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Coast plans to end up better than ever for big meetings

A number of Gulf Coast casinos that lost their gaming barges to Katrina opted to reopen their casino onshore in space that was previously used for meetings and conventions. That has put a temporary kink in the availability of meeting space on the Gulf Coast, but in the long run the Coast meeting market is expected to expand greatly.

“Long term we will end up with better meeting space,” said Steven Richer, executive director, Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Richer said the Coast won’t have to go all the way back to square one in building its reputation as a destination for meetings and conventions. Building the business will be more rapid this time because the market segment that the Coast captured before Hurricane Katrina is eager to return.

“We have made sure people are very aware of what we are doing,” Richer said. “There has been a lot of positive publicity in national media venues about Mississippi being extremely progressive. There is a lot of confidence in our recovery from the private sector. Look at the billions they are investing. We will be successful in the long term. People like to come to the Coast and will continue to enjoy coming to visit. So I’m very optimistic.”

The Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal has produced a report that outlines plans for the Coast to become a tier one tourism destination by 2010. Richer said the four goals for that detailed in the report include having 30,000 hotel rooms, 600,000 square feet of meeting space, improved air transportation and more offerings for visitors regarding shopping, dining, entertainment, golfing, fishing and other recreational activities.

The Coast is moving toward those goals with an estimated 10,000 hotels rooms expected to be available by the end of the year.

“About 10,000 condotel units in Biloxi alone are scheduled to be built in next few years,” Richer said. “Other projects such as Harrah’s Grand Biloxi, the Trump Project, the Isle of Capri and the Golden Nugget projects could easily add another 10,000 rooms when all these projects are built. We could make it. We already have the most rooms in one place in the state, even now.”

People who visit the Gulf Coast come for the whole product: casinos, entertainment, beaches, fishing, golf and shopping. Richer said people who are thinking about opening more businesses on the Coast should do it because the Coast is going to get the stream of business that will support those kinds of investments.

Leslie Dubuisson, director of hotel sales for IP Casino, says the Coast convention market is very much alive and well. The IP has been hosting meetings regularly in a 18,000-square-foot ballroom, which can be divided into four sections. The ballroom as a whole can seat up to 1,000 people. The IP has also been innovative in using its six movie theaters for half-day meetings, and the showroom for auditorium-type meetings of up to 400 people from Sunday through Thursday.

“Our banquet department is fully operational, and in fact we now have our own banquet kitchen, which is dedicated strictly to banquets,” Dubuisson said. “Very few properties have that feature. Several of our restaurants are also venues we are selling for private breakfasts, luncheons or meetings that would end by 3 p.m.”

Dubuisson said interest in meetings on the Coast is tremendous.

“Since just a few days after Hurricane Katrina, the IP group sales department and the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau have been actively soliciting groups and conventions to return to the Coast,” Dubuisson said. “We have also booked many groups that had not been to the Mississippi Gulf Coast prior to the storm.”

The Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center is seeing so much interest in future meetings and conventions on the Coast that a lot of business has been turned down because facilities are already booked.

The convention center was planning a large expansion before Katrina hit. And now that expansion is back on track after the Harrison County Board of Supervisors gave permission in July to proceed. The expansion will be paid for with hotel revenues, so it was delayed while so many hotel rooms were closed for repairs.

Holmes said that since many casinos converted meeting and entertainment space to gaming space, several casinos asked if the convention center could be up and running by the first of February to help handle meetings previously scheduled at the casinos.

“Some major conventions are coming in February they want to be able to accommodate with meeting space,” Holmes said. “The contractor is supposed to be moving in during October, and will work until Jan. 31 when we’ll open up the facilities. Then we will shut down the third week of June for another three months. We are going to renovate the existing facilities and at the same time we’re proceeding on with all the plans for the expansion. The expansion will probably start sometime this spring. We can do the expansion while the existing convention center is open.”

Even before repairs are complete there has been a lot of interest in booking the center. Holmes said there hasn’t been one event since Katrina that didn’t exceed previous attendance records. Attendance at some trade shows has been one and a half times as high as before Katrina.

“Attendance in the arena has far exceeded expectations of all the planners,” Holmes said. “Business has been absolutely fantastic. Even with no doors and all of the glass that is out, people are coming out. Mississippi has made a statement to the world that we got knocked back, but we are coming back fast. The confidence level of the Coast rebounding is tremendous.”

While much was lost in Katrina including historic and cultural attractions such antebellum homes, churches, schools and museums, the Coast hasn’t lost its natural resources. Holmes said the natural beauty of the Coast is still intact. And what is being rebuilt is stronger, safer and upscale.

“All the infrastructure and rebuilding of establishments like hotels and restaurants and the coliseum and convention center are going to be absolutely first class,” Holmes said. “We are really excited about our renovations, and the designs that our architects have come up with. We’re going to have a first-class, completely renovated facility from the top to the bottom with all brand new equipment. When the hotels all start kicking in, we will grow at a faster pace than we ever thought of before the storm.”

The Coast Coliseum and Convention Center may be one of the first large facilities on the Coast to receive a total payoff on its insurance policy. Holmes said initially the insurance company was claiming most of the damage was caused by flood and not wind. The center hired a public adjuster firm that Holmes said worked hard to achieve a full settlement of $12 million-the entire insured amount.

“To me that is exciting,” Holmes said. “It is like you are in prison camp and someone has made it over the wall. We made it over the wall. We’re free. We’re got the money. It’s a good thing.”

Holmes said the key to getting the claim paid was well documenting the damage and presenting that information properly to the insurance company.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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