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River casinos report post-Katrina bump in business

Clara Ross Stamps has noticed a pick up in meeting and convention business in the Vicksburg market since Hurricane Katrina shut down Mississippi Gulf Coast casinos.

“Meeting planners are calling to reschedule Coast meetings and conventions, and we’re doing a favor for our neighbors by helping them,” said Stamps, director of sales for the Vicksburg Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB). “We’ve shared with meeting planners that after the Gulf Coast is rebuilt, we understand their business may return to the Gulf Coast or may continue to swap between Vicksburg and the Gulf Coast.”

Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, said it’s too early to know the financial impact the hurricane is having on casino markets not affected by Hurricane Katrina.

“We know that business has increased on the hotel side, due to people from Louisiana and South Mississippi needing a place to stay,” he said. “They’ve taken advantage of the number of hotel rooms in the Tunica area. I’d suspect with hotels being full, restaurants are full and casino numbers should increase by month end.”

Anne Coggins, sales manager for meetings and conventions at the Tunica CVB and president of the Mississippi Tourism Association, said the hotels in Tunica County are gaining business on a daily basis from displaced meetings and conventions. Southern Farm Bureau and Mississippi Municipal League recently booked conventions in Tunica. Combined, they represent 1,800 people and 4,287 room nights. Meeting planners representing a dozen displaced conventions looking to relocate in Tunica represent approximately 3,000 attendees.

“Our pickup has been ever so slight,” said Tom Dashiell, general manager of Lighthouse Point Casino in Greenville. “It will be a little bit before some of those patrons start making their way here rather than Philadelphia or Tunica. I suspect shortly after all these hurricanes leave, people will start looking for other venues, but I don’t think there’s been a real rush to come to anyplace. The local market is still recovering.”

Walter Tipton, tourism director for the Natchez CVB, said business is up.

“The Isle of Capri is trying to move some of its business from the Gulf Coast to the Natchez location and the one in Vicksburg because we’re close to people who were already planning trips to that location,” he said.

Annie Mitchell, spokesperson for Ameristar in Vicksburg, said business dropped off a little in September, “which we attribute to the hurricane and gas prices, but we’re now picking back up to normal levels.”

To overcome concerns by out-of-state visitors who may shy away from the Mississippi casino market, unaware that river casinos were undamaged, Tipton has distributed proactive press releases and there’s been some discussion about acquiring billboard space in the Baton Rouge area “to let them know the Natchez tourism product is still intact and we’re open for business.”

Chuck Miller, president of the Pearl River Resort in Choctaw, said the resorts’ two hotels have been filled with evacuees, medical personnel and local, state and federal emergency employees.

“Over the past several weeks, we’ve seen an increase in business throughout the resort and we expect to see business grow in the months to follow,” he said. “Our bus business has increased, particularly from the Florida region. As for meetings, our sales team has been overwhelmed with calls for conventions and golf groups looking to relocate their meetings to Pearl River Resort.”

For the second quarter of 2005, Mississippi casinos reported gross revenue of $895 million — $436 million for coast casinos, $357 million for Tunica area casinos and $102 million for casinos in Greenville, Natchez and Vicksburg, according to the Mississippi Gaming Commission.

“Mississippi remains the third-largest gaming jurisdiction in the country — without the Gulf Coast,” said Gregory. “It’s still a very favorable place for tourists.”

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


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