What does Natchez need to do to keep tourists coming?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 21, 2010

NATCHEZ — People go where they are welcome, but stay where they are wanted.

It’s a fundamental tourism lesson part-time Natchez resident Leland Nicholls learned from a friend in the marketing business.

And it’s the idea Natchez will have to capture, bottle and drink daily to continue to survive and thrive as a tourist destination, said Nicholls, a long-time college tourism professor who is now professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

“Natchez has such an incredible, rich history of hospitality and what the rest of the country wishes it had in terms of grace and charm,” said Nicholls, who was also director of the Wisconsin Institute for Service Excellence.

“The competition is the Natchitoches, St. Francisville and Breaux Bridge (all in Louisiana) of the world; these are the little towns that are trying to nip away at what Natchez has to offer.”

To hang on, Natchez must become bigger than itself — teaming with Vidalia an Ferriday — continue to grow tourism in the areas of nature, specialty conferences and events and Civil Rights, Nicholls said, while all the while hanging on tight to the history and Southern hospitality that put it on the map.

Keep ’em coming back

Gerald Martin of Arab, Ala., made his second trip to Natchez last week, but it was something that happened on his first trip that brought him back again.

He and his wife Nancy had eaten at Biscuits and Blues, and somewhere in the process left his credit card there. He assumed he was just going to have to cancel it.

But something else happened to the card.

“The owner found it, and he called and found out where we were staying, and he brought it to us,” Martin said. “I think that speaks volumes about the hospitality here. He didn’t have to do that.”

Martin’s response to hospitality — and feeling wanted — is precisely what Natchez must have, Nicholls said.

“You have to make service the product here,” Nicholls said. “If service is the product (visitors) will recognize it and know it.”

Remember the details

Before, during and after tourists arrive, they are seeking information on Natchez. What they can find may very well determine whether or not they will come — or come back.

Andy Ritchie of Searcy, Ark., didn’t come to Natchez last week to see Natchez.

Instead, Ritchie was intent on starting the Natchez Trace at this end and driving the historic roadway to Nashville.

But since he was already here, Ritchie did a bit of sightseeing, he just didn’t know exactly what he was going to see. Internet research didn’t provide the specifics he was looking for about Natchez, he said.

“Many people may not think it, because I’m in my 70s, but I get most of my information off of the Internet,” Ritchie said. “If I changed anything, I’d improve the online presence.”

Jim and Cynthia Weaver of Eureka Springs, Ark., came to Natchez to see the town, but like Ritchie, they’d hoped to see the Natchez Trace as well. The couple said they initially had trouble finding out about it.

“It was hard to find information about (the Trace), or even how to get on it, but once we did it was fabulous,” Cynthia Weaver said.

And whether it was to the Trace or just around town, Ed Zellner from Midlothian, Texas, said the town could use better signage, easy to find downtown maps and a more centrally located Pilgrimage headquarters.

A trip to Natchez last week was the first for Zellner and his wife, and they struggled a bit finding their way to downtown, he said.

“Once we got hooked up with the map we were alright,” he said. “But it was kind of weird that the visitor’s center (isn’t in the main downtown grid).”

Growing and changing

Natchez has several great projects on the horizon, Nicholls said, and continuing to fuel that fire is a must.

The National Park Service’s plan to create a bluff-side historical park near Rosalie, the Natchez Trails Project and development at the Forks of the Road site are great starts, he said.

Tourists in town last week had some additional ideas.

Glen Mallette of Hattiesburg, a self-described history-buff, said on this repeat trip to Natchez he is already a little disappointed.

“I hate to see that Under-the-Hill is kind of run down and abandoned,” he said. “I think Natchez needs to put some time and effort into bringing that back, because once you lose it, you’ve lost that history.

“I think something needs to be done to draw businesses and people Under-the-Hill to preserve that part of the city’s history.”

Gerald Martin of Alabama pointed out that a very nice visitor’s center with good customer service is missing something.

“It would be really nice if there was some kind of shuttle where you could get on and off at the different points of interest,” he said.

Doing what you do best

Bill and Susan Heggarty were looking for a place to stop between their home in St. Louis and their destination in New Orleans.

Thanks to a recommendation from a friend, the Heggartys picked Natchez.

“Our friends told us we would love the city because we love history and restoration,” Susan Heggarty said.

The Heggartys were in Natchez for two days. During their “short, but full stay” they toured downtown, several houses, enjoyed the riverfront and ate at a sampling of restaurants.

“We were looking for a relaxed place to stop before getting to New Orleans and Natchez has been that for us,” Bill Heggarty said. “We’ve had great food, and there are great antiques shops. I think we may have to come back with a truck next time.

Susan said she was impressed with many of the restoration efforts in Natchez and enjoyed hearing the history of the houses.

“We live in an old part of St. Louis in a house we restored, so when we go to a town that has restored old homes, we are always looking to see how well it is done,” she said. “Natchez has impressed me with its restoration efforts and with the amount of documentation these homeowners have about the history of their house.”

Tourists like the Heggartys will continue to come to Natchez for years, Nicholls said. History has made Natchez a tourist location.

“It would be a shame if Natchez got too far away from preservation,” Nicholls said. “There are too many trophies here to show off.”

Remembering its history while stepping into the future will make Natchez a destination for years to come, he said.

“You keep doing what you are doing, but you up the bar a little bit,” Nicholls said.