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How does Natchez attract tourists?

Jay Sowers | The Natchez Democrat
Jay Sowers | The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — The Natchez Democrat conducted an informal, non-scientific survey of a few dozen tourists who visited Natchez earlier this month.

The survey asked tourists questions to determine where they were from and how they heard about Natchez.

Of the visitors surveyed, approximately 48 percent heard about Natchez from a friend or relative.

More than half, 52.5 percent, said they had never seen an advertisement for Natchez; 42.5 percent said they had seen an advertisement for Natchez; and 5 percent reported they were not sure if they’d seen one or not.

Interestingly, 13 percent said they had read the recent article about Natchez published in “Country Living” magazine.

The majority of the tourists were from Mississippi, followed closely by Louisiana then Texas. Those states are Natchez’s target advertising market, Natchez Tourism Director Connie Taunton said.

That market is where the majority of the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau’s approximately $460,000 annual marketing budget goes to promote the city, Taunton said.

Approximately $360,000 of that marketing money comes from the $2 hotel and bed-and-breakfast occupancy tax, Taunton said. The tax was levied in 2008 and was earmarked for tourism marketing only.

Nearly five years after the tax passed, some Natchez tourism professionals are still questioning the CVB’s tourism marketing efforts, especially since some professionals say the tourists with whom they speak report having only heard of Natchez by word-of-mouth.

Twin Oaks Bed and Breakfast owner Regina Charboneau said her bed and breakfast sees a good bit of repeat business, mainly from people who live within 200 miles of Natchez and drive themselves to town.

Those tourists, she said, generally say they heard about Natchez through a friend or relative who has been to Natchez.

During Pilgrimage, Charboneau said, Twin Oaks sees more of a variety of guests from across the country and internationally.

Charboneau said she believes the most publicity Natchez has received this year came as a result of the article about Natchez in “Country Living” magazine, which was coordinated by Editor-in-Chief Sarah Gray Miller, a Natchez native.

“National publicity has an immediate effect,” Charboneau said. “I think that we could reach out a little farther with our marketing.”

But the CVB is not the only entity that markets Natchez.

Old South Trading Post owner Jonathan Wood said he spends thousands of dollars each year on advertising, including out-of-town billboards, ads in newspapers, “Southern Living” and “Cooking with Paula Deen,” catalogs, a seasonal newsletter and other marketing.

Word-of-mouth advertising, Wood said, is one of the best forms of marketing Natchez has.

“The majority (of customers) I have (come from) word-of-mouth,” Wood said. “They know somebody who has come here and shopped here or bought them a gift here.”

Wood said he believes the CVB’s marketing efforts have improved, but he believes the CVB should re-evaluate the media it uses. Wood said he also believes Natchez should not seek to model marketing strategies or events after other historic towns, such as Savannah and Charleston, use.

“Natchez was one of the first places in America to open the doors of the antebellum homes and invite the world in,” Wood said. “I do not feel that we have to copy other cities in creativity, when they originally copied us. If we put our heads together and work together to be creative, we can blaze a new trail of visitors here.”

Sunset View Cottages owner Louise Peabody said she is not familiar with the marketing efforts the CVB does for Natchez.

She said most of her business is repeat business.

“My connection to tourism is basically from my own doing,” she said. “I have a really expensive, really nice website and I advertise in ‘Country Roads,’ and I get a lot of business from that, including new business.”

The CVB may be doing its best to market Natchez, Charboneau said.

“But how are we tracking our advertising dollars,” she said.

Taunton said the CVB concentrates its marketing dollars on advertising that can be tracked.

Approximately $275,000 of the CVB’s marketing dollars is spent on print and online advertising, Taunton said. The rest, she said, is used for sales outreach, printing brochures, direct-mail postcards and other marketing expenses.

The marketing money is divided between “leisure market” advertising, which targets leisure travelers, and convention and trade groups, Taunton said. Most of the money, she said, goes toward leisure market advertising.

Taunton said the CVB determines if it’s getting its money’s worth by looking at the reach of its advertising, tourists’ feedback and annual tourism tax revenue.

“We try very hard to monitor where we’re advertising and make sure we’re getting the best bang for our buck,” Taunton said.

That tracking involves advertising with online sources and publications that have tracking services to determine how many people an ad reaches, Taunton said.

But tracking whether or not a specific ad brought a tourist to Natchez can be difficult, Taunton said.

The CVB seeks to find out how tourists heard about Natchez by asking that question when potential travelers visit the CVB’s website or call the visitor center to request more information about Natchez, Taunton said.

“But that’s only as good as the people who answer the phone,” she said. “We have a small staff, and if we get busy, those things might be forgotten.”

Finding out where tourists are from or where they heard about Natchez once they arrive in the city can also be a challenge, Taunton said.

Some hotel and bed-and-breakfast owners share occupancy information with the CVB, but a lot do not, Taunton said.

“We can only be as accountable as our tourism partners help us,” she said. “To figure out exactly where everyone is coming from, every hotel and bed-and-breakfast would have to report (occupancy numbers).”

The CVB also uses Cision media monitoring service, Taunton said, which tracks articles written about Natchez and calculates what it would cost if the CVB had to pay for that publicity with advertising dollars.

The money collected from the $2 occupancy tax has steadily increased since it passed in 2008. Approximately $298,500 was collected in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, and approximately $326,000 was collected in the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

Overall sales tax numbers and food and lodging tax numbers for the City of Natchez, which would seemingly be affected by increased marketing, have not always increased despite the additional taxes collected from the 2008 occupancy tax.

According to figures from the city clerk’s office, in the 2005-2006 and 2007-2008 fiscal years, sales tax collections totaled approximately $5.3 million each year.

Overall collections totaled $5.28 million in 2008-2009, $5 million in 2009-2010, $5.1 million in 2010-2011 and $5.26 million in 2011-2012.

Taunton said she expects the CVB’s marketing efforts and advertising tracking ability to increase with a new strategic plan that will be completed by consultant Berkeley Young.

Young and one of his co-workers will be visiting Natchez as tourists to get an understanding of how Natchez tourism works.

They’ll also be taking a close look at how the CVB is operated and funded and will analyze the area’s lodging market.

Visitors to the area will be surveyed about their experience in Natchez.

“It’s so we can have a true picture of what our city-wide (hotel and bed-and-breakfast) occupancy is,” Taunton said. “We don’t have that (kind of) up-to-date study,” she said.

Charboneau said she is hopeful that a strategic plan will give the CVB better information to use when deciding how to market Natchez.

“It’s a bit overdue,” she said. “I think it will assimilate some information that would be helpful to making better decisions.

“I am optimistic as always that things will get better. We really do need to have a strategic plan.”