In early August, Mississippi Development Authority Tourism Division director Craig Ray was deservedly giddy discussing the state’s trifecta of power conferences coming to the Magnolia State in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
Next July, Gov. Haley Barbour had planned to host the National Governors Association’s (NGA) annual conference on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, followed by the Southern Governors Association (SGA) meeting in February 2007, and TravelSouth’s annual showcase in January 2008.
With a sweep of her hand August 29, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Mississippi Gulf Coast, greatly damaged the Pine Belt region and altered those ambitious plans.
“We lost the NGA until ‘09,” said Ray, “but as it turns out, we’ll still hold the SGA conference in ‘07 and TravelSouth in ‘08.”
Since that fateful day in late August, Ray has been working overtime to promote Mississippi tourism.
“Since day one, we’ve focused on the 75% of the state that is still open for business,” said Ray. “We’re recruiting golfers and tourists and retaining convention business within the state. In my estimation, we’ve retained about 85% of conferences within Mississippi. It’s a bit of good news that, not only are casinos sharing business around the state, but people want to keep their business here. We appreciate that.”
Hurricane Katrina may have temporarily quashed the momentum for golf tourism in the state. For the fiscal year ended June 30, Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) announced that sales at Mississippi public golf courses — rounds of golf and dollars spent in pro shops — had increased 48% over the previous year.
“It shows us that people like to come here and play golf, stay longer and spend more,” said Ray. “Even though three golf courses are closed on the Gulf Coast, another 10 have opened or will reopen very soon. That part is starting to come back. Obviously, casinos on the Gulf Coast are several months away from re-opening, as are any hotel rooms. Then, realistically, curb appeal will be a major challenge. However, the governor just finished planning charrettes and is putting together a grand proposal to start rebuilding the Gulf Coast in a bigger, better and safer way. We know what we’re doing right, and we’ll keep doing it.”
Ray’s counterpart in Florida, Frank Nocera, told him that 2004 represented one of the best years for tourism, despite the four hurricanes that rolled through the Sunshine State.
“Tourists are not only going through those affected areas to other parts of the state, but there are also workers, and investors coming in looking to buy land, and of course, the gawkers,” said Ray. “I’m sure we’ll go through those stages.”
Tourism has increased significantly in the unaffected parts of Mississippi, particularly in Tunica and Tupelo.
“All of our towns have done a great job in their own promotion, specifically Tunica because they have hotel rooms available,” said Ray. “We’re still struggling in Natchez, Vicksburg and Hattiesburg with hotel rooms, so it’s hard to promote tourism products or conventions or rounds of golf when you don’t have anywhere for tourists to stay. Granted, they’re open for business. Natchez hardly had a power line down. But the majority of hotel chains — not B&Bs — are still occupied by Louisiana and some Mississippi evacuees. You can hardly find a hotel room in Jackson. Even the Marriott, our largest hotel in town, is running at almost full occupancy all the time now.
“Further north, the Delta has some evacuees, but a majority of its increase is in convention business. Philadelphia has done quite well, though we aren’t privy to their numbers. We just know from people who work there that they’ve done quite well, probably retaining 90%, mostly 100% occupancy, since Hurricane Katrina.”
Ray is following the governor’s lead concerning when to aggressively promote tourism again.
“Last year, when Florida was pounded by hurricanes, Gov. Jeb Bush waited several months before he came back out to say, ‘Hey, please come and visit our state,’” Ray pointed out. “We’re still in the true clean up and recovery phase for the governor to do that in a commercial form. He has said we’re encouraging travel and 75% or more of the state is open for business and we’re moving forward. Every day is getting better, though we have a long road ahead.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.