welcoming boom

Published 2:10 pm Friday, May 6, 2016

Tourism is alive and booming in Mississippi.

The Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau hosted a Tourism Rally Thursday at the Vicksburg Convention Center in conjunction with National Travel and Tourism Week.

Daron Wilson, interim director of Visit Mississippi, spoke about the uphill battle those promoting Mississippi have because of an overall negative image of the state. However, he said the hospitality found in Mississippi couldn’t be contested.

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“The greatest resource we have from a tourism prospective in this state is the people that are here,” Wilson said. “They are welcoming. They are open. They are hospitable. We are the hospitality state. Our people represent that every single day.”

Corey and Patricia Rickrode, who recently bought the Baer House Inn, said they chose to move here because of the friendliness of the people.

“This was not our first choice to come here from California,” Patricia said. “We came here, 95 percent, because we loved the people.”

Wilson spoke to the importance of tourism to the state saying it accounts for $600 million in tax revenue.

“Most people don’t realize that tourism in the state of Mississippi is actually the fourth largest employer in this state and it accounts for well over 117,000 jobs in this state— direct and indirect,” Wilson said.

An advantage for tourism in Mississippi, he said, is that it is under the Mississippi Development Authority and is seen as an economic entity, which further propels the industry. He said the Mississippi tourism sector was fortunate because it was the only budget not cut by the Legislature.

“Our Legislature saw fit this year, while every other agency took a hit, the state of Mississippi actually gave us over $4.6 million to promote tourism in the state during the bicentennial,” Wilson said about the upcoming 2017 state bicentennial.

He said Mississippi saw over 22 million visitors last year.

“I can’t emphasis how important tourism is to the state of Mississippi in terms of its economy,” Wilson said.

Being home to a welcome center, Vicksburg has a unique perspective on tourism, he said.

“Vicksburg’s welcome center is one of the most active,” Wilson said. “As a key to the south, you guys play an incredible role. You see more visitors come through your visitor center and you can actually talk to them and hear their feedback about their experiences in Mississippi.”

The staff of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau gave an update on the local tourism numbers. Executive director Bill Seratt said in 2015 local hotels’ total revenue was $37 million and hospitality tax revenue was $1.1 million, both numbers are up from previous years. Tourist parties in Mississippi average 3.1 people and stay 2.5 nights, he said.

Ashley Gatian, sales manager, highlighted the work she does to coordinate riverboat tours, motor coach tours, meetings and conferences in Vicksburg. There were 504 motor coach tours bringing 18,201 visitors from motor coaches and riverboats in 2015.

Laura Beth Strickland, communications manger, spoke to the importance of advertising through television, radio, magazine, newspaper, billboards and social media. The local ads are using the tag lines “American history. Mississippi music. Southern charm.” She also encouraged use of hashtags #VicksburgIsTheKey, #VisitVicksburg and #Team Vicksburg.

“We do think it’s still important to do a mix of traditional and new media,” Strickland said.

In 2015, the Visit Vicksburg saw 123,000 mobile visits and 143,000 desktop visits. She said the organization’s new responsive website is set to launch at the end of May at visitvicksburg.com.

Seratt closed the rally by encouraging positivity about Vicksburg and Mississippi at all times, especially online.

“Spread the word, be a Vicksburg ambassador,” Seratt said.