Casinos on the coast, The King in Tupelo, the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, the Capitol in Jackson — each of Mississippi’s visitor destinations has something uniquely its own to offer meetings and conventions participants.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast and its nationally known casinos and hotels draw plenty of interest from event planners, but the one-stop shop offered by the Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau sales staff is often the deal-sealer, say Crystal Johnson, CVB director of sales, and Annette Rand, meetings manager.
“We try to find out what the meeting planners needs and tailor that to the hotels can accommodate them,” Johnson says.
“For instance, if the event is for 300 people in need of meeting space, only a few can accommodate that.”
“The largest casinos have the largest space,” Rand notes.
The reach of the CVB and its booking hotel accommodation offers has increased significantly with the addition Hancock and Jackson counties to the CVB in recent years. Previously, the CVB operated on behalf of Harrison County only.
Tourism groups statewide still have challenges booking conventions of Mississippi trade and professional organizations that routinely go to Florida or the Alabama coast for their events.
Johnson says, however, that more Mississippi groups are coming to the coast for their smaller gatherings.
And the tri-county coast region has stepped up its marketing of group business in Louisiana and Alabama.
While most of the marketing has been regional, an expanded reach could be in the works, according to Johnson. “We have hired Mastermind,” an advertising and marketing agency out of New Jersey that has Mississippi coast experience through about 10 years working with the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi.
Corporate meetings and conventions are an increasing focus of the Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau’s marketing of the BancorpSouth Center and Arena, The Summit Center, Tupelo Furniture Market and the ICC Belden Conference Center.
“We welcome events of all sizes to host their meetings in Tupelo, says Jan Pannell, CVB sales manager. “We have facilities big and small that can meet the needs of any size event.”
Pannell says the CVB strategically targets state association executives meeting planner who decide on the meeting destination of their groups.
While being the birthplace of Elvis has made Tupelo a name known worldwide, its branding efforts emphasize that Tupelo “is a leader in progressive thinking in the state of Mississippi,” Pannell says. “We offer visitors the chance to be inspired by this progressive community. We want to be the center of positivity for meeting planners.”
The city offers visitors about 2,000 hotel rooms. It’s a year-round market but sees its largest booking in the spring and fall, according to Pannell.
Tupelo gives meeting and convention-goers a range of attractions, restaurants and shopping venues, she notes, citing the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum, the Tupelo Automobile Museum, the Tupelo Buffalo Park and Zoo and Health Works! Kids Museum.
“The Tupelo CVB loves to help meeting planners design custom outside activities that their participants will enjoy, Pannell adds.
The city is challenged as a visitor destination by not being centrally located, but Pannell notes it is easily accessible by U.S. Highway 78, U.S. Highway 45 and the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Once meetings and convention participants arrive, they’ll have plenty to do on recreationally, Pannell says. “Where else can you meet among 100 classic and antique cars or kick off your convention form the front porch of the birthplace of the King of Rock n Roll.”
The tendency of meeting planners for Mississippi groups to book around the state on a rotating basis causes Hattiesburg’s group meeting business to fluctuate yearly, says Kristie Fairley, deputy director of the marketing/communications department of the Hattiesburg Tourism/Convention Commission, which does business as VisitHattiesburg.
Fairley says since 2008, and especially in the past three years, group meetings have risen steadily. “For example, in 2008 our office worked directly with 12 statewide conventions over the span of the year, and in 2014 is on track to surpass that figure in the first half of the year alone,” she says.
VisitHattiesburg’s main meetings venue for the past 15 years has been the 62,000 square-foot Lake Terrace Convention Center situated on 32 acres of park land and within a five-minute drive of many of the city’s hotels. VisitHattiesurg can provide trolleys as a hotel shuttle from the center, according to Fairley.
Another prime meetings venue is the Thad Cochran and Trent Lott Centers on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi.
“We have also realized the importance of offering meeting opportunities that are unique to our area and provide a flavor specific to Hattiesburg, such as keynote addresses at the Historic Saenger Theater located in downtown Hattiesburg, where guests are transported back to 1929 or team-building activities and receptions at the Hattiesburg Zoo,” Fairley says.
Hattiesburg’s easy driving proximity to 80 percent of Mississippi and more than 2,100 hotel rooms make it gathering spot for in-state meetings and conventions, Fairley notes. “Although we have hosted several tri-state conferences and even a handful of national conventions, our bread-and-butter and target audience remains the state’s corporate clients, government meetings and Mississippi Association executives.”
Mississippi’s Capital City has maintained a steady volume of meetings and conventions business since the 2009 opening of the Jackson Convention Center Complex, a more than 300,000-square-foot venue situated on Pascagoula Street and within a short distance to downtown destinations such as the old and new Capitol buildings, the various museums and historic sites.
“We’re seeing an increase in religious business in Jackson and sporting groups,” says Shun Hatten, VP of sales for the Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau.
A reputation as an affordable family destination is a key selling point for securing meetings and convention bookings, Hatten says.
Jackson has the potential to become more of a destination-oriented market once the long-delayed Farish Street entertainment district is completed and the Mississippi History Museum and Civil Rights Museum open in a couple years, Hatten notes.
Farish Street will provide an after-hours night-life amenity Jackson lacks, she says.
The new museums, she adds, “will certainly be big sellers for us, especially in the tourism market.”