Vicksburg Tourism: No crystal ball on convention center hotel

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The $13 million Vicksburg Convention Center was not sited, designed or built to make Vicksburg a major convention destination; it was just to take a step up from Vicksburg Auditorium.

Since the center opened in 1998 and until the economic downturn of late 2008, the man hired as the first director — even before the center was built — has reported steady upticks in events and rentals.

Larry Gawronski agrees that a downtown hotel, perhaps one adjacent to the convention center on Mulberry Street, could be a plus.

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“A hotel won’t come because I want it to come,” Gawronski said. “It will be a combination of many things. The city will have to see a need for it, developers will have to be willing to build it. There are many factors, but there would be a larger draw for conventions.”

Directories now list 31 hotels and 13 bed and breakfast inns in Vicksburg, but most of the hotels are on the city’s Interstate 20 perimeter and the bed and breakfast facilities, though downtown, don’t have enough rooms to accommodate a convention-sized booking.

“Last year we had literally hundreds of new hotel rooms opened,” said Bill Seratt, executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. Rooms are filled for big events, such as the annual Miss Mississippi scholarship pageant and youth sports tournaments, but the overall rental rate is low by market standards.

That can be deceptive. The people are still coming.  “If you really look at it, we’ve not lost that many overnight visitors, but we’ve got such a surplus of rooms that the occupancy rate on paper looks awful,” Seratt said.

Any developer of a downtown hotel, however, might be dissuaded by the saturation. In fact, in 2002, the city heard proposals from two separate companies to build a hotel, but the beginning of the economic recession put those plans on hold.

Gawronski guided construction of the facility, then later returned when city officials decided to contract out convention center and auditorium operations. His company, VenueWorks, is paid a base amount plus incentives based on rentals and targets. There is a citizen advisory board.

When the center was built, Vicksburg had no place, except the cavernous auditorium, for dinner events with more than 200 guests. The center’s meeting rooms are designed with fold-away walls to accommodate meetings from a dozen to several hundred and its 17,000-square-foot main floor can be used for convention displays, auditorium seating for 2,400 and banquet seating for 1,250.

Vicksburg enacted a special 2 percent sales tax on rooms rented by the night and issued 10-year bonds to pay for construction. The tax has been left in place to pair with rental income and a general fund supplement to pay the center’s overhead. Gawronski said VenuWorks hopes eventually to operate on the bed tax and self-generated revenue, with no general tax supplement.

To get there, he said, means knowing who their potential customers are, going after them and treating them well. The way to create and perpetuate a niche market, he said, is to be “excellent and personable.”

Some organizations move their meetings town-to-town as a matter of routine. If they haven’t been to Vicksburg, they can come through convention associations, current clients and Vicksburg residents who can offer their hometown as a meeting place for an organization.

Some organizations find a place they like and keep coming back.  There is an average rebooking rate of about 75 percent in Vicksburg, Gawronski said.

Other than working for incremental increase and, perhaps, a hotel, what does Gawronski see for Vicksburg?

“My crystal ball is broken,” he said. “I have no idea. The common thread is that people travel back to where they had the best time, the best memories.”

Donica Phifer is a student at the University of Mississippi.