Group tours rise by 20 percent this Spring Pilgrimage

Published 9:10 am Saturday, March 24, 2007

Beautiful weather and a pre-Pilgrimage marketing plan have combined to give this year’s Natchez Spring Pilgrimage a fine kickoff, said Jim Coy, manager of Natchez Pilgrimage Tours.

The number of individual ticket-buyers has not risen dramatically from 2006, but group tours are up by about 20 percent, Coy said.

“Probably 10 percent of that increase in group tours is because of the American Queen and Delta Queen coming back,” Coy said.

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The American Queen is making five stops in Natchez during Pilgrimage season, which continues through April 14. The Delta Queen is stopping three times.

Steamboat visits became almost nonexistent after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, and the March return of the boats to the Mississippi River is good news that will continue through the year.

Furthermore, Elderhostel groups from the Copiah-Lincoln Community College program also are making a big impact, with 70 to 80 people in each group, Coy said.

He said the marketing carried out by NPT marketing director Eugenie Cates and the efforts of many others who work in sales and elsewhere have jump started the season.

“Individual tourist inquiries clearly are within a 150-mile radius of Natchez, and that’s where we’ve marketed,” Coy said.

An article by Karen Dardick of Natchez, formerly of California, written for the Los Angeles Times, also has made an impact, Coy said.

In fact, Dardick donned a costume to greet visitors at Green Leaves recently, and tourists Phil and Teri Thomas of Torrance, Calif., saw a copy of the article at the house and said the article is what prompted them to visit.

“They said, ‘this is why we’re here; this is why we came,’” Coy said. He was at the house, which is his wife’s family home.

The couple said what appealed to them when they read the Dardick article was to imagine “so many antebellum homes in so small an area, that some of them were owned by the same families for 150 years and that the owners would greet them,” Coy said.

Those kinds of comments from visitors are exciting, Coy said.

“I’ve gotten more excited and interested in this, that whatever number comes, that they are getting a good experience.”

Emphasis on hospitality is more important than ever as Natchez struggles to come back from several incidents that put a damper on tourism, including hurricanes in 2005.

“The homeowners know they have to greet each person as if they rode on horseback for 150 miles to get here,” Coy said.

“I don’t know when we’ll get the numbers back,” he said, referring to the loss of visitor numbers that can be traced back to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“But people do come, and they’re having a wonderful time.”

Coy said he hopes Natchez businesses are feeling the effect of an influx of visitors. “And I hope they will thank those volunteers that make it happen.”

Natchez Pilgrimage Tours is celebrating 75 years of historic house tours and evening entertainment this year. Pilgrimage began in 1932.

Coy said the emphasis on the anniversary has been a good marketing tool.