highway miles from Southaven to Gulfport, and roughly 185 highway miles east to west at its widest point, the state covers much of that market.
The new $175,000 tourism campaign, funded with “pockets of money here and there,” marks the first time MDA has marketed in-state, Wilson said.
“In-state advertising isn’t something I’d normally do because it doesn’t generate tax revenues from outside the state,” she sad. “But sometimes you have to think outside the box. Right now, in-state dollars may be just as good as getting new dollars. We felt that it was important enough to retain some dollars that might have gone to Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana or Tennessee.”
A $6-billion industry and the second-largest employer in the state’s service sector, tourism employed 94,100 Mississippians last year. Despite a slowdown in the economy, visitorship increased 9% last year and inquiries increased 28%. Last month, Beau Rivage laid off 340 people, or 11% of its workforce, accounting for “the only layoffs I know of so far this year,” Wilson said.
Last September, Mississippi casinos reported $215.4 million in revenues. This September, the number increased to $217.5 million, reflecting the only segment of the tourism industry that hasn’t declined.
“The Tunica County market grew overall about 1.7%,” said Webster Franklin, president of the Mississippi Tourism Association and executive director of the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau. “While it’s a very good sign that we saw a rise in revenue, you have to look behind that revenue at the dollars that were expended to bring that revenue in.”
Last September, the occupancy rate at Tunica County’s 6,300 hotel rooms was 94.1% at an average daily rate of $73.65. This September, the occupancy rate was 94% with an average daily rate of $64.18, according to a study by the Tunica CVB.
“Comparing month over month, it was basically a wash, which was much better than other destinations,” he said. “We were pleased with that.”
Misty Valasquez, spokeswoman for the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, said even though the coastal area has seen more travelers, they’re spending less.
“Gaming revenue was up 4% in September and occupancy has been good,” she said. “Two events since Sept. 11 have had record numbers – Cruisin’ the Coast had approximately 4,000 registrants and Beauvoir’s Fall Muster had 1,400 visitors.”
Even though other states have also initiated in-state advertising campaigns, Mississippi is the only state that has garnered support from the business community.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi, Entergy Mississippi, Lamar Outdoor Advertising, Mississippi Power Company, Mississippi Valley Gas and Trustmark have pledged more than half of the $100,000 goal for the second phase of the campaign, which will include radio and outdoor advertising, said Mitchell.
“I’m really impressed with corporate leaders that stepped up to the plate,” said Mitchell. “They know tourism is a vital industry and needs to be protected as an economic asset just like any other big business in the state. We’re so appreciative of their willingness to help jumpstart that part of the economy.”
For more information on corporate contributions to Mississippi’s in-state tourism campaign, contact Danny Mitchell at (601) 354-5711.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 853-3967.