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Not Mississippi? Does it matter when conventions go out of state?

During the summer months, numerous statewide associations crossed state lines to host annual conventions.
At the same time, Craig Ray, tourism director for the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), was urging Mississippians to explore their home state. Because meeting planners book venues years in advance, Ray may not see the fruits of his labor until 2006 or beyond. But the situation begs the question: Does it really matter if statewide associations take their conventions out of state?

“We’d encourage in-state groups to stay in Mississippi for three reasons: to reinvest in our economy, to create awareness of our tourism product and because it’s affordable,” said Ray.

Chris Bounds Chapman, a certified meeting planner for MDA’s tourism division, said association meetings represent big bucks.

“The Mississippi Gulf Coast reports that conventioneers spend about $224 per day,” she said. “In Tunica, it’s $160, and in Jackson, it’s $140. Obviously, when a group decides to go out of state, those dollars leave Mississippi.”

MDA has successfully recaptured some of that business through an incentive program, which provides associations $2,500 to $10,000 to host a meeting in-state, if the association has not booked in Mississippi for 10 years or more and the meeting represents at least 1,500 room nights.

“Through that program, we’ve also brought many associations from neighboring states to Mississippi,” said Chapman.

From World War II to 1991, the Mississippi Bankers Association (MBA) annual convention was held on the Gulf Coast. The venue moved to Panama City, Fla., for several years before it returned to Biloxi. Now, the convention site for 800 participants rotates between the Florida panhandle and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

“We catch flak when we go out of state and when we stay in state,” said MBA executive director Mac Deaver. “Many members don’t like the idea of staying at a casino hotel, which is the only place that can accommodate a meeting our size.”

Dr. William Roberts, executive director of the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA), said he has also met with resistance from members concerned about staying in casino hotels.

“We’ve dealt with that,” said Roberts, whose association has met on the Mississippi Gulf Coast since 1994. “We met at Beau Rivage for three years after it opened and moved back to the Biloxi Grand, mainly because staying at the Grand’s Bayside facility means you never have to go through the casino, or lay eyes on it, unless you make a conscious decision to do so. At Beau Rivage, some members didn’t like the fact that they had to walk through the casino to get to the convention center. Some members think we ought not meet at casinos at all, but it’s not too much of an issue anymore.”

The MSMA has made a conscious decision “to keep the money in Mississippi,” said Roberts. “We’ve surveyed our membership on at least two occasions about whether they’d rather stay here or go out of state, and they’ve overwhelmingly voted to stay in state. Prior to 1994, there was a six-year period when we alternated between Jackson and the Gulf Coast, but I think people were unhappy meeting in Jackson and decided to go to the Gulf Coast permanently. People like to think of a two- or three-day meeting as a mini-vacation and let’s face it, you just don’t feel that way when you come to Jackson.”

That’s because Jackson is perceived as too much of a business center, said Deaver.

“The bankers we serve all over the state frequently travel to Jackson for business,” he said. “They don’t see it as a fun trip necessarily.”

Carolyn Wilson, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association (MPA), said the annual convention traditionally rotates between the Gulf Coast and another in-state venue. This summer marked the first time the association crossed the state line to Memphis, only to accommodate the historic tri-state convention with Arkansas and Tennessee.

“Memphis seemed to be the best location, since attendees from all three states had easy access via interstate highways,” she said. “It was the first time three state press associations had convened together, and evaluations rated it very successful. While we would not expect to hold tri-state conventions regularly, we may look at doing so again in three to five years. The site may well be within our state next time; Tunica is only 30 minutes from Memphis and has a lot to offer convention groups these days. Routinely, I believe MPA will continue to hold its annual meeting within Mississippi.”

George Lewis, acting executive director of the Mississippi Municipal League, whose annual convention on the Mississippi Gulf Coast draws around 3,500 participants, said the statewide association “has never met out of state, to my knowledge.”

“The thought of meeting anywhere else would be alien to us,” he said.

Dr. Joe C. Hutchinson, interim chair of the Gulf Coast Division of Business at Southern Miss, said meeting planners look for variety to increase participation.

“If you hold a meeting at the same site or in same area, it generally reduces interest, so variety may be more of a reason than anything for choosing to go out of state,” he said. “However, sometimes it’s a matter of principle versus an economic issue. I remember reading in the paper about our IHL (Institutions of Higher Learning) Board going to the Marriott at Point Clear (Ala.), and the statement was made about why they didn’t stay in Mississippi. We have quality properties now and plenty of opportunities to stay in-state to conduct meetings.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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