Coast conventions bouncing back

Published 8:10 pm Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The convention business along the Mississippi Gulf Coast is bouncing back, tourism officials say.

Motorcycle and car clubs, hair stylists, governmental agencies and large companies all have returned to the coast with their conventions since Hurricane Katrina.

The Mississippi Coast Convention Center has just begun an expansion that will more than double its size. The center is already selling space for late 2009.

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About 700 travel representatives from 12 states and travel buyers from across the country and Canada are coming to Biloxi for the Travel South USA Showcase, March 1-5.

The Travel South expo will focus on destination marketing, taking participants from Tunica on south and from one end of the Coast to the other to show how much Mississippi has to offer tourists.

Liz Bittner, executive director of Atlanta-based Travel South USA, said the coast remains affordable while still providing world-class casinos and warm weather.

Tony Doolittle will bring a group of 400 co-workers from Southern Farm Bureau Insurance Co. to Biloxi in May for an annual convention. Doolittle said the group isn’t into gambling, but members enjoy the saltwater fishing and other outdoor sports.

Groups and companies choose meeting destinations based on where their membership and employees want to visit, said Paula April, director of marketing for the Coast Convention Center. “It’s not only business, they want to have a good time.”

The Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau generates the leads. April handles the site tours and books the groups, often three to eight years prior to the event.

Matt McDonnell, assistant executive director at the Coliseum, is in charge of bringing entertainment to the Coliseum.

“The family shows definitely have been the easier to convince promoter-wise to come back into the market and they have seen very, very good results,” he said.

McDonnell said big-name entertainers have been the hardest to sign “because of the risk involved.” The market has to prove it can sustain the big-ticket prices for these shows.

The Coliseum Commission is currently considering whether the expansion of the convention center will be enough to allow the coast to host the National Governor’s Conference in fall 2009.