hen the world came to a standstill in the spring of 2020 due to the global outbreak of COVID-19, the leaders of Mississippi were already laying the groundwork for a robust recovery.
With tourism ranking as the fourth largest industry statewide, leaders knew that a full and speedy rebound from the pandemic-induced recession would be one of the first orders of business.
What followed was both remarkable and unprecedented. For starters, Mississippi had one of the least onerous drop-offs in both visitors and spending. And when the Magnolia State did bounce back, tourism and the spending that goes with it bounced back rapidly.
“Mississippi fared really well during the pandemic,” says Danielle Morgan, executive director of the Mississippi Tourism Association. “We lost $2.7 billion in visitor spending during that period, but our lawmakers have been very strategic about how we recovered.”
First, a look at the numbers:
“Many states fared much worse,” says Morgan. “The industry banded together in 2020. Most of our CVBs (convention and visitors bureaus) around the state are funded by visitor revenue. The first tranche of recovery was the CARES Act. A coalition of industry leaders in our state secured tourism recovery funds.”
By the end of 2020, Mississippi had surged to No. 1 in travel spending. “The governor’s commitment to keeping our economy open was a big factor,” says Morgan. “People felt safer visiting here. They felt safer getting in their car and driving to outdoor amenities.”
Morgan notes that “our governor was intentional in keeping our economy as open as possible. We reopened sooner than a lot of states. Some states have not yet returned to normal.”
Several factors contributed. The fact that Mississippi boasts an abundance of outdoor locations that can be reached by car was one of the biggest draws for visitors who were eager to get out of their homes. Plus, “a lot of states stopped tourism marketing,” Morgan says. “We marketed that Mississippi was a place to visit responsibly.”
The Mississippi Tourism Association was able to garner Tourism Recovery Funds for its partners. “Those funds were strictly for marketing. It was a unified state campaign through our local marketing organizations,” adds Morgan.
Soon, Mississippi will offer visitors even more reasons to spend their tourist dollars. The Congress of Country Music, a famous memorabilia tour, will visit Mississippi next year. The collection belongs to famed country singer Marty Stuart of Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Threefoot Hotel in Meridian and Hotel Tupelo, two new lodging destinations, are sure to draw many visitors as well, notes Morgan. The Hotel Legends in Biloxi opened recently and brought a whole new vibe with it. “It is a really cool hotel with a Frank Sinatra Rat Pack throwback appeal,” she says.
In the food and drink sector, Morgan adds that “our restaurateurs rose to that challenge and were nimble in their approach. Locals rallied around their hometown restaurants.”
Wanderers Are Welcome
Looking to the future, the Mississippi Tourism Association is embarking on a new marketing campaign called “Wanderers Welcome.” Morgan says that “economic developers are increasingly understanding of the relationship between tourism and economic development. It is crucial to how we attract and retain talent. Quality of life and quality of place are so important. We always want to make that connection. After all, a nice place to visit is a nice place to live. People today can work anywhere, which means they can live anywhere — so it is important to offer a great quality of life.”
Thanks to the growth in remote working since the start of the pandemic, “we have seen a revival of our rural areas,” notes Morgan. “People want to be in a smaller place but still have big-city amenities. They want that small-town safety. There is that opportunity in Mississippi.”
Morgan says she has also witnessed a small business revival. “A byproduct of the Great Resignation is that people are realizing life is short and they want to live their dreams. It’s interesting to see how it shifted people’s perception on quality of life. We have a lot to offer in quality of life. We are known as the Hospitality State. It is a way of life for us. It is all about the human connection.”