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Regional approach maximizing impact of marketing campaigns

Working together as a region has been a major trend in economic development circles, and now the same concept is being used to market Mississippi gaming resort destinations. For example, the Tunica Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (CVB) has entered into a cooperative agreement with its counterpart in Memphis to market the Tunica-Memphis area together.

“We are seeing more and more people who want to come to Tunica and stay here, and may also want to visit Graceland and see Beale Street,” says Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We are going to be doing an eight-page insert into the 30 daily newspapers in Illinois that will advertise the Tunica and Memphis destination together as one. This is a regional approach to developing tourism.”

Many people might be surprised how large a portion of casino revenues for Mississippi comes from out of state.

“I think people would be shocked, especially looking at the Tunica figures,” Franklin said. “If you look at the Mississippi Gaming Commission Web site (www.mgc.state.ms.us) quarterly reports, in the past seven years the Mississippi casinos have seen 385 million visits. About 179 million of those visits have come to Tunica, and roughly 88% of the visits that have come to Tunica have been from outside of the State of Mississippi.

“Gaming is a huge draw for Tunica and the state. When you look at the past 15 years of gaming in Mississippi, we have created 16,000 direct jobs in Tunica, and Tunica alone has provided the state general fund over $1.2 billion. On an annual basis, Tunica gaming industry generates $135 million in state and local taxes just from the gaming tax alone.”

Franklin said his main responsibility is to market the area outside of the state. The CVB works hand-in-hand with the casino industry to develop marketing plans that go to the outer markets to attract visitors. In the fall of 2007, the Tunica CVB cooperated with the casinos to do a $900,000 ad campaign in Little Rock, Ark., Nashville, Tenn. and Huntsville, Ala. “Take me away to Tunica,” the area’s new brand campaign, was introduced on television commercial and newspaper inserts.

The television advertisements send people to the Website www.tunicagetaway.com where they can click on the area they are from and enter a drawing for the following: two nights at a casino resort, $900 in gaming chips ($100 from each casino), $100 Casino Factory Shoppes shopping spree, Tunica RiverPark and Tunica Museum passes, Tunica Queen Cruise and an iPod Shuffle that has preloaded onto it the song “Take me away to Tunica.”

The campaign has long-term benefits. The names of people registering at the site are used to e-mail them a newsletter each month.

“It is a cheaper method of staying in front of that market, and an easier way to get people to repeat their visit once they come,” Franklin said.

Franklin said Tunica is very fortunate to be located 20 to 30 minutes south of the intersection of Interstate 40 and Interstate 55, a major transportation corridor. Tunica is within an easy day’s drive of almost a quarter of the population of the U.S.

“That is part of the reason Tunica has been a large success,” Franklin said. “We also have a great product to offer and are making the best use of good marketing to get out in front of the consumers most likely to become visitors. We are driving people into Mississippi, which is generating new money for the economy of the state.”

At the end of 2007, Tunica started seeing a decline in visitation linked to national economic concerns about the slumping home sales and construction and rising energy costs. Franklin said while his group can’t control the economy, it can be strategic by spending marketing dollars in the most effective manor possible. Their $700,000 spring campaign will be targeted closer to home than in the past, and will focus on targets in neighboring states.

“What we have to be able to do is adapt marketing to make best use of the dollars no matter the economy we have,” Franklin said. “It is harder now. We aren’t seeing the amount of traffic we have seen in years prior. People aren’t going to stop traveling. They are going to travel closer to home and look for value when they travel. One of Tunica’s greatest strengths is it is a great value destination. It has a good rate for a quality hotel product. If you took one of Tunica hotel rooms and put it in downtown Memphis or Dallas, you would be getting $189 per night. Here the average rate is in the high 60s. So it is a good value.”

Nolen Canon, a member of the Mississippi Gaming Commission from the Tunica area, said the very aggressive marketing program partnership with the Tunica CVB and the casinos works well together.

The number of air travelers to the area has increased following airport improvements.

Canon said people often are surprised how the gaming revenue in Mississippi comes from visitors from other states. The Tunica area, the biggest gaming area on the river, draws on a 250-mile circle for it’s biggest customer base.

“That encompasses a lot of places including Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham, St. Louis, Little Rock and Oklahoma City,” Canon said. “ It is a pretty big circle there. If people look at the data, they would quickly see the vast majority of the patrons are not from Mississippi. This is a fun place to come. We get many responses to questionnaires and feedback about what time they have had. The vast majority are positive, and we get a lot of return business. I think we are viewed very favorably by people in other states.”

The Mississippi Gulf Coast also has the CVB complementing casino advertising to market the region. Beverly Martin, executive director, Mississippi Casino Operators Association, said a lot of the advertising is done out of state including in areas where air service has recently been added — Chicago, Orlando, Columbus, Tampa/St. Pete/Orlando and North and South Carolina.

“We get about 37% of visitors from the Florida and Alabama area, and draw a lot of traffic within a 300-mile radius,” said Martin, who also heads up the Harrison County Tourism Commission. “And we are still getting a lot of tour bus groups coming in from Atlanta and other areas.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

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