How Mississippi Emerged as a Leader in Tourism Recovery

Article written by Marlo Dorsey, executive director and CEO of VisitHattiesburg, president-elect of the Mississippi Travel Association and founding member of the Mississippi Destination Marketing Association (DMO).

Most destinations across the country are still recovering from the devastating economic impact of COWID-19 on the tourism industry, but few have managed to adapt as quickly as Mississippi. Thanks to rapid state legislative action and new tourism attraction campaigns tailored to the pandemic, Mississippi has become an innovative leader in tourism recovery. One of the destinations in Mississippi that is ahead of many US markets is Hattiesburg, affectionately called HBURG or Hub City.

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The anger of COWID-19 was felt in all sectors of the economy, with tourism and travel being the hardest hit. Visitor loss in Mississippi exceeded $2.5 billion in 2020 compared to 2019, which has a devastating economic impact on the entire industry, including local marketing organizations. Through crisis and adversity, the leaders of the target countries have come together to find a solution and a way to get back on top. This unit allowed the state legislature to allocate DMO’s CARES Act funds for marketing activities related to the impact of the 2019 business interruption-induced coronavirus disease. It was July 2020 and the lifeline was within reach.

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In December 2020, after reconstruction programs were funded and the mission resumed, reconstruction began faster in Mississippi than in the rest of the country. In fact, the American Travel Association and Tourism Economics named Mississippi the largest travel market in the country this month, based on annual figures.

The Mississippi Tourism Recreation Foundation has provided us with an excellent opportunity to tell the story of Hattiesburg and the history of Mississippi at a time when people were looking for the pleasures of a safe and comfortable vacation. Our data-driven strategic approach had to strike the perfect balance: telling our exciting story in accessible markets while clearly communicating important public health information and social distance protocols.

That’s where the Safely Open for You campaign was born, drawing attention to our destination’s many unique values – its civil rights history, creative culture and vast outdoor recreation areas. Consumer sentiment research has shown that pandemic travelers are more likely to plan trips to smaller rural areas. VisitHATTIESBURG has therefore launched its search campaign with this main objective in mind. Strategic advertising in key markets has produced excellent results, with over 300 million media impressions in six months and national exposure for many of Hattiesburg’s attractions and offerings.

The development of adaptive tourism was essential, and we focused on creating new opportunities for visitors to safely enjoy Hattiesburg. New social distance and virtual trails have been created, including the Hattiesburg Public Art Trail and the Hatties [BURGER] Trails, as well as a digital extension of the 1964 Freedom Summer Trail.

We also publish customized itineraries based on specific visitor interests: families, pets, foodies, history buffs, outdoor enthusiasts, art lovers and more. Market strategies and partner outreach remained a priority in 2020, including equipping hotels and restaurants with Hello from HBURG masks and installing visitor kiosks throughout the city with Safely Open for You options.

As an industry, our collective efforts go far beyond filling hotel rooms, restaurants and attractions. Hattiesburg, a highly creative city with two universities on the southern Gulf, competes for tourists, consumers and the available workforce to support its many economic development sectors. A strong and dynamic tourism industry also attracts national attention and respect for Hattiesburg. Tourism is a major economic driver and supports thousands of local jobs, while also providing a platform for the development of places and destinations. Visitor spending generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, stimulates private sector investment, and significantly improves the quality of life for residents.

The past few months have presented the hospitality industry with unprecedented challenges, but we are encouraged by the progress being made in Hattiesburg. We are committed to finding solutions and making a difference, not only at the local level, but also at the national level. In partnership with other destinations and leaders in Mississippi, we will continue to be bold and innovative so that everyone can once again experience the joy of travel as the doors to amazing destinations safely open in our state.

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