Everybody is now a travel expert

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 16, 2010

Dana Boozer doesn’t work for the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau. She doesn’t work for Southern Living magazine or for some fancy travel book either.

Yet what Boozer did Sunday night proved that she can be more powerful than any travel expert. It’s a power of which Natchez tourist attractions and businesses should take note.

Boozer traveled to Southwest Mississippi this week from Tupelo. The teacher was in town Monday and Tuesday to teach a workshop to area middle school teachers. She didn’t expect to see much on her trip — only her hotel room and the Natchez High School library. But what she saw Sunday evening excited her so much that she didn’t hesitate to share it with her family and friends.

After a five-hour drive from Tupelo, Boozer dragged her luggage into her hotel room on the third-floor of the Hampton Inn. She went to the window to look out toward the Mississippi River.

When she caught a glimpse of the Mississippi River bridges glowing across the river, Boozer grabbed her phone, snapped a quick photo and posted it on her Facebook account for friends and family to see.

“What a sight!” Boozer exclaimed Monday morning. “I had to share it with everybody.”

Natchez tourisms officials couldn’t have asked for a better public relations moment. Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Butch Brown would have smiled had he known.

What Boozer did Sunday evening with her smartphone and an Internet connection is quickly redefining the entire tourism industry.

Internet comments, photos and anecdotes have replaced the standard travel magazine and vacation guide. Frommer’s, Fodor’s and Rough Guides have been replaced by Facebook, Trip Advisor and Foursquare.

If everybody was like Boozer, Natchez tourist attractions would have little to worry about these new travel authorities.

Unfortunately, beautiful photos of the newly-lit Mississippi River bridges are not the only things that hit the Internet.

More often than not, complaints find their way onto many of these Internet travels sites.

“Bland,” one traveler writes about the food of one Natchez restaurant.

“There were multiple stains on the carpet and hair all over the bathroom,” one guest posted about an area’s hotel.

“It was so bad we had to leave after 30 minutes,” another commentor wrote about one of Natchez’s evening entertainments.

As usual, most of the negative comments focused on the details that can make or break a vacation. The dirty glass, the inattentive waiter, the unflushed toilet are more likely to be remembered than a travel day that goes as planned.

Unlike the days before the Internet, businesses can no longer rely on upbeat articles written by out-of-town travel writers. Now every customer really is a critic who has the capability to offer travel advice and critiques from the palm of their hands. Publicity is not in next month’s travel magazine; it’s instantaneous.

Thankfully, the number of positive comments far outweighs the negative for most Natchez tourism-related businesses. Most comments shine as brightly as the Mississippi River bridges Boozer photographed Sunday evening.

The trick for local businesses catering to tourists is to realize that every customer presents another opportunity to keep their patron’s comments and their own reputations glowing.

Ben Hillyer is the Web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.