After months of decline, local tourism industry shows signs of rebounding
Laura Beth Strickland and her team at the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau have had a challenge they never saw coming.
They are charged with marketing Vicksburg and promoting the area to the thousands of tourists who come to visit each and every year, driving Vicksburg’s largest industry — the tourism industry.
The tourism industry supports thousands of direct jobs, like those at hotels and casinos, but also countless more indirect jobs — such as suppliers and those who work at convenience stores — that are also fueled by tourism.
The tourism industry was ravaged by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving the VCVB scrambling.
As the riverboats and tour groups canceled, cutting off an outlet for thousands of visitors each month, the team switched inward, focusing on promoting local businesses and services to local residents. They targeted the local market with information on restaurants that were still open and the services they had started offering, such as curbside pickup.
And now, nearly five months after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Warren County, Strickland said there are signs — positive signs — the tourism and hospitality market is rebounding. Restaurants have opened up their dining rooms, museums have reopened and hotels are seeing their occupancy rates creep higher.
On the downside, charter bus tours and riverboats remain parked and docked.
“We are definitely not at the same pace that we were last year, but it could have been far, far worse,” Strickland said. “I am surprised with how we are doing and I am still hopeful that we will see a good fall season because usually, our biggest months are in October and November.”
Strickland has also focused on tourism in Mississippi as a whole.
Soon after local and state officials were forced to shut down segments of the economy to slow the spread of the virus, Gov. Tate Reeves organized a group called “Restart Mississippi.” Strickland was among those named to one of the group’s committees.
“We need Mississippians helping Mississippians. I have asked a trusted group of our state’s top business minds to do just that,” Reeves said on April 14 in forming the group. “Under the ‘Restart Mississippi’ umbrella, they are going to develop a series of recommendations and goals for our new economy. They will study the impact of COVID-19 on our workforce and small businesses. And they will help us recover — day by day.”
Strickland serves on the Tourism and Hotels subcommittee, which is part of the Hospitality Committee.
“We were tasked with coming up with short term and long term goals for the following areas of focus for the tourism and hotel industries: health and safety, workforce development-unemployment, market analysis, challenges and opportunity for recovery,” Strickland said.
She added the group offered recommendations in those areas in June.
And while those recommendations are awaiting action, Strickland said there have been improvements in the local tourism numbers as more and more facilities reopen under strict social distancing guidelines.
According to a report of lodging tax collections in Vicksburg and Warren County over the past few months, June’s lodging tax figures, which were collected in August, were down just 6.3 percent compared to June 2019. That is a far better drop off than what was seen in previous months.
In February, before the pandemic began, lodging tax collections were ahead of last year. But, in March, April and May, the shutdown of the tourism economy was clear as hotel occupancy collapsed.
In March, collections were down 16 percent. In April, collections were more than 28 percent lower than last year, while May’s numbers were down more than 29 percent.
Overall, Strickland said lodging year-to-date in Vicksburg and Warren County is down nearly 20 percent compared last year. Hospitality tax revenue, which is 1 percent on lodging properties and restaurants countywide, is down 13.3 percent.
But, she again said June’s rebound, which was just 6 percent off last year, is a good sign, especially going into the area’s fall season.
“We usually do see a dip in late July and August, because of the climate and people going back to school. That’s where we usually see a dip and then it usually starts picking back up toward the end of September,” she said. “We hope that will continue to be the trend for us. October and November are usually crazy, as far as people coming to town because it feels great outside and you have all kinds of great events. But it is a different climate out there now, we are going to have to wait to see.”
In addition to the traditional fall events that remain on the calendar — such as the Old Court House Museum’s Fall Flea Market on Oct. 3, and the Over The River Run on Oct. 10 — this fall also features a number of events at McRaven House haunted tours and other haunted tours at other locations in town.
“People who visit Vicksburg love all the haunted happenings,” she said. “While people in Vicksburg might not think that, we do have a big following for that niche.”
Throughout the pandemic, Strickland said local businesses — especially restaurants — have adapted and made adjustments she thinks will continue to pay off.
“We are definitely not back to normal, yet, but everyone is making their adjustments and assuring visitors they are doing everything they can to make sure those who come to Vicksburg can come and stay safe,” she said. “It might not be to the level of years past, but I still expect the next few months to be good for us.”