Not many states commemorate the 300-year anniversary of one its cities and immediately transition into a yearlong, statewide bicentennial party. But those are the historic milestones for the city of Natchez this year and the state of Mississippi in 2017. IITA Summit attendees will be a part of that 200th birthday party from Feb. 5-8 on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Craig Ray, director of tourism for Visit Mississippi, gives us an exclusive look at what’s in store for a state known for its Southern hospitality.
What do you have planned to commemorate Mississippi’s bicentennial?
We are sponsoring four large events – a celebration of the southern part of the state on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in April, an event in Oxford in June for the northern part of the state and two December events in Jackson, which is the actual bicentennial, where we’ll be opening two museums – the Civil Rights Museum and the Mississippi History Museum.
We also will have a grant program to help communities across the state to participate in the celebration of this historic moment by showcasing their local specialties — from music to cuisine to heritage/culture.
And, for the first time in many years, there has been an additional state appropriation for tourism advertising to do expanded outreach into places like Atlanta, the Florida Panhandle, St. Louis and Dallas.
What is it about Mississippi that attracts international visitors?
There are so many reasons. First, our music history – from the blues festivals to the Grammy Museum (the only one outside Los Angeles) to the Blues Trail’s almost 200 different markers to the B.B. King Museum. We also have many live music venues to experience.
Second is our great cuisine. We have an incredible culinary scene of Lebanese, Italian, Chinese, Hispanic and French/Cajun in addition to great Southern cooking.
Third is the Mississippi River, and fourth is our world-class casinos that offer great golfing, spas, entertainment, restaurants and gaming! We have 15 championship golf courses in a 10-mile range on the Gulf Coast.
What are the primary international markets you’re serving, and how can you assist inbound tour operators in developing successful products in the area?
Europe is our largest market, especially countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Canada is also a big market, and we have some exposure in Japan.
During IITA’s Summit, we can help inbound tour operators by giving them the opportunity to see and hear first-hand our unique products in places such as Natchez, the Delta and the Gulf Coast.
Being here is the best way to develop packages. Our top sales pitch is having people see things with their own eyes. We’ve come back since Hurricane Katrina with the greatest tourism product ever.
How is Visit Mississippi supporting IITA’s Summit, and what can attendees expect?
Visit Mississippi is a partner with Mississippi Gulf Coast for the overall Summit, so we will be assisting with the opening and closing sessions as well as tours.
We also have a great highlight at the end. A post-conference familiarization (FAM) trip will be available for tour operators. It will be world class. Stay tuned for additional details.