By LISA MONTI
When the 36th Annual Travel South Showcase rolls into the Mississippi Coast this month, it will bring in almost 700 tour operators, journalists, travel service providers and destination market organizations from around the U.S. There will be thousands of business meetings, multiple FAM tours fanning out across the state and presentations highlighting attractions and amenities all over Mississippi with the goal of bringing more visitors.
The annual showcase will be held March 18-21 at the Coast Convention Center in Biloxi. Beau Rivage is the host hotel.
“Participants can expect a program filled with good business opportunities but the real focus is on showcasing what is great about the state and the Gulf Coast,” said Liz Bittner, president and CEO of Travel South USA, which is based in Atlanta. “Of course we’re Southern, so there will also be incredible food and a lot of fun.”
The last time the gathering was held on Mississippi’s Coast was 2008, when the area was in recovery mode after Hurricane Katrina. This time, the Coast is ready for the spotlight, and interest in attending the conference in Biloxi is running high, according to Travel South USA.
“This year we’re about 10 percent up in registration, which is very strong,” Bittner said. Besides tour operators and journalists, participants include state tourism office staff and representatives of hotels, attractions and restaurants.
Travel South USA is America’s oldest and largest regional travel promotion organization, formed in 1965 by the state tourism offices in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Last year the annual event was in Branson, Mo., and next year it will be in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“This is by far our most important program of the year,” she said of the showcase, which rotates among member states. “We adapt it to the destination we’re in.”
Mississippi’s new civil rights museums and its legendary musical heritage will be highlighted, she said.
Ahead of the annual event, journalists will tour various parts of the state on their way to Biloxi from Jackson and Memphis. During their stay in Biloxi, they will tour several nearby cities and sample some of the Coast’s attractions.
Among the Travel South member states, tourism ranks third behind manufacturing and agriculture, with visitors spending more than $122 billion, including nearly $16 million in state and local taxes, in 2016. Tourism also generates 1.37 million direct jobs and almost $30 billion in worker paychecks in the region. The economic impact of group travel and tourism in 2016 on Mississippi was $517.1 million, thanks to 2.15 million visitors and sales of $678 million. Total jobs were 11,786 for the state.
Mississippi will have representatives from all regions of the state, with over 65 delegates from 29 organizations. Craig Ray, director of Visit Mississippi, is a member of the Travel South USA Board of Directors. Milton Segarra, the new CEO of Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, and his staff have organized city tours, events, dine-around packages and transportation during the three-day conference. The event itself is expected to have an economic impact of approximately $750,000.
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