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Mardi Gras worth millions to Coast businesses

The Ocean Springs Mardi Gras parade was held Jan. 19. The season ends with Fat Tuesday on Feb. 12.

MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — Those plastic beads, aluminum doubloons and other colorful throws eagerly sought by Mardi Gras revelers may not seem worth much on the surface, but their real value is undisputed: the multitudes of parade-goers they attract have a multi-million dollar impact.

“We generally estimate that on any given day there are 65,000 tourists here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” said Jolie Spears, media relations manager for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. “In the past, we’ve had more than 100,000 people here for Mardi Gras. If they each spend $100 a person while they are here — and that’s an extremely low-ball estimate — then it creates an economic impact of $10 million.”

Most of those large numbers are seen in the weekend leading up to Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras day. No fewer than 10 parades take place on those four days, in all three of the counties that make up Mississippi’s Coast.

“When there is a parade every day we see a large concentration of people,” Spiers said. “We have visitors who come from all over the country to experience Mardi Gras along the Mississippi Gulf Coast; however, we are still primarily a regional driving destination.”

That may be changing. Those purple, green and gold threads of Mardi Gras, so densely woven into the cultural fabric of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, vividly color the otherwise drab winter days between the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Lent. When combined with Mississippi’s mild weather, miles of beaches, golf courses and the attraction of the area’s casinos, it’s an enticing draw to travelers looking to cure their winter blues.

“We have a reservation service, Gulf Coast Hotel Reservations, and they were getting calls for Mardi Gras long before they began getting calls for rooms for the Super Bowl,” said Linda Hornsby, executive director of the Gulf Coast Hotel and Lodging Association. ”It definitely is attracting people. We get lots of golfers, especially from the Midwest, and we are seeing them build their trips around Mardi Gras. They often travel with other couples, and Mardi Gras extends their stay.”

“What’s fascinating to me,” she added, “is that these visitors are learning about Mardi Gras strictly from word-of-mouth. I can’t tell you of any advertising campaign that’s trying to get people to come here for Mardi Gras. It’s strictly people who have found out about it and decided to come here on their own.”

While there are 18,000 hotel and motel rooms along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Hornsby cannot say for sure how many were booked for this year’s Mardi Gras season, which began Jan. 6 and ends Feb. 12. While the association does collect occupancy rates, it doesn’t collect those rates for specific events. She says an educated guess of the typical length of stay for someone here strictly for Mardi Gras would be one or two nights.

“Another interesting change is that, years ago, the only hotels and business affected by Mardi Gras were those on the parade route, but that’s no longer the case,” Hornsby said. “We are seeing a widening of the impact of Mardi Gras on the lodging industry to include properties that are not necessarily on the beach, like interstate properties.”

While the biggest economic impact is confined to the latter part of the Mardi Gras season, there were still nine other parades held along the Mississippi Gulf Coast this year. While primarily a local draw, their impact on area businesses is significant, as well.

The first parade to kick off the season was held Jan. 19 in Ocean Springs.

“When the numbers are in, we are expecting that there will have been well over 10,000 people here in Ocean Springs for the Elks Lodge Parade,” said Margaret Miller, executive director of the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce. “Our population is around 17,000, so that’s a huge number for us.”

Miller says that anytime a community has that kind of exposure to visitors, it creates a tremendous roll-over effect with untold benefits.

“We have about 50 shops downtown that see direct benefit from walking and driving traffic during the parade, but we also talk a lot with our businesses located outside of the parade area, and they are reaping positive benefits as well,” Miller said. “People who are leaving or coming often stop to eat, and often want to get out of the immediate area and get to a restaurant off-site. It’s the same way with gasoline and such.”

Miller said the chamber works with the merchants and retail businesses to encourage them to take maximum advantage of the exposure the Mardi Gras traffic brings. She says while it is the chamber’s responsibility to attract people to area businesses, it is the business owner who is responsible for getting them in the front door.

“We encourage them to utilize this type of opportunity and to be creative in marketing their business, and I think our businesses do an excellent job of that,” she stated. “Anytime you have people right at your front door that is by far a greater opportunity than someone just reading advertising or listening to an ad on the radio.”

Even though Ocean Springs hosts the season’s earliest parade, the small coastal town continues to enjoy lagniappe from Mardi Gras’ seemingly endless bounty.

“We continue to see more and more people from up North and Midwest and other parts of the United States during the Mardi Gras season, and this year, in the weeks since Christmas, our numbers has been dramatically up,” Miller noted. “We usually have 30 to 50 visitors a day and we’ve been way up into the 50s pretty consistently. About half of those people are directly here as a result of Mardi Gras in one form or another, whether in Ocean Springs or elsewhere along the Coast.”

Mardi Gras begins on Twelfth Night, or the Epiphany, which falls each year on Jan. 6. Revelry reigns supreme throughout the pre-Lenten season until Fat Tuesday, the day prior to the period of fasting leading up to Easter Sunday.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Mara Hartmann at mmhartmann@aol.com or (601) 353-9041.

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