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How Mississippi Emerged as a Leader in Tourism Recovery

While most destinations throughout the country are still reeling from COVID-19’s devastating economic impact on the travel industry, few locales have successfully pivoted and adapted as quickly as the state of Mississippi. Through swift state legislative action and new pandemic-appropriate visitor campaigns, Mississippi has emerged as an innovative leader in tourism recovery. Among Mississippi’s destinations outpacing many U.S. markets is Hattiesburg, affectionately known as HBURG and the Hub City.

The wrath of COVID-19 was felt by all parts of the economy, with tourism and travel being among the hardest hit. In 2020, Mississippi’s visitor spending losses topped $2.5 billion from 2019, creating devastating economic effects throughout the industry, including local destination marketing organizations. Through crisis and adversity, destination leaders united to find a solution and a path forward for recovery. This unity led to the state legislature allocating CARES Act funding to DMOs for marketing activities related to the business disruption effects of Coronavirus Disease 2019. That was July 2020, and a recovery lifeline was within reach.

By Dec. 2020, equipped with recovery funding and a renewed mission, Mississippi destinations benefited from faster recovery than the rest of the country. In fact, U.S. Travel Association and Tourism Economics cited Mississippi as the top tourism market in the country for travel that month in year-over-year visitor spending.

The Mississippi Tourism Recovery Fund provided us with a golden opportunity to share Hattiesburg’s story, and Mississippi’s story too, during a time when people were searching for joy through safe and leisurely getaways. Our strategic, data-driven approach had to strike the perfect balance – share our compelling story in available markets while also clearly communicating vital public health information and social distancing protocols.

From there, Hattiesburg’s ‘Safely Open for You’ campaign came to life, highlighting many of our destination’s unique assets – its civil rights history, creative culture and expansive outdoor recreational spaces. Consumer sentiment surveys told us pandemic-era travelers were more willing to plan trips to smaller, rural areas, so VisitHATTIESBURG launched its research-based campaign with this core focus. Strategic advertising in key drive markets yielded exceptional results with more than 300 million media impressions earned in six months as well as national exposure for many of Hattiesburg’s attractions and offerings.

Adapted tourism development was critical, and we focused on creating new ways for visitors to safely enjoy Hattiesburg. New trails offering socially distant leisure activities and virtual tours were launched including the Hattiesburg Public Art Trail and Hatties[BURGER] Trails as well as digitally enhancing the 1964 Freedom Summer Trail.

Additionally, we published tailored itineraries for specific visitor interests: family-friendly, pet-friendly, foodies, history buffs, outdoor enthusiasts, art lovers and many more. In-market strategies and partner outreach remained key focuses throughout 2020, including equipping hotels and restaurants with ‘Hello from HBURG’ masks and placing visitor kiosks throughout the city with ‘Safely Open for You’ options.

As an industry, our combined efforts extend far beyond just filling hotel rooms, restaurants and attractions. Hattiesburg, a highly creative, two-university city in the Gulf South, competes for tourists, consumers and available workforce talent to strengthen its numerous economic development sectors. A strong, vibrant tourism sector also brings national visibility, attention and respect to Hattiesburg. A significant economic driver, tourism supports thousands of local jobs while providing the platform for creative placemaking and destination development. Visitor spending yields hundreds of millions in revenue, spurs private sector capital investments and greatly enhances the quality of life for residents.

The last several months have presented unprecedented challenges for the hospitality industry, but we are encouraged by our progress in Hattiesburg. We made a commitment to find solutions and do our part, not just locally but throughout the state. In working with other destinations and leaders in Mississippi, we will continue to be bold and innovative, leading the way for all to experience the joy of travel again as doors safely reopen in our country’s great destinations.

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