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Travel South Showcase back in state for first time since 1997

Mississippi’s growing hospitality industry had the opportunity to tell its story to 600 tourism professionals last week at the Travel South Showcase in Biloxi March 1-5. Travel South is a regional trade show focused on increasing travel to and within the 12 Southern states. It hasn’t been held in Mississippi since 1997.

The visiting tour and travel operators got to see how the Gulf Coast is recovering from Hurricane Katrina and what the area now has to offer through a series of exhibits and site tours. But Craig Ray, director of the State Division of Tourism, says the whole state benefits.

“Just the event itself helps us with an economic impact of $500,000,” he says, “and tour operators are booking business that will mean an impact of a couple of million. We have close to a record crowd and have had a great opening day.”

Bill Holmes, director of the Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center, was pleased to host the event even though the waterfront facility is undergoing renovations and an expansion.

“We’re extremely proud to host this prestigious meeting,” he says. “Twelve states coming to our community where they will see all we have. They will see how resilient we’ve been; that we’re more than bricks and mortar. We’re truly the hospitality state, and it’s an honor to welcome them with open arms.”

There are presently five contractors remodeling and renovating the existing convention center while Yates Construction works on the expansion that is scheduled to open in late September 2009. Holmes says the facility will be 220,000 square feet of state-of-the-art exhibit, classroom and storage space.

The Travel South Showcase rotates among the 12 member states, and Biloxi was selected as the 2008 site pre-Katrina, Ray says. “It works out well having it here this year so tourism professionals from many states can see what we’ve done. It says ‘we’re here and we’re back,’” he says. “Tourism has led the way in the rebuilding.”

The Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau
(CVB) worked hard to showcase the area’s available tourism sites. “We’re really excited to have Travel South, which has a huge half-a-million-dollar immediate impact to the area, and there will be a residual impact from the tour operators,” says Janice Jones, media relations manager. “They saw that the Coast is ready for visitors. It’s the first time here since Katrina for many of them.”

The Coast CVB and Hancock County tourism officials hosted a Fun Fest at the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center in Gulfport. It was set up inside the children’s museum and on the spacious grounds to reflect all the festivals and food of the area.

Jones says the Travel South Showcase also helps get out the word that the area is ready for the 2008 summer tourism season. “We have everything that anyone wants here,” she says. “We have fishing, golf, dining, shopping and the beach with its beach vendors.”

She added that Beauvoir, the last home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, will re-open June 3 for tours. Tours of the surrounding grounds will begin before that date. The historic house, built in the raised coastal cottage style, was heavily damaged by the storm and is undergoing a major renovation.

Hancock County, known as Mississippi’s West Coast, is also back in business for visitors and thrilled to let that be known to the event’s tour operators. “Buyers at Travel South are looking for tours they can book a year in advance,” says Hancock County Tourism Development Bureau director Beth Carriere. “We tried to show them what we have now and what we will have in a year.”

She says Hancock County leaders want the word out that tourism there is still vital. The area is concentrating on its new infrastructure, events and attractions in addition to things that survived.

“We’re celebrating new,” Carriere says. “New tourism offices, Web site, brochures, attractions, beaches, casino, RV parks, restaurants, festivals, shopping, streets, sidewalks, bridge and outlook.”

Conversely, Stephanie Movre was at the showcase to tout old. She is executive director of the Historic Holly Springs Tourism Bureau, and was one of many representatives from cities and counties all over the state on hand to tell tour operators about what they have to offer.

“We have so many beautiful, historic homes open for tour in Holly Springs,” she says. “But, there are also a lot of other things going on such as our Hummingbird Festival. It’s an amazing event and a lot of fun.”

Travel South USA has produced the showcase for 26 years. Liz Bittner, executive director, says the event has one goal in mind — to promote, foster and encourage travel to and within the 12 member states.

“This year’s program is perhaps the most important in the history of the organization as we’ve followed the news about the Gulf Coast over the past 2 1/2 years,” she says. “We all take pride that we are participating in the revitalization of the area.”

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


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