Food tops, safety not, tourism survey says

Published 1:02 am Saturday, March 26, 2011

The cuisine and downtown are a couple of Vicksburg’s strengths, say secret shoppers hired by the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Center to study the city.

“When we came here, the thing that exceeded our expectations was the food,” said Darienne Wilson Mobley of In-house Creative Inc. of Baton Rouge, paid $25,000 by the VCVB to analyze the city’s tourism offerings during three months last summer. “For a town this size to have a variety of dining options was surprising.”

Mobley gave an hour-long report of the company’s findings to the VCVB board of directors Thursday.

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“These are professional travelers giving their opinion of what needs to be done to make this the most wonderful experience in the South,” VCVB Executive Director Bill Seratt said.

The visits were comprised of 37 hotel stays, food from 20 restaurants, shopping at 10 retail shops and visits to 10 attractions. Reports will be given to each of the businesses.

“If our businesses are interested in improving their revenue,” board member Shirley Waring said, “they will pay attention and respond to the feedback that we are going to share with them.”

Another strength, the secret shoppers found, are the signs leading to attractions.

“Your signage is the best I’ve seen for a town this size,” Mobley told the board. “It was very easy to get around here.”

Also, she said, “I think your downtown is fabulous. I just think not a lot of people know about it.”

Vicksburg also faces some challenges, the company found — namely the limited knowledge of frontline tourism employees. They knew about their own properties, Mobley said, but about 85 percent were unable to offer information on other attractions.

“The knowledge and pride of Vicksburg were lacking,” she said. “To me, this is the No. 1 thing lacking.”

Another challenge is safety, the report round.

“I didn’t always feel safe leaving some restaurants at night,” Mobley said. “I didn’t feel comfortable. Some of the motels do not have good curb appeal.”

Other challenges are limited attraction offerings, diversity of downtown shops, retail and dining days of operation and the absence of a key place visitors can go for tourist information.

In-house Creative Inc. has conducted studies for the Lauderdale County Tourism Bureau, Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau and Baton Rouge Convention and Visitors Bureau.

VCVB is involved in another tourism study, by Nashville-based North Star for $64,000. The firm is surveying locals, business owners and visitors to re-shape the city’s tourism brand. The study is set for a mid-May completion date.

In other business, VCVB board members heard a report of a 2010 audit performed by Halford Firm of Vicksburg.

VCVB saw about a $200,000 drop in revenue due to a decrease in sales tax revenue, which accounts for 99.3 percent of the tourism agency’s revenue.

The audit showed the agency spent $1,195,804 and took in $996,974. It had budgeted in 2010 for a $288,000 deficit.

“You actually came about $90,000 better than you thought you would,” Ken Halford told the board. “Based on the economy, the oil spill and the decrease in travel, it was actually a pretty good year.”

In addition to Waring, board members present were Annette Kirklin, Lamar Roberts, Myra Logue, Rocky Smith, Willie Glasper, Betty Bullard, Lori Burke and Julie Ford.

On Thursday, the board also approved minutes from Feb. 22, the February financial report and the executive director’s and bureau’s reports.