By their very nature, tourism marketing slogans set high expectations. Hyperbole is a baseline, and marketing speak can lay it on thick.
Then there are the times when the PR folks in the destination get it spot on. Take Coastal Mississippi, for instance. Formerly known as Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, the new marketing campaign, Coastal Mississippi – The Secret Coast, launched this past spring, and judging from the happy meeting planners who have hosted groups in the destination, the Secret Coast is just that — the best-kept secret that their attendees are happy to discover.
“We consistently have attendees who haven’t been to the Mississippi coast and are surprised at all there is to see and do there,” says Chris Riggs, vice president for the multifamily division of Latter and Blum Property Management, based in New Orleans. In his position, Riggs organizes five events annually, ranging from a manager’s retreat for 125 to a trade show and client party for 350. He’s a big fan of the IP Casino Resort Spa in Biloxi, a 32-story, AAA Four Diamond property with 1,100 rooms and more than 65,000 square feet of flexible meeting and banquet space.
“We hear over and over again, ‘We didn’t know how nice the Mississippi coast is,'” says IP’s vice president and general manager, Duncan McKenzie. In Biloxi since 1999, McKenzie just recently stepped off Coastal Mississippi’s board and was involved in the strategic planning of the rebranding process. “We’ve got great shopping, museums, a new aquarium in the works, fishing, gaming — so much going on for groups. Our sales team is geared to do everything to make the planner’s job easier.”
Milton Segarra is the new CEO of Coastal Mississippi, at the helm since January 2018. He led the charge on the rebranding efforts in March. Segarra has more than 30 years of experience in hospitality and destination marketing and management, with hotel and casino experience at Hyatt Hotels, Sands Hotels & Casinos, and Hilton Hotels and Resorts. Before moving to the Gulf Coast, he spent more than four years as CEO of Meet Puerto Rico, the DMO that promotes the island’s group and convention business. His big push in Mississippi is to drive more group business to the Gulf Coast.
“We did a lot of market research directly with third-party meeting planners, and that was a driver for our business model,” Segarra says. “And while we are a well-known destination in the South, our goal is to create a new destination that is not an appendix to the state of Mississippi, but a true destination all its own.”
Diverse Destination Options
Tucked away between New Orleans and Mobile, this stretch of Gulf coastline offers 62 miles of beach real estate, along with a diverse array of attractions. From outdoor activities, such as fishing, boating, birding, and biking, to world-class gaming and a dozen quaint small towns, the area is ripe with possibilities. Add nearly 15,000 hotel rooms, the 400,000-square-foot Mississippi Coast Convention Center, and a slew of flexible meeting venues, and a group has options. Attendees coming in by air can fly into the regional Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport 6 miles from downtown, Mobile Regional Airport an hour away, or the larger Louis Armstrong International in New Orleans, a 90-minute trip.
For Riggs, accessibility, the high quality of food and beverage service, and the activities available to his attendees in their downtime play a big role in staying with Coastal Mississippi year in and year out. “I like that we are self-contained — the IP has everything we need onsite, including entertainment. The food and service are outstanding. We’ve used the ballroom for our trade show, and that’s been phenomenal, and we’ve also rented out 32, the restaurant on the 32nd floor, which was incredibly popular. The friendliness of the staff has been a huge selling point.”
Working with the sales teams at Coastal Mississippi and IP, Riggs’ group has experienced team-building events, including a scavenger hunt through the casino, an awards banquet, training classes, and separate breakout sessions for professional development. He’s also utilized smaller board rooms for executive meetings and outdoor space, including the pool, for receptions and cocktail parties. The big trade show is typically on a Thursday, so afterward, the group of 300 migrates to the Chill Bar, where it just happens to be the weekly ladies' night with a live band. “That’s a popular night for sure,” Riggs says. Besides the IP Casino Resort Spa, which is a Boyd Gaming property, Biloxi is home to the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, Boomtown Casino, the Golden Nugget Biloxi, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Harrah’s Gulf Coast, Treasure Bay Casino & Hotel, and Palace Casino Resort, the town’s only smoke-free property.
From Segarra’s standpoint, changing the region’s path and its outcomes in the tourism industry is his top priority. “Our outdoor options and our culture are two big selling points,” he says. Some popular group activities include fishing charters, Biloxi schooner trips, and boat tours. The region offers 13 award-winning golf courses, ideal for corporate tournaments. Zip ‘N Fun Adventure Park offers a view from above on a tree-to-tree obstacle course — now that’s a team-building opportunity — while fishing enthusiasts can hop aboard one of several deep-sea fishing charters and enjoy the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Beyond the big resorts, there are smaller properties, interesting arts venues for offsite events, and authentic downtown experiences minutes from Biloxi, adding to the destination’s appeal. “Each of our 12 coastal communities has something different to offer. The contrast between quaint harbor towns and beautiful, walkable downtown areas shaded with live oaks to world-renowned shows and casino headliner entertainment gives us quite a reach,” Segarra says. Bay St. Louis and Ocean Springs are two examples of coastal communities with gobs of charm and mom-and-pop shopping and dining options, creating the kind of “real” experience that connects attendees directly to the destination.
As publisher and editor of Commercial Construction & Renovation magazine in Suwannee, Georgia, David Corson plans dozens of events with clients and advertisers year-round. He’s taken groups of 35 to 175 to Coastal Mississippi a handful of times, most recently staying at the Golden Nugget. “I spent the day with a team member from Coastal Mississippi, and we toured just about all the hotels,” he says. “The Golden Nugget was the best option for us.” While based at the 700-room hotel, with its 22,300 square feet of meeting space, Corson’s group had dinner in Ocean Springs, a casino night at the Maritime Museum, and a shrimp boat tour. “We get a lot of people from New York, Philly, and Chicago, and none of them had been to the Mississippi coast before. It’s worked out really well.”
Coastal Mississippi Deliverables
When considering what kind of player Coastal Mississippi will be in the meetings and conventions market moving forward, Segarra and his team focus on the benefits they bring to the table and how to maximize local resources for meeting planners and third parties. “We talk a lot about how we can get groups close to our stakeholders, hotels, venues, talent, and transportation," he says. "We have a very good sales department, led by Janice Jefferson — very focused on cultivating relationships and delivering value. Connecting our groups to our communities is a big deal for us.”
The Gulf region is well known for its maritime component, Segarra says, beyond just the beach. There’s academic research going on, seafood business, fishing, and marine technology. “We are rich in this area, and we reach out to potential clients to let them know that we understand their language, their industries. Aerospace offers another opportunity — the John C. Stennis Space Center is a NASA rocket testing facility local to Hancock County. We have resources and specific experts and talent that can really add to a conference agenda.”
Gaming is another big draw, with 6,600 of the total rooms in casino properties. “Our gaming industry is within the top seven or eight in the nation," Segarra says. "We can really bring a phenomenal product to the table and compete. And Mississippi is the only state in the South with legal sports betting, another huge advantage. Entertainment is also nonstop, with celebrities known around the world performing at our casino venues. ”
Each of the casino hotels has its own demographic profile, with all of them offering considerable meeting space along with outdoor venues and specialty dining. For instance, the luxe Beau Rivage can handle large groups of up to 1,800 in the 17,000-square-foot Magnolia Ballroom, which has its own stage and can break into seven smaller spaces, depending on a planner’s needs. Owned by MGM Resorts International, the Beau Rivage delivers a traditional, upscale setting, multiple restaurants, a spa and salon, an outdoor swimming pool and terrace, and Fallen Oak, an 18-hole golf course in Saucier for guests only.
Next door at the 479-room Hard Rock, which skews hipper and younger, there’s also a full-service spa and the Hard Rock Live concert venue, with 13,000 square feet of space, including a 9,000-square-foot theater and an 1,800-square-foot meeting room. Treat your VIPs to a stay in one of the 47 swanky suites. The hotel delivers lots of dining options, including a Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Harrah’s Gulf Coast features a prime beachfront location and a lush, 13,635-square-foot pool area that's ideal for a cocktail party. Beside the 3,800 square feet of versatile meeting space the Grand Bear Clubhouse overlooking the 18th hole is a 5,000-square-foot log cabin with 40-foot vaulted ceilings, an interesting backdrop for a banquet for 80.
Offsite options abound as well. “We have a great collection of museums, parks, and pavilions. In less than a year, we will have a new aquarium celebrating Mississippi's unique marsh and Gulf environments," Segarra says. "Then, there are research labs, maritime and educational assets, and the Audubon Center in Moss Point. Our job is to work with planners to find the perfect fit.”
What would Segarra say to a planner who has never experienced Coastal Mississippi but is open to giving it a try?
“We offer an amazing team of professionals committed to being client vision advocators, and that’s something you don’t see often in the marketplace. Our people are an extension of your organization, and they will be sure your business objectives are clearly understood and met.”
Then there’s the power of the destination itself, which offers a unique opportunity to meet in the South in a beautiful, competitive, and affordable location. “I felt this moving here,” he says. “I know from personal experience this isn’t just something our organization says. Your people will absolutely feel local, feel welcome. They might not remember the airline they used, the transportation they took, or even the hotel they stayed in. But they will remember the experience of a destination. That sense of hospitality is what they’ll remember and take home with them.”
This post was provided by Beth D’Addono, a food and travel writer based in New Orleans and the author of 100 Things to Do in New Orleans Before You Die.