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State tourism, CVBs respond to pandemic

By LYNN LOFTON

Tourism is a major economic factor in Mississippi.  So, how in the age of COVID-19 are convention and visitors bureaus around the state faring? Tupelo, Ridgeland, Jackson and the Gulf Coast are among the state’s CVBs that are back in business while following CDC guidelines.

“Tupelo’s tourism industry has been significantly impacted by COVID-19 and we continue to see lower numbers as we enter our peak season,” says Executive Director Neal McCoy. “Youth sports are driving recovery, yet it will be much longer before our business travel market and Elvis consumers return to pre-COVID-19 visitation numbers.”

All of the city’s hotels, the Elvis Presley Birthplace, Tupelo Visitors Center, Oren Dunn City Museum, and the Tupelo Veterans Museum are open. There are also outdoor experiences such as the Elvis’ Tupelo Self-Guided Bicycle Tour, the Music Bend Nature Trail to Veterans Park and the Natchez Trace Parkway.

“The Virtual Tupelo Elvis Festival was the first of its kind this year and proved to be a great success,” McCoy said. “Viewers from 45 different countries and nearly every state in the U.S. were able to participate, exposing thousands of new people to Tupelo’s signature festival. The event organizers are excited to use this momentum to grow next year’s festival, which will be held June 9-13, 2021.”

Chris R. Chapman, president and CEO of the Ridgeland Tourism Commission, says her area is also stressing the abundance of outdoor activities with the Natchez Trace Parkway in their back yard. “Visit Ridgeland’s brand is Inside + Out, meaning we have just as many assets outdoors as we do indoors and it’s one of the primary motivations for coming here,” she said. “Ridgeland is a bronze level cycling community and we have a BMX track, nine miles of cycling lanes, and a 15-mile multi-use trail which includes cycling friendly lanes. Many of these areas connect to restaurants and shopping centers along the way.”

Chapman says Ridgeland is not seeing events back yet, but baseball tournaments have resumed activities which brings families into the area.

“Our hotels never closed during Covid and they have continued to offer the highest standards of cleanliness and best practices for accommodations,” she said. “We are grateful they reacted so quickly and responded with excellent protocols in place. Unfortunately we had to cancel our annual Ridgeland Fine Arts Festival and Arts, Wine, and Wheels weekend in April. Several events are planned in the months ahead, and we will work with promoters to insure that best decisions are made for continuing an event before the start up.”

These upcoming events include the Magnolia Crappie Club Championship at the Barnett Reservoir; the Ridgeland Weeknight Cyclocross & Mountain Bike Short Track Racing Series; Bike Your Park Day; KidFest; and the Sanderson Farms Championship PGA Event with a limited capacity rule.
“We are seeing that travel is primarily by automobile among family members and locations of interest are those where families can be socially distanced and enjoy spending time together,” Chapman said. “No music or arts festivals for us this summer, but we will make up for lost time when we can.”

Kim Lewis, communications and destination development manager with the Jackson CVB, says the capital city is doing very well. “As with all areas of the tourism/hospitality industry, Visit Jackson took a hard hit with Covid-19, but as we have seen with many of our partners, we redirected our efforts,” she said. “Instead of focusing on visitors and booking conventions, we used our time to build relationships with our community. We became a source of information for them, sharing info, and providing informative and educational material on their capital city, including virtual tours of local museums and attractions, interviews with chefs of local restaurants, and providing outdoor activity suggestions for individuals and families alike.”

Several of Jackson’s museums have recently reopened or are in the process of opening soon. “They are all taking the safety of their guests seriously and are trying to make sure they have met all of the recommended guidelines,” Lewis said.

Jackson’s sales department has continued communicating with event and conference planners throughout the pandemic hoping to make any necessary adjustments to the scheduled events or to rebook at a later date. “We will continue to book events, of course, leaving room for modifications if needed,” Lewis said. “The current situation is so fluid we have to be flexible, but we must continue to do our part in helping the city’s economy recover. The tourism/hospitality industry employs more than 7,000 Hinds County residents, so every event we book helps them directly.”

Milton Segarra, CEO of Coastal Mississippi, said, “As Coastal Mississippi began to reopen, we realized there was an organic, pent-up demand to explore our region. We are seeing increased visitation of ‘ready-to-go’ travelers who feel more comfortable exploring our region, due to the wide-open spaces and array of outdoor activities that The Secret Coast has to offer.

“However, these visitors are predominantly last-minute bookings. We are not seeing advanced bookings picking up as we should for this time of year and our concern is that this business model will not be sustainable.”

The Coast CVB is currently working on a comprehensive report, which will be complete by the end of the summer, to track the number of visitors to the area and number of hotel rooms booked.

“Hotels, restaurants, attractions, and excursions are open and implementing all necessary precautions to protect visitors and hospitality industry employees,” Segarra said. “Coastal Mississippi is actively working with regional healthcare authorities to ensure the best practices in health and safety are provided to our industry partners.

“The launching of an official Coastal Mississippi Promise has not only reinforced the importance of the vital steps that our industry partners are taking to ensure employee and visitor safety, but also allows for potential visitors to make informed decisions when planning their visit to The Secret Coast.”

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About Lynn Lofton