Thursday, February 15, 2007
Hills Heritage Alliance pushes regional tourism
By SUE WATSON
Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance officials held a stakeholders meeting in Holly Springs February 7 to promote a new regional approach to tourism and seek information about Marshall County’s assets.
“Our main purpose is to listen to you as stakeholders and you give us advice and guidance,” said program manager Bobby King of Tupelo. “Cultural heritage tourism is your story. We want to take that story and build a successful tourism product.”
Mike Lynn, chairman of the Holly Springs Tourism Bureau, welcomed guests.
“I see this as being a great thing for Holly Springs,” Lynn said. “We bring as much to the table as any other county.”
King, using a power point presentation, laid out the ambitions of Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance to take stock of the cultural and heritage assets that can be used to attract tourists to the 30-county region. He gave examples of other successful heritage tourism partnerships and explained why communities in the region should participate.
The 2007 goals for the project, in addition to the inventory of cultural and heritage assets, include developing a three-year strategic plan for tourism, developing a technical assistance workbook for communities to have a one-stop source of data, launching a comprehensive web site and developing sustaining partnerships with chambers of commerce, development foundations, visitors’ bureaus, city and county governments, and all appropriate organizations.
King said over $850 million was spent by visitors in the Heritage Hills area last year.
When tourists come, King said he wants them “to understand our story and experience.”
“Tourism is a product that can be resold and uses the infrastructure (community resources) that is already in place,” he said.
King said the “cultural heritage traveler” takes a more leisurely approach to travel.
“Not everybody is in a hurry,” he said.
King said the most money can be made by convincing tourists to simply increase their stay one extra day in the region.
Last year overnight leisure visitors in Mississippi spent $130 to $140 per person per day. He said if 100 tourists stayed an extra day in the region after a festival, for example, that would amount to $140,000.
“This is a great opportunity to market our region,” he said. “The time is right. We can grow this.”
Darienne Wilson-Mobley, who played a role in establishing the regional tourism concept in the Mississippi Delta, told stories of her involvement in tourism development in Mississippi and Louisiana for 25 years.
She emphasized new concepts in tourism that have changed the industry in recent years, as those with tourism attractions learned to pass on to visitors the good word about their neighbor’s attraction. Mobley said the tourism industry and tourists do not recognize local and state jurisdictional boundaries. Individual operators have learned they benefit by recommending to their customers other attractions in the area.
“You have been given an unbelievable opportunity to look at your area and figure out how your area is connected to everything else,” she said. “Smart marketers today are putting it together for the visitors. As an industry, we’ve got to work with others to help them get their word out.”
In 1995, she attended a Whitehouse conference on tourism and learned a new buzz word - cultural tourism, Mobley said.
“(I learned) Mississippi was unique and wanted to stand apart as a rural backroad type community,” she said.
In Mississippi tourism professionals discovered the benefits of showcasing the authentic attractions already in place - what Mobley called “the authentic self.”
“What Americans are looking for today is the real experience,” she said.
Projects that offer visitors an opportunity to directly experience local culture have greater impact, she said.
As an example, a tour in Texas allows visitors to not only see a tortilla made in a kitchen but to make the tortilla themselves.
“Tourism professionals need to go back and take the tour and experience it directly from the tour guide,” Mobley said. “We have to work with our neighbors and think like a visitor.”
King’s project will act as an interface between the tourism marketing industry and the individuals in the local communities who have attractions and the tourists themselves.
Karen Collins, with King’s group, is helping the communities get their attractions listed in the data base. Business operators or anyone who wants to suggest an existing attraction for inclusion into the data base which will eventually be available online, is encouraged to go to www.mshills.org and fill out a database entry form. Collins and King can be reached at 662-842-5040. Anyone with questions or suggestions can write Collins at email@example.com.
The Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance office is located in Tupelo. The telephone number is 662-844-1276.
Some of the participants at the stakeholder meeting Wednesday were affiliated with the DeSoto Arts Council, Holly Springs Tourism Bureau, Kirkwood, Courtsquare Inn, Fitch Farms, Walter Place Estates, Cottages and Gardens and The South Reporter.
The Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance is being funded, in large part, through a $222,500 Appalachian Regional Commission grant. Matching funds in excess of $100,000 were provided by the Mississippi Development Authority’s Tourism Division, the CREATE Foundation, the University of Mississippi and the Oxford Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Madge Lindsay of Strawberry Plains said the Audubon Center in Holly Springs and other local destinations stand to benefit from the Heritage Hills tourism initiative.
“The initiative’s goal of promoting excellent, authentic experiences in our region which is rich in nature, culture and history will help us become more successful and also promote a better quality of life,” Lindsay said.
“The initiative will not only help bring more tourists to Holly Springs, but also provide the potential for an overnight stay benefiting lodging, food and related establishments, bringing more economic development to the region.”
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