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Sources report thriving meetings and conventions business

The conventions and meetings business is alive and well at key locations in Mississippi. Even so, the promise of increased business is on the way with a huge new convention center being built in Jackson and improvements being made to the Coast Convention Center.

“We’re seeing an increase of interest in the new convention center that’s slated to open in January of 2009,” says Mara Hartmann, spokeswoman for the Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB). “We have had to turn away groups so we’re excited about the new center which will accommodate as many as 8,000 people. We’ve been working for years to get this facility and are very much looking forward to getting it open.”

Going regional, national

When the new center opens, Jackson will mainly go after conventions in the 5,000-size range and will bring in more regional and national groups. The CVB’s governing commission has adopted a new name for the center, the Jackson Convention Complex.

Even with limited meeting space, the Capital City hosted 126 conventions from October 2006 through July 31 of this year, amounting to $42.6 million in business. The groups include associations and religious, governmental, education and fraternal organizations.

On the River

In Natchez, CVB executive director Walter Tipton notes that even though it’s been 100 degrees in the shade, groups have found their way to the River City for meetings. A few of those include Phil Waldrop Ministries, the Mississippi Episcopal Conference, Water Pollution Control Board, Mississippi Public Transit conference, an interior designers’ conference and a Harley-Davidson rally.

“We’ve got plenty of convention business here,” he says. “The groups range from 300 to 1,200 in size and they’re all meeting in our new convention center.”

He predicts more business as four new hotels go online and a new federal courthouse and additional casino open.

“A new convention center opened last month across the river in Vidalia, La., and we help them book Louisiana groups because we get the overflow,” Tipton adds.

Center of the state

Meetings and conventions represent a large portion of the mid-week business at Pearl River Resort with the sales team booking approximately 35,000 rooms annually. These groups are made up of association and corporate markets including the Mississippi Economic Development conference and Mississippi Mental Health Alzheimer’s conference this year. The Housing Association of Mississippi, Election Commissioners’ Association and the Governor’s Workforce Development conference are coming next year. With the corporate market, groups as large as 2,000 attendees come from several surrounding states.

“What makes Pearl River Resort an attractive meeting spot is our size combined with our offerings and central location,” says Ryan Griffin, public information manager. “We house more than 40,000 square feet of meeting and convention space, so we are able to accommodate groups from eight to 2,100.”

He says groups have the option of hosting their events in a traditional meeting or classroom setting and including a reception or social event such as a luau at Clearwater Key beach or cocktails on the veranda at Dancing Rabbit Golf Club.

“And of course with a spa, water park, golf courses, live entertainment, two casinos and 16 restaurants, when it comes to relaxing, there is something for everyone,” he says.

Quality and price

As another gaming destination, Tunica had an increase of 37% in conventions and meetings held during the last fiscal year — 682 conventions in FY 06 and 927 in FY 07.

“Tunica is experiencing return business after Katrina. Many planners who had never booked in Tunica were very pleased by their experience as were their attendees,” says Anne Coggins, sales manager for the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Also, Tunica experienced an increase in corporate bookings.”

She adds that the Tunica properties that can accommodate conventions and meetings have outstanding sales staffs who are making sales calls and attending tradeshows promoting the area. Additionally, the Tunica CVB will participate in 11 meetings/conventions tradeshows during this next fiscal year.

With an average daily rate of $60 and a total tax bill of 10% (7% state sales tax and 3% lodging tax), Coggins feels consumers get a quality hotel experience for an incredible price tag.

“Tunica has one of the lowest tax structures of any tourist destination,” she says. “For instance, Chicago has 15.4% tax on a hotel room compared to 10% in Tunica.”

On the Coast

As the Gulf Coast recovers from Hurricane Katrina, the meetings and conventions business is rebounding. CVB executive director Stephen B. Richer is optimistic that things will get even better when the Coast Coliseum & Convention Center re-opens in January from doing internal repairs. The Biloxi-located center is also slated for a major expansion to accommodate larger groups.

With several casinos currently using their meeting space for gaming space, the Coast’s only meeting spaces now are at the Beau Rivage and IP casinos. Still, the Southern Governors’ Conference was recently held in Biloxi and other groups are on tap to convene there. Travel South is coming in 2008 and the National Governor’s Conference will come in 2009.

“We’re working to become a tier-one destination,” Richer says. “We have the opportunity because of our diversity of product to become more than just a gaming destination. We have golf, fishing, shopping, children’s activities, museums and other cultural and historical attractions.”

He said four things determine the level of conventions that a destination commands — space, rooms, air access and things to do — and the Coast community is working on all four of those elements.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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