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State offers funding to facilities hoping to score conventions

Transportation from the airport, sponsoring a reception — sometimes it’s the little things that mean the difference between landing a lucrative conference and losing that meeting to a neighboring state.

Facilities and hotels will have an extra edge to lure more meetings and conventions to their properties with a new incentive program recently unveiled by the state tourism division. The Meetings and Convention Incentive program offers funding assistance to facilities bidding for a conference. A hotel, for example, could use the money to pay for one of the group’s activities, like a reception or luncheon, thereby making the stay attractive for the group who spends that much less money on the convention.

How much the host facility receives from the state will depend on the size of the convention group, how many nights they are staying in Mississippi, the estimated economic impact for the state and other criteria. A facility could receive as much as $2,000 up to $5,000 to spend on a large convention, said Darienne Wilson, state tourism division director. For a small meeting, help could come in the way of transportation to and from the airport — whatever a group needs.

Charles Shepherd, general manager of Whispering Woods Hotel and Conference Center in Olive Branch, said the state’s incentive program could help the center bring in a 150-person, five-night conference scheduled for next spring. The group is considering New Orleans, St. Louis, Memphis and Whispering Woods, and they have requested that the facility they choose host a reception during their stay.

“Many times, the hotel that can give them the most concessions, the best package, is the hotel that gets the event,” he said.

Whispering Woods hosts meetings in the facility’s 35,000 square feet of meeting space, which has individual training rooms.

Eagle Ridge Conference Center, which opened in Raymond in 1996, hosts about 400 companies a year for meetings. The 66,000-square-foot facility has eight conference rooms, five meeting rooms, a 200-seat auditorium and a 54-room hotel. Karen Robbins, marketing coordinator, said the facility plans to call on the tourism division for help in landing some large conventions.

“We look forward to them helping us bring prestigious meetings to the state who can improve our image,” said Robbins.

The tourism division has been using advertising to lure meetings to Mississippi, but the ads didn’t seem to work, said Wilson. Coupled with the downslide of meetings and conventions in a turbulent economy, Wilson’s group decided to try a new tactic. The tourism division formed a task force of hotel representatives, meeting planners and association executives to put together the incentive program, making Mississippi among just a handful of states to use the strategy.

The new program targets groups that are seriously considering Mississippi, and it sends out the message to groups that their meetings are important to the State of Mississippi, said Wilson.

Based on the numbers, meetings and conventions are very important to Mississippi. Conventions bring in $200 million each year to the state’s economy, based on estimates by the state tourism division.

They also help fill hotel rooms Sunday through Thursday when occupancy is typically down, said Misty Velasquez, director of marketing for the Gulfport Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). Sometimes a group seeking a convention site goes straight to the desired property, but often they call on the CVB for help in finding just the right place.

The CVB then sends out Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to meeting places, and the facility with the best package lands the deal.

“We at the Gulfport Convention and Visitors Bureau are excited about the potential of this program,” she said. “It’s a great tool.”

Meeting planners can call Chris Bounds of the Tourism Development Division of the Mississippi Development Authority at (601) 359-3297 for more information about the incentive program.

Contact MBJ Staff Writer Kelly Russell Ingebretsen at kelly@msbusiness.com.


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