‘Secret shoppers’ headed out

Published 12:04 pm Friday, June 18, 2010

Secret shoppers will be visiting area merchants, restaurants, hotels and attractions sometime in the coming months, however, the details on their method and timeline are secret for the time being, too.

The Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau Board of Directors Thursday evening approved spending about $32,000 to have a secret shopper survey done, but VCVB Executive Director Bill Seratt said he didn’t want to divulge the details of the study — or even the company conducting it — to the public or his board members in the interest of fairness.

“I don’t want to give a lot of details because I don’t think it will be an accurate portrayal of the market if we tell everyone,” Seratt told the board before they voted 7-0 to go forward with the secret shopper survey.

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The board — which proposed the idea to Seratt months ago — had discussed the last time they met, in March, that a secret shopper analysis was needed. On Thursday, however, only one member commented on the idea during the open session.

“I am thrilled about this,” Shirley Waring said simply.

VCVB board members include those who own or work for area hotels, restaurants, bed and breakfasts and attractions. When the issue was last discussed by the board, most members agreed divulging the details of the survey, such as when the secret shoppers might be making visits, would undermine the survey’s purpose.

“What do you do when you know company is coming over?” Seratt asked his board rhetorically, implying business owners may make last-minute changes to their normal operations to try to score better on the secret shopper survey.

Seratt said all hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, attractions — and even some convenience stores — will be visited by the company conducting the survey. He said a full report would be available “sometime in the fall.”

The base charge is $22,000, and Seratt said about $10,000 more in expenses can be expected. Seratt told his board — of which he is not a voting member — that he looked at several companies offering secret shopper surveys, and the one he’s chosen was not the most expensive and appeared to be the most comprehensive.

“If this was my money to spend, I would do it with this company,” he said.

Following the meeting, board chairman Annette Kirklin said a secret shopper survey is needed so those on the VCVB board charged with marketing local hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants and attractions have a clear understanding of the kind of businesses they’re promoting.

“With so many tourists coming to Vicksburg each year, they need to know that they can expect top-notch services and experiences at all the places we recommend they visit,” she said. “We also need to know where we’re falling short, so we know where to make improvements.”

Board members present Thursday were Kirklin, Waring, Lamar Roberts, Betty Bullard, Patty Cappaert, Rocky Smith, Willie Glasper and Myra Logue. Glasper arrived late, and did not vote on the shopper proposal.

Also Thursday, the VCVB board:

• Acknowledged Bill Collins for his 10 years of service on the board. Collins resigned earlier this month, and Logue was tapped by the Warren County Board of Supervisors to fill the remaining two years on his term. Collins appeared to thank the board, Seratt and the supervisors for allowing him to serve.

• OK’d a $100 advertisement of the Vicksburg Homecoming Benevolent Club.

• OK’d a $1,500 sponsorship of the 2010 Over The River Run.

• OK’d a $1,500 sponsorship of the Independence Day Celebration at City Front.

• OK’d financial statements and meeting minutes from March, April and May.