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Conventions, meetings weather the slow economy

The convention and meeting business in Mississippi has weathered the fallout from Sept. 11 and the decline in the economy better than many other areas of the country, in part because most convention destinations are drive-in markets that were little affected by a decline in air travel.

“I really think if there has been any impact it has to do more with the national economy than Sept. 11,” said Stephen Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB). “Yes, there may be some people who stopped flying after Sept. 11. On the other hand, the Gulf Coast seems to be doing better than other places.”

Richer says the convention market on the Coast continues to grow through retaining existing business and attracting major new conventions. For example, the largest convention ever on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the National Guard Association of the U.S., is set for September 2003. The convention is expected to attract between 4,000 to 5,000 participants for four to five nights each.

A measure of the success of conventions on the Coast is that the Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB recently won its second Golden Key Award from Meetings and Convention Magazine. The national award recognizes outstanding CVBs.

Paula April, marketing director for the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center, said that no conventions were cancelled as a result of Sept. 11. And although the number of participants at conventions fell slightly after Sept. 11, since the first of the year convention and meeting attendance has been on the increase.

“Most of my conventions are seeing an increase in the number of participants,” April said. “Outside of the first couple of months when numbers were down a lot, there hasn’t been that much of an impact. We don’t have a lot of national meetings in our area. They tend to be more regional. Consequently, we don’t have people flying in from all over the U.S. and the world. I think because we are primarily a drive market with a limited fly market, that hasn’t hurt us. We stay busy.”

The Coast Coliseum with 180,000 square feet is one of the largest in the state. Currently a study is underway to consider expanding the convention center, more than doubling its size by adding another 250,000 square feet.

Casino resorts on the Coast continue to work hard to sell their properties to meetings and convention planners. The Beau Rivage Casino and Resort in Biloxi reports that the meetings and convention market has gotten much more competitive because not as many groups are booking due to the slowing economy.

“It is a more competitive market, but this is a tremendous value destination for the corporate market, and our bookings are on pace with last year,” said Mary Cracchiolo, Beau Rivage public relations manager. “And attendance at our conventions is up.”

At the other end of the state, Tunica officials report the meetings and convention business is holding steady. Webster Franklin, executive director, Tunica County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Tunica had only one cancellation as a result of Sept. 11 and that convention was later rescheduled.

“Most meetings that come here, their attendees drive rather than fly,” Franklin said. “So we were not as affected by Sept. 11 as a lot of major convention destinations. Right now we look at meetings and conventions to remain relatively flat over the next year. What you are seeing is more and more organizations that plan meetings cutting back on the number that they have. Some that might have four meetings a year might cut back to two. But at those two meetings, you may have more attendees.”

Franklin said that due to the economy and travel costs, the meeting market as a whole is cutting back. But because Tunica is situated as an easy drive from surrounding states, Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama, it continues to attract associations and corporations located in those areas.

Tunica County is currently considering building a public meeting and convention facility that would be part of the Tunica National Golf and Tennis Complex, which will break ground in September and open in the fall of 2003. A feasibility study for adding a convention center will be conducted by Price Waterhouse Cooper.

“The advantage of having a public facility is you automatically increase your availability to a larger segment of the meeting market,” Franklin said. “We are effectively a drive destination right now, and have done fairly well with that the way meetings market reacted to Sept. 11 and the economy. But we feel a public facility will be an added draw for this area, and that kind of facility will allow us to go after larger, national conventions that we can’t get now. It will also create additional growth in the market to sustain what we have here, and hopefully further the development of hotel growth.”

Having golf tournaments associated with conventions is a hot trend right now. And focusing on attracting sporting events has also been successful for some communities in the state like Tupelo.

“We’re having a lot of good success with sporting events, which has really helped,” said Linda Elliff, director of sales, Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau. “For the past two years we have had numerous softball, soccer and basketball tournaments. We also host a lot of smaller meetings from 100 to 500 participants. We host quite a few of the smaller conventions for civic clubs and organizations, military conventions and reunions, religious conferences and fraternal meetings. Then, also, we have the Tupelo Furniture Market twice per year that brings in 35,000 buyers and exhibiters from all over the country, as well as some international visitors. That is always a boost.

“I think that our business is staying pretty steady, which we are very proud of. In Tupelo we really pride ourselves in going the extra mile for groups and giving them the very best service we can offer to make sure they have a successful convention.”

This year’s 25th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley has also attracted a lot of visitors, including international visitors, who come to tour Tupelo’s most famous attraction, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. And a new attraction opening in the fall, the Tupelo Auto Museum, will complement other attractions in town. “We will be doing a lot of marketing on this new attraction,” Elliff said. “There will be a space for small meetings there, as well.”

There is new meeting space available in Meridian, too. The new Montana’s and also Weidmann’s, currently under renovation, have meeting space available.

Sandy Bynum, executive director, MeridianLauderdale County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said sales tax rebates in Meridian have continued to grow which is good indication of a healthy economy.

“We do have a lot of business travelers because of Meridian’s strategic location with transportation,” Bynum said.

Meridian has meeting space at Union Square, at Meridian Community College, and at the Mississippi State University branch in Meridian. The town has more than 1,600 hotels rooms with a new hotel under construction. Another amenity for meetings is the Temple Theater, which seats 1,600 people and is home to the Mississippi Junior Miss Program.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.


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