Restaurants, hotels, venues see increase in traffic during five-week event

Published 8:25 am Sunday, April 15, 2007

The folks packing hoop skirts today are doing so with a smile.

The close of the five-week Pilgrimage season in Natchez is opening the door to a successful rest of the year, business experts said.

House tours were up, carriage rides were in demand and restaurants were booming, now word of mouth will do the rest, Economic Development Authority Chairman Woody Allen said.

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Pilgrimage visitors will return home, advertising for Natchez along the way, Allen said.

“The more people who experience Pilgrimage each year, the more that go back and tell their friends,” Allen said. “It multiplies, and it helps us throughout the year.”

Pilgrimage dollars filter through the community and, as a rule, each dollar spent turns over seven times, Tourism Director Walter Tipton said.

“If visitors spend money at a restaurant, people employed at that restaurant go buy food at grocery stores,” Tipton said. “That pays the clerk at the grocery stores, who go to retail stores and buy products.”

And Pilgrimage can serve as a lead-in to other events tourists might like to come back and see, he said.

“Spring Pilgrimage, because of the number of visitors here, gives us an opportunity to cross-market events, like the festival of music and the garden tours, that immediately follow it,” he said.

“I’m very pleased with the effort of the homes, the volunteers, those who put on the events,” Natchez Pilgrimage Tours Manager Jim Coy said.

“I think (visitors) left with very positive feelings about Natchez, and what the people of Natchez can do. That’s your best advertisement, when people go back home and tell their friends.”

House tour numbers are not yet available.


Restaurants may feel the most immediate injection of Pilgrimage joy, since tourists do have to eat.

Clif Brumfield, part owner and manager of Pearl Street Pasta, said his business definitely felt that impact, especially this year.

“This is probably one of the best pilgrimages we’ve had,” Brumfield said. “It’s been truly amazing. We did more business in the first two weeks this year than all of last Pilgrimage combined.”

Derrick Kenchen, chef at Slough Daddy’s River Grill, agreed.

Once Pilgrimage began it brought a steady increase in customers, Kenchen said.

Kenchen believes the restaurant’s location on the river directly across from Natchez helps attract pilgrimage clientele.

“I think that the river brings in business,” he said. “A lot of customers like to sit on the porch for the view.”

An influx?

Pilgrimage crowds shrunk immediately after Hurricane Katrina, when tours out of New Orleans were canceled. But two years later, things are better than ever, tourism leaders said.

The riverboat cruises were back, the number of individual visitors increased, and group bus tours jumped, Coy said.

The riverboats stopped in Natchez for the first Pilgrimage since Katrina, docking eight times and bringing what could have been upwards of 2,500 visitors to town, according to a company spokesperson.

Along with the riverboats, group tours jumped 20 percent since last year, Coy said.

“They put people in the seats for (Historic Natchez) Pageant. They put people in the streets to spend money in town,” Allen said. “That’s had a major impact.”

Local entertainment venues have also seen an increase in Pilgrimage traffic.

Natchez Little Theatre Director Layne Taylor said that attendance for the theatre’s pilgrimage show “Southern Exposure” was excellent this year.

“We perform for more than 17,000-18,000 people a year, and of course some of those are local people, but the vast majority of our audiences are from around the world,” he said.

“Pilgrimage, both spring and fall, is a great asset.”

Alvin Shelby, director of the Holy Family Catholic Church choir, said that Holy Family’s Southern Road to Freedom program has seen an increase in attendance of about 10 percent this year.

“This year, we’ve had large crowds on days that we normally wouldn’t,” Shelby said.

For example, Thursdays —when the Historic Natchez Pageant also takes place — have been low attendance nights in the past, he said.

The choir had 15 regularly scheduled performances, but also ended up doing an extra show for a tour group, Shelby said.

“The majority of the people who come and see this show are out-of-towners,” Shelby said.

He said he wishes more local people would come to see the performances, which average an attendance of about 125 people per night.


Another business that has benefited from this year’s boom is the Historic Natchez Inn.

Pilgrimage makes up roughly 30 percent of the business the hotel sees each year, General Manager Sharon Brown said. This year has been even better.

“We’ve had a great Pilgrimage,” Brown said. “We’re full on the weekends, which is really good, and about half-full during the week. And we’ve had a lot of walk-ins, which is unusual.”

Still, business isn’t quite back to pre-Katrina numbers, said Anna Laura Ring, who works the front desk.

“It’s picked up, which is a good thing, but I thought after Katrina, it would get bigger,” Ring said.

But even if it’s not back to 100 percent, the tourists sometimes surprise her, she said. One evening, two rooms filled up in one hour.

“And we’re a small hotel, so two rooms in that amount of time is a big deal for us,” she said.

Pilgrimage also means a significant increase in business at Vidalia’s Comfort Suites in Vidalia, sales manager of Gail Sutherland said.

“During Pilgrimage, we have an increase in business of about 30 percent to 40 percent,” she said

However, unlike some local businesses, Comfort Suites didn’t experience a decrease in the wake of the 2005 hurricane season.

“Lots of people come on pilgrimage as individuals, and though there was a decrease in tours last year, that freed up some space for us and allowed individuals to come in,” Sutherland said.

“We work with a lot of tour companies,” she said.

The hotel hosted 13 tour groups this year, each group averaging about 40 people per tour.

Pilgrimage’s economic boost affects more than just the hotel and restaurant industries, Allen said. It’s a shot in the arm for the whole region.

“Anytime you have that many people from outside spending outside dollars, it refuels the economy,” he said.