Final bow: Convention center executive director bids farewell after 20 years

Published 3:08 pm Thursday, June 6, 2024

Erin Powell Southard has called Vicksburg home for most of her life, with much of that time spent in a career at the Vicksburg Convention Center.

After almost 21 years as part of the team at Vicksburg Convention Center, Southard and her family will relocate to New Hampshire at the end of June. She has been part of the staff at VCC since 2003, and executive director since 2021.

Southard recalled being convinced by former director Larry Gawronski to leave her position in marketing at a local casino and join VCC. Although she thought the work hours would be more routine, she found that working for the convention center had unique challenges. She remembered a traveling Disney show that set up at 9:30 a.m. and stayed until they took the set down at 2:30 a.m. the following day. Nights and weekends were just part of the job, she said. And so was being proactive.

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“I always wanted to answer a client need before they knew they needed it,” Southard said.

Client needs can vary from technical problems with a projector to ideas for staging a convention. She has found over the years that even if the same groups booked events every year, their needs changed. Some years they would have a bigger or smaller group, different agenda items or a desire to make presentations differently.

When asked, Southard had a difficult time picking a favorite event, but recalled the Disney shows were always very exciting.

“‘Dragon Tales’ was the first one we had, and that was cool because the dragons flew above the crowd,” she said. “Firefighters and Fire Chiefs Convention is one of my most favorite conventions.”

Southard said she worked with them on convention ideas and suggested parking the trucks inside the building at a prior convention.

“It was super challenging. One of the trucks they ended up hanging the American flag from the ladder. It was amazing.”

Southard also proposed having participants drive through the convention center for weigh-ins during the Bill Dance Mega Bucks Pro-Series Catfish Tournament hosted in Vicksburg in 2023.

“It had never been done before,” she said. “Within the space, we can try just about anything.”

Southard said one of her most memorable times as part of the staff at VCC was during Hurricane Katrina.

“We were a shelter for 27 days. I think, at max, we housed 450 people,” she said. “They were here at such a tragic time. They had lost their homes; they’d lost everything; they had nothing. They created their own community. They elected a mayor and named it The Crescent City. It was really cool.”

But the most important thing for Southard has been helping to create the memories people make during their experiences at the convention center, she said.

“While sometimes it may not feel impactful or important (to the staff), to (the people attending events), it is.”

She recalled being shown scrapbooks from shows featuring Elmo and observing different generations of people attending “Breakfast with Santa.”

“Seeing the girls coming through for Miss Mississippi as a Belle and now they’re on stage, or someone who came through for graduation and then back to get married here, it’s just been nice to be a part of so many lives, whether people know we’re a part of it or not, doesn’t really matter. It makes you feel good to see them smiling and happy. All the hard work and tears and sweat has been worth it because someone had an amazing time.”

Southard said she looks forward to the move to New Hampshire. She and husband Ritch have accepted positions working for Granite State Gaming and Hospitality, known as G2.

“Gaming is still very new in New Hampshire,” Southard said. “It’s a really exciting time. They’ve only had a license since 2022.”

Ritch will be taking over as head of surveillance and security, and Erin will be working as director of Talent and Guest Experience.

Donna Gray will serve as interim Executive Director at VCC.

“We are leaving our fabulous community,” said Southard, as she wiped away a tear. “But we’ll come back.”