Marketing plan sets new goals for bringing tourists to city|[5/28/06]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The management company signed to a two-year operations contract with the Vicksburg Convention & Visitors Bureau nearly three months ago has developed a plan that focuses on growing the number of visitors, intensifying sales efforts and increasing &#8220branding” of Vicksburg.

&#8220It’s time to start tooting our own horn,” said Larry Gawronski, vice president of Compass and manager of all Compass Vicksburg activities.

&#8220We want to do what other cities are doing, which is taking something we’re known for and hammer it,” he said.

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On Monday, the board of the tourism agency unanimously approved the business and marketing plan prepared by Compass Facility Management, the company that also runs the Vicksburg Convention Center and Vicksburg Auditorium. The plan was a stipulation the board set when it signed the long-term contract March 8.

Using certain tag lines, such as &#8220Vicksburg…See It! Play It! Love It!,” &#8220Vicksburg…Easy to Get to and Hard to Leave” and &#8220Vicksburg…Simply Grand,” on Web sites, billboards, commercials and other advertising campaigns is one way Compass and the VCVB board of directors hope to bring people to the city.

&#8220If we can get them here, they can sell them,” said Compass Director of Business Operations Norman Ford of local businesses.

The plan, which grew by two pages to 22 after revisions, centers on sales for the VCVB.

&#8220Our results will be how many people, was there an increase or decrease. Our guidelines will be results on sales – what matters to the vendors,” Ford said.

Gawronski said the plan, a starting point for the tourism agency, combines elements used by the Vicksburg Convention Center with elements from the VCVB’s previous plan. He said past marketing and sales efforts concentrated on tourism alone and said this plan is more &#8220cohesive.”

&#8220This is the closest we’ve had in a long time,” he said. &#8220It reflects the VCVB – the big picture, selling Vicksburg as a destination.”

The plan comes on the heels of months of debate that culminated in two narrow, contentious votes, people resigning from both staff and board positions and local merchants pleading for support from the VCVB. While Compass first tossed in its name to lead the VCVB in 2003 when then-executive director Lenore Barkley announced her retirement, it wasn’t considered by the board until a suggestion in 2005 by Mayor Laurence Leyens caused a split that fueled several months of debate. The search for an executive director came after the April 2005 death of Emy Bullard Wilkinson, who replaced Barkley. Clara Ross Stamps, a veteran VCVB employee, was named interim executive director while a search-selection committee looked for a permanent director.

With Compass wanting to take over, parliamentary chaos broke out, and, citing pressure from Leyens, board chairman Curt Follmer resigned. Tim Darden, former general manager of the Holiday Inn Express and president of the local Hotel & Lodging Association, accepted the appointment by the city to take over as chairman.

On Dec. 15, Compass was contracted to run the VCVB, ending a seven-month search for an executive director, an OK that came from a 6-4 vote from the board.

In late December, Compass began preparing a management plan for the VCVB under a 45-day contract. A month later, a narrow majority of the board decided on a two-year contract, which was signed in early March.

Gawronski believes tourism entities now can move forward together.

&#8220The board was so split, but after healthy conversation, they were able to support it unanimously. I think that speaks volumes,” he said.

With the focus of the agency being steered toward sales, Compass’ role is to take all administrative burdens from the VCVB. The firm now oversees the bureau’s general management, personnel, budgeting, sales and marketing, public relations, convention and visitor services, operating services, special event coordinating and merchandising.

The plan means a &#8220call to action,” not only for the VCVB, but for all tourism entities in Vicksburg and Warren County, Gawronski said.

Specifically, the tourism bureau will begin offering packages for visitors, which would consist of grouping tours, dining and shopping with events. The purpose is to show visitors the city and, hopefully, convince them to stay longer. To get people to Vicksburg, Compass has begun advertising the VCVB with 7-foot rotating signs at the Jackson-Evers International Airport in Jackson, and the group plans to provide audio CDs – called city soundtracks – to allow visitors to participate in self-operated tours of the city.

&#8220This is a great step, but it’s not the final step,” Gawronski said of the business and marketing plan. &#8220As all the public entities get together, we can see it’s finally getting better. We can see the benefits of working together.”

Plans similar to the one devised by Compass have been created by CVBs across the state. Oxford, in North Mississippi and home to the University of Mississippi, focuses on selling Oxford as a leisure travel destination. The city’s strategic marketing plan focuses on advertising, trade shows, industry organizations, collateral materials, personal selling, direct mail, inquiry fulfillment, group tour programs and special events.

Gawronski said he and his staff looked at markets, such as Tupelo, which has a population of about 35,000; Canton, with 13,000; and Tunica, with about 1,000, when devising the plan. Vicksburg has about 26,000 residents, while Warren County is home to about 50,000. Gawronski said the towns became examples because of Tupelo’s sports market, Canton’s film industry and Tunica’s gaming industry.

&#8220We are all of that,” he said.

The marketing plan devised by Compass for the VCVB is divided into 11 strategies, each concentrating on exploiting Vicksburg through sales and advertising campaigns.

A 5-minute commercial summing up Vicksburg has already been sent out as a DVD to all the state visitors centers in Mississippi, said local Compass Special Projects Coordinator Annette Kirklin. A billboard advertising the bureau was recently placed between the 34 and 27 mile markers along Interstate 20.

The VCVB plans to focus strongly on sports marketing by bringing sports tournaments and conventions to the city. Once the groups are here, Gawronski said he is sure they will stay and spend money.

The convention center staff has also aligned conventions with downtown events, such as Main Street’s Hit the Bricks and the Fourth of July Celebrations, in order to give visitors a taste of Vicksburg. Compass will continue to coordinate events as a strategy of promoting the city as well as offering FAM, or familiarization, tours to travel agents and tour operators.

&#8220There are several things for them to do to fill their time,” he said. &#8220While they’re here, we need to drum money from their purses or pocketbooks – get them to spend their money here.”

The VCVB, established in 1972, is designed to help chart tourism in Vicksburg and Warren County and oversee the paid staff of offices on Clay Street at Old Highway 27 and on Washington Street at Clay.

Funded by a 1 percent countywide tax added to room rentals, restaurant meals and bar tabs, the agency was created to recruit and coordinate tours, advertise local attractions, operate welcome centers and conduct other development projects. It was the first such agency of its type in the state and its budget has grown from as little as $40,000 per year to $1 million or more.

Board members are volunteers who serve four-year terms, five appointed by the Mayor and Aldermen, five by the Warren County Board of Supervisors and one who is a joint appointment of city and county governments.