Tourism industry split on VCVB performance|VCVB director:I’m staying here

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 12, 2008

In the 18 months since Bill Seratt was hired as executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, the national economy has continuously slumped and those dependent on local tourism have correspondingly seen fewer visitors and falling profits.

Many attractions operators, bed and breakfast owners and VCVB board members say tough times in the tourism industry would likely be even tougher in Vicksburg if not for Seratt’s expertise and dedication since taking the helm.

Others, however, contend they would still like to see and hear more from Seratt, as well as be shown a plan detailing how he intends to promote tourism in coming years.

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“I think Bill has done a lot for Vicksburg and is doing an excellent job leading the bureau in the direction we need to be going,” said Lamar Roberts, owner/curator of the Vicksburg Battlefield Museum and a VCVB board member since 2003. “We had gotten so far down in the hole that it’s going to take some time to get where we need to be, but I think we’re heading that way now. There’s a spirit of cooperation here I haven’t seen in a long, long while.”

Seratt brought 30 years of experience in the tourism industry with him when he came to Vicksburg in April 2007. He had been director of the Greenville-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau for 11 years and, while there, helped found the Mississippi Delta Tourism Association and remains that association’s president.

The VCVB was in shambles by most estimates when Seratt took over. Following the 2003 retirement of Lenore Barkley, who had headed the bureau for 19 years, years of instability followed. In 2005, an outside company — Compass Facility Management, which formerly operated the Vicksburg Convention Center — was hired to run the fledgling VCVB after a 7-month search for a executive director had largely failed. Before cutting its tie with Compass in 2007, shortly after Seratt was brought on, the VCVB was operating with a skeleton staff and a miffed relationship with many local attractions.

“At that time it was mostly just arguing back and forth and nothing was being accomplished,” recalled George “Bubba” Bolm, curator of the Old Court House Museum-Eva W. Davis Memorial, of the bureau’s turbulent years. “Bill has brought a wonderful stabilizing factor for the VCVB. He’s an easy man to talk to and he has a real love for this city and its attractions. I think the VCVB is probably in its best state ever.” 

Seratt said he is hoping to have multiple improvements at the VCVB in place by the start of the new year, including initiating a remodeling of the bureau’s visitor’s center on Clay Street, redesigning the bureau’s Web site and hiring an events coordinator to help the board connect with those in the tourism industry. Still, he said his loftiest aspiration, perhaps, is to bring all those dependent on a healthy tourism market together to work toward a common goal. 

“My greatest challenge thus far has been getting the stakeholders to work together for the greater good of the tourism industry,” said Seratt of his time directing the VCVB thus far. “I realize there have been challenges with the board in the past, and a large part of what I’ve tried to do over the past year and a half is to rebuild our relationship with the market.”

Nonetheless, Seratt has faced some criticism since taking over the VCVB. A great deal of concern has come from some bed and breakfast operators, most of whom have seen overnight stays and home tours fall off while competition from large hotels — six are now under construction — continues to increase. Most of the B&B owners say they simply would like Seratt and the VCVB board to show more concern for their position and be more open about sharing with them their plans for advertising and promoting their businesses. 

“There’s some frustration with the B&B owners because we just need more tourists,” said Macy Whitney, owner of The Corners. “I feel (Seratt’s) heart is in the right place, but I’m not sure what he does or what the VCVB does to promote Vicksburg. Maybe we’ve dropped the ball, too. The communication has been tough between the VCVB and the B&Bs, but I think the city as a whole is getting better and we are making some improvements.”

Ann Jones, owner of Mississippi River Tours, which operates the Sweet Olive tour boat, said she understands the VCVB is trying to re-establish itself after some shaky years, but nonetheless feels much undone work remains in the area of reaching out to tour operators such as herself.

“I don’t have a big problem with what’s being done, but I do know that it is not creative enough or big enough or urgent enough for the times that we’re going through,” said Jones. “If there’s a big plan, those of us in the industry don’t know what it is because there’s a big wall between the industry and the VCVB board.”

Tom Pharr, owner of Anchuca bed and breakfast since 2001, appears to be in the fortunate minority among bed and breakfast operators. He said he has had more success at his business than ever before since Seratt took over the VCVB. However, he added it took a lot of investment on his part to make his business one to which the VCVB can consistently refer tourists without hesitation.

“You can’t expect the VCVB to do everything for you,” he said. “I think Bill’s doing a great job based on the conditions he inherited, years of uncertainty and no commitment. If you find any complaints about Bill, I feel those people should start with holding a mirror up to themselves and ask themselves what they’re doing to improve their businesses rather than continuing to point the finger.”

The VCVB derives its operating budget from a 1 percent tax levied on local hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts, as well as on food and beverages sold at restaurants and bars. The bureau estimates it will bring in just under $1 million from the tax by the end of the year, an all-time high.

However, Roberts said it’s not tourists who are driving up those figures.

“Our tax revenue is up because of pipeline workers and others with industrial jobs staying in our hotels. The numbers are up, but attractions are down,” he said. “Hopefully we can take that money and invest in some things that will bring in more tourists. In tourism, what you do today you don’t see the results of for at least another year.” 

When Seratt stepped in, he said he hoped to put together a formal media and marketing plan for 2008 as well as develop a conversion study — which tracks the effectiveness of advertising in various publications and media outlets. While a media and marketing plan was created, it was not as detailed as Seratt had hoped and the conversion study was never conducted.

“I am wrapping up the 2009 media and marketing plan, which will be much more detailed and comprehensive than this year’s, and we will conduct a conversion study in the future. We have been very aggressive with bringing journalists here, and we’re going to continue to be,” he said. “We’re working hard to strengthen our relationship with the state tourism bureau — which also was strained for some time — and we’re also working closely with a regional marketing group.”

Seratt and his wife, Sue, recently purchased a home in the historic downtown area on Cherry Street. He said he plans on closing out his career in Vicksburg as long as those who depend on him to bring tourists to the city are satisfied he is getting the job done. 

“We are here to stay, and we have fallen in love with this city,” he said. “Every day I am more and more impressed with the tremendous potential Vicksburg has as a tourism market on the regional and national level, and I hope to work closely with everyone who has a stake in the success of this market to actualize that potential.”