City’s largest industry presents plan to grow tourism here with multi-focused strategies

Published 2:31 pm Monday, October 17, 2022

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NATCHEZ — Travel and tourism in 2021 brought $97,675,640 in revenue to Natchez area businesses, making it solidly the city’s largest industry.

Further, about 1,400 jobs here, or 13.2 percent of the area’s total employment, are produced by travel and tourism. About $10,080,694 in state and local taxes are attributed to tourism in Natchez and Adams County, according to the Mississippi Tourism Economic Contribution Report.

Devin Heath and others at Visit Natchez recently shared this information and more with stakeholders in Natchez at its annual summit, meant to provide the community with what the agency is up to, as well as get ideas and feedback from community members.

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“Each year, we do this summit, and I always want to do things bigger and better. I want it to be more meaningful for our partners, more meaningful for Visit Natchez, where we walk away with ideas and input from the community,” Heath said. “It’s not just Visit Natchez staff spewing this information. It’s an exchange of ideas, exchange of thoughts and feedback, so we set the goal to share where we have been and where we are going, what the plans are for Visit Natchez as we move forward, and get that feedback and input, whether we like it or not, whether there are some negatives or not.

“We want to hear what the community has to say, their feedback to those plans and the trends they are seeing. When I was on the other side of things in other markets, I wanted to hear not just what the organization was doing, but what are those trends they were seeing on the horizon. I wanted to see and understand what those influences and factors were we were going to have to contend with in the coming year,” he said. “And so, we try to really peel back those trends and share that so everyone, not just us, but everyone in the community can be prepared.”


Funding our destination marketing organization

Visit Natchez operates under the guidance of the Natchez Convention Promotion Commission. Members include President and Chairperson, Helen Moss Smith, Secretary/Treasurer Robbie Cade Furdge and commissioners Barbara Bruce, Dana Wilson, Katie McCabe and Lance Harris.

Visit Natchez Executive Director Devin Heath, works with a staff of five others: Administrative Assistant Jawana Lowe, Director of Sales Lynsey Gilbert, Marketing Manager Jessica Cauthen, Community and Programs Manager Sarah Sookraj, and Cultural Heritage Tourism Manager Roscoe Barnes III, Ph.D.

Visit Natchez budget for fiscal year ending 2023.

Visit Natchez is funded by three local taxes.

• A 1.5 percent restaurant tax, which comes from the gross proceeds of sales of restaurants, on-premises alcoholic beverage control permit holders, when the gross income of such businesses exceeds $100,000 annually.

• A 3 percent lodging tax, which comes from the gross proceeds of sales from room rentals in Natchez.

• A $2 Heads on Bed Tax, which is charged per day for each occupied room subject to the 3 percent assessment.

And in 2023, additional, one-time funding will be available through funds from the U.S. American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, called the Mississippi Tourism Recovery Fund.

“There were a lot of initiatives on the local level and on the state level that were really supported by our elected officials,” Heath said. “State Sen. Kelvin Butler was at our summit. He’s been a huge supporter of us, and we thanked him and our other elected officials. We have received great support from our representatives Angela Cockerham, Robert Johnson and Sam Mims, as well, who voted this past session for House Bill 453, which set aside $32 million in Mississippi to provide funding for destination marketing organizations like ours.”

While all of the guidelines and stipulations are still being worked out, Heath expects to receive $478,000 this fall for this fiscal year and more funding for fiscal year ending 2024, which should, in total, bring an additional $800,000 to the Visit Natchez coffers.

“It’s not just funding for Visit Natchez,” he said. “Up to $50,000 will go to non-profit museums and up to $100,000 for Main Street associations. When you think about the different museums in Natchez, not just NAPAC and the Rhythm Nightclub Museum, but Magnolia Hall and Stanton Hall and Longwood…That can be very beneficial.”

Mississippi’s travel and tourism agencies are not the only ones receiving additional funds to recover from the pandemic shutdown.

“Mississippi allocated $32 million for House Bill 453. To put that in contrast, other states have allocated must more. Some allocated as much as $178 million. All of the states we compete directly with for travel and tourism dollars, like Texas, are getting this funding. We are going to be inundated with marketing messages from these states we compete with,” Heath said. “Travel ads are going to flood the market.”

Trends and focus

“While we love our day trippers, and they are very, very important to us, we want to focus on our overnight visitors,” Heath said.

Data shows those who spend the night in Natchez spend almost four times as much in the market as does the leisure day tripper.

“Our challenge is, how do we turn our day trippers into overnight visitors. We really want to focus on growing those overnight visitors,” he said.

Hotel occupancy here is returning and the average rate charged for hotel rooms here have grown a bit, Heath said, partly due to inflation and partly due to demand.

“Revenge” travel is still going strong, he said.

“After COVID, after everyone was so pent up and couldn’t go anywhere and couldn’t do what they wanted to do, they are coming back with revenge. We have a new term now — GOAT trips, meaning the greatest of all trips. People are planning their greatest travel ever.”

In order to get a share of the money being spent on those GOAT trips, Heath said travel data will play a critical role.

“Back in the day, we only knew about a person what they signed on the registers at hotels. Today, we can really delve into travel information. Thanks to smart phones, we can find so much data. There are different services out there who have this technology. We are interviewing and considering several that will be able to tell, take the Blue and Soul Super Bowl for example, almost like a heat map, will show where everyone is going before the event, where they will be at 8 o’clock and where everybody is going afterward.

“I can see the average time that is spent in Natchez by people from specific markets.

An example of this is, when I got here, we always said we are only going to look at 100-mile radius and out because we want people who are going to spend the night. Probably, if you are coming from a 70-mile radius, you are going to be a day tripper. We want those, but we want those people who are out of our market.

“So, Baton Rouge is within 100 miles. I said we are never going to pull out of Baton Rouge, but maybe we should spend a lot less in Baton Rouge. Maybe we need to start thinking about that. I had been kicking that around. We hadn’t done anything with that idea yet, but I thought we needed to spend more than New Orleans. I saw data though that showed me that the average visitor from Baton Rouge is spending 21 hours in Natchez. They are spending the night. That changed my whole decision making. We are going to continue to invest in Baton Rouge. They are not predominately being day-trippers. They are overnight stays,” Heath said. “We will be investing more than ever in traveler intelligence.”

Importance of customer experiences

It only takes on bad experience to drive away most of your customers, data shows.

“76 percent of customers stop doing business with a business after one bad experience,” Heath said. “However, despite inflation, consumers say they will pay more for a product or service to get a better customer experience.”

A well-trained workforce is key to good customer experiences. Unfortunately, in August of this year, the lodging and hospitality industry became the worst industry in terms of recovering from job losses.

“Of all the industries, we still have the worst job losses,” he said.

That makes the workforce development efforts happening in Natchez led by Tuwanna Williams, hired by the city about a year ago to lead a coordinated workforce development here, very important.

Data also reports consumers want inclusive travel.

“78 percent of consumers say they made decisions based on the messages they would see, the marketing ads and so forth, that they felt represented them. Travelers are seeking accessibility, diversity and sustainability,” he said.

“On the Visit Mississippi website, from June to August of this year, Black History was the number one sought-after page.”

In 2018, 12.5 million travelers with disabilities represented $58.2 billion in travel spending. By 2028, that number is expected to climb to 33.4 million travelers with disabilities who seek accommodations for their unique needs.

Marketing Natchez

“Visit Natchez has made a plan to target visitors who are interested in six different areas, which are historic homes, scenic trails, outdoor recreation, groups and meetings, cultural heritage and arts and entertainment, Heath said. “This is how we will focus our marketing dollars going forward. We are pushing these different areas to really drive tourism as we go forward.”

Using social media like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to drive the targeted Natchez message is critical, and Heath said in the coming year, Visit Natchez would begin using TikTok. However, partnerships with several agencies have proven critical to successful messaging and branding, he said.

Visit Natchez works with:

• STAMP to create a new Visit Natchez brand aimed at fostered expanded, positive awareness.

• Madden Media for advertising for on-brand messaging across all channels and continue to build brand awareness and stability.

• Advance Travel and Tourism for strategic digital marketing efforts according to its marketing plan.

• Lou Hammond Group for public relations.

“Lou Hammond pitches Natchez to a variety of outlets, opening up more channels for exposure through story telling and press releases,” Heath said.

Hammond is also instrumental in vetting and connecting journalists, influencers and travel writers to the Visit Natchez team to generate coverage, he said. The agency also provides analytics and reporting on Natchez coverage and tracking.