Tourism officials on the Mississippi Coast have spent the last year preparing to host the prestigious Society of American Travel Writers annual conference Oct. 20-25 in Biloxi. Now they’re in the final stages of fine tuning a complex schedule of events to showcase everything the area has to offer its visitors.
More than 300 travel writers and photographers will take their pick of 50 small tours crisscrossing the Coast to inspect museums, art galleries, shopping centers, a blues hall, golf courses and charter boats. They will dine on local seafood, take a boat ride to Ship Island, see space artifacts at Infinity Science Center and tour historic buildings.
“It’s an incredible opportunity to showcase the beautiful Gulf Coast that we all love and enjoy to travel writers from throughout the country,” said Pam Meinzinger, general manager of Gulfport Premium Outlets and chair of the host committee representing the Mississippi Gulf Coast Attractions Association. “We’ve pulled out all the stops for this group.”
Taryn Pratt Sammons, media relations manager for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau, said 323 SATW members have registered to attend the conference at Beau Rivage. “Our goal was between 250 to 300, so we met our goal.”
SATW membership is an exclusive group, she said. “They consider themselves the best of the best.”
To help coordinate the 50 mini tours to dozens of locations, organizers have enlisted the help of about 150 volunteers who will serve as tour guides for the visitors. The tourism industry, rebounding from a recession and the Gulf oil spill, understands the value of the national media spotlight so they’re putting their best foot forward for the group, organizers said.
“The restaurants and small attractions have been very receptive,” said Meinzinger.
Capt. Louis Skrmetta of Ship Island Excursions is president of the Coast Attractions Association. He said landing the convention was highly competitive. “To get them here is real coup,” he said.
Sammons said previous SATW meetings were held in Germany, New Zealand and Indianapolis. Next year’s meeting is in Iceland. “For them to come here is a pretty amazing thing,” she said.
Organizers say they expect to start seeing the Coast’s amenities favorably mentioned in travel blogs almost immediately after the travel writers arrive. Articles and photographs should then appear in newspapers and magazines and on web sites for months to come.
“There should be some type of instant gratification for us from bloggers who will blog the same week they’re here.” Sammons said. “But due to editorial calendars or articles about specific events, a lot of stories may not come out for another year.”
Skrmetta said word of mouth is a good way to spread the word about a destination but travel magazines and syndicated newspaper columns are invaluable. “It’s really good when you get an article in the Chicago Tribune or in St. Louis. The Midwest is a huge market for us.”
Having writers here will make a big difference in people discovering this area, he said. “We know for a fact that we have got a good product to show the world,” Skrmetta said. “Travel writers to me are the best way to get your story out. It’s unbiased, and people depend on independent sources to decide where to travel to.”
It may also help pull drivers off the interstate, he said. “People are bypassing us going to Florida or Alabama. And a lot people don’t know Mississippi even has a coastline. It’s important for these people to be here.”
Skrmetta said the local communities should be ready for the visiting writers and photographers. “They could show up at your restaurant or shop and you want to make sure you’re really polished and ready to greet them. That’s what we want for them, a memorable experience down here. This is a huge thing for the state, not just the Gulf Coast.”