By TED CARTER
Hey, look down here. We’re the Mississippi coast.
Coastal Mississippi’s visitor and convention bureau officials have revamped their promotion efforts to recognize a shortcoming they say has become far too clear: Too few potential visitors know about the Magnolia State’s 62 miles of white sand shoreline.
Coastal competitors don’t seem to share the same obscurity, says Coastal Mississippi: The Secret Coast, the tourism promotion agency for the three coastal counties of Hancock, Harrison and Jackson. But sometimes a challenge can be made an asset, at least that’s the thinking of the Mississippi Coast region’s visitor marketing officials looking to boost the region’s visitation and annual visitor revenues of nearly $2.5 billion.
To that end, they decided to tell the world their region is indeed a “secret,” but one deserving of discovery. They put “Secret Coast” in their agency’s name with a March 11 rebranding, switching to Coastal Mississippi: The Secret Coast from the previous Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Just how “secret” the coast was came into focus with a visitor research finding that 67 percent of travelers in the region’s target markets do not recall seeing a Gulf Coast tourism ad.
How do you take advantage of such a finding?
You sell its very obscurity, say officials of Coastal Mississippi: The Secret Coast.
The coast is a “breezy freedom” of white sands and live oaks waiting to be explored, they say.
“With 55 percent of frequent travelers saying they primarily travel to discover new experiences, cultures, lifestyles, food, and places, Coastal Mississippi is perfectly poised to surprise and delight,” the agency said in announcing last year’s name change.
“We can’t afford to not be visible in the market,” said Karen Connor, the visitor agency’s marketing director, in an interview.
The strategy for attracting visitors won’t change much in 2019, though the agency launched a winter campaign in January encouraging people to make discovering the coast part of vacation plans for warmer months, Connor said.
January, she said, is a peak time for visitors to research and plan their trips. That’s one reason Jan. 31 is national “Plan Your Vacation Day,” she noted.
Milton Segarra, CEO of Coastal Mississippi: The Secret Coast, said extensive work with stakeholders, including people in the leisure and hospitality business as well as community and civic leaders, went into reaching the plan’s conclusions and shaping the strategies to achieve success.
“Visitors feel like they want a first-time experience. And we can provide that,” Segarra said, citing the region’s natural assets, its resorts, casinos and culture.
“That brand position provided us a phenomenally solid base for starting to build our message,” he said in an interview.
Looking ahead, Coastal Mississippi: The Secret Coast intends to showcase the region as a unique and undiscovered destination, “offering the relaxation, adventure, and variety that today’s travelers are looking for,” the visitor agency says.
If past trends hold, each $1 spent on advertising the secret nature and virtues of the state’s coast should generate $43 in visitor spending within its boundaries, according to the agency. Coastal Mississippi: The Secret Coast had a budget of slightly less than $4.5 million in 2018, an amount funded largely from hotel bed tax collections.
Regional marketing, Connor said, takes in a 6.5-hour drive market that primary draws from Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida Panhandle, Alabama and Georgia. To go farther out, the agency launched a new partnership with online travel search engine Expedia, Connor said. “This extended our reach’ but was strategic at the same time, she added.
The Expedia effort, according to Segarra, has brought an 11 percent jump in bookings in the first 90 days of the year.
New television spots in drive-markets and billboards are part of the mix as well, as are standbys in Internet Search Engine Optimization and display advertising, according to Connor.
The region has hardly been in a visitor slump. It ended 2018 with its best year in the previous four and accounted for a third of all dollars visitors spent in the state. The hospitality sector on the coast also added about 400 workers from 2017, creating a total leisure-and-hospitality-job workforce of about 32,000.
Hotel occupancy rates rose to 60.8 percent, an increase of 4.6 percent from 2017. Average daily hotel room rates also rose, going up 12 percent to $90.12.
For the new fiscal year that began Oct. 1, demand for room nights is up 4.4 percent to 3,319 million, the agency said.
Investors, meanwhile, seem bullish on the coast and its future as a visitor destination. “Development and developments on the coast will continue to flourish,” CEO Segarra said, and estimated the value of resort and casino projects in progress on the coast at $650 million.
Thirty projects are under way. In addition to lodging, they include attractions and restaurants, the agency said in its annual report. Of these, eight are scheduled to open in 2019.
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