Visit Hattiesburg shares annual report and tourism recovery updates

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - Tourism is the fourth largest industry in Mississippi and of course, the pandemic impacted its revenue.

According to VISITHattiesburg, April and October are the biggest tourist months for the Hub City. In March of 2020, the organization quickly adjusted to provide a variety of opportunities for locals and tourists to safely enjoy.

VISITHattiesburg’s Director, Marlo Dorsey says tourism is a big part of the Hub City’s economy.

“Prior to the pandemic in 2019, we had more than two million visitors actually come to the city of Hattiesburg and that’s tremendous. A lot of people don’t really know that and it’s supported more than a $300 million visitor economy,” Dorsey shares.

Going into 2020, the VISITHattiesburg team announced its five-year tourism development plan just days before the first COVID cases were diagnosed in Mississippi.

The organization already had a plan to expand the city’s outdoor attractions and advertise to visitors.

Dorsey says Visit Hattiesburg set out to continue its work, but pivoted to work towards safe options and create a recovery plan.

“So when we know that travel as we knew it, and shuttered venues really just came to a screeching halt, we really had to look at ways in our strategic plan in our market research to be able to find recovery paths forward. And so we really focus a lot on outdoor recreational opportunities with our Long Leaf Trace, and of course with our Blue Ways with youth leisure sports and the safe return of it. Also, we put a tremendous focus on our public art sector,” explains Dorsey.

She says the organization began working on and highlighting the city’s outdoor recreation spots and tours.

“And in fact, last year we were able to unveil several things that really brought a lot of visitors to the Hub City, and many murals were unveiled which really added a lot of enrichment to the beautiful part of downtown and midtown, for people to be able to see. And in fact, we launched the Public Art Trail,” Dorsey says.

The Public Art Trail, which launched in March of 2021, highlights more than 40 murals and sculptures in public areas throughout the city.

Another popular ‘tour’ is the HattiesBURGER culinary trail, which launched in October of 2020. It details 30 local eateries with hamburgers on their everyday menu that visitors can preview and choose based on their dining needs and comfort.

According to Dorsey, the city lost $43 million in visitor spending in the first three months of the pandemic. However, ‘Tourism Economics’ still ranked Mississippi number one in the country for year-over-year visitor spending.

“We can see that while we were still down, and overall we were down 19% year over year, we still fared so much better than our surrounding states, and all the other states in fact in the country,” explains Dorsey.

Dorsey says CARES funding did help the tourism industry and Visit Hattiesburg made the most of their funding.

“We were able to also receive CARES Act funding for almost half a million dollars and VISITHattiesburg was able to put that money into a campaign in our key drive markets to bring people to the Hub City in ways we’ve never been able to do before. And so when we look now at where we were in spring of 2020 and ‘21, we now are achieving record sales levels, from where we even were before the pandemic started,” she says.

VISITHattiesburg used the funds to put up campaign posters across the city advertising walking trails, public art locations and more outdoor activities. Each board even has a QR code visitors can scan with their phone to see all the details of what Hattiesburg has to offer.

VISITHattiesburg also launched virtual tours of 99 Hattiesburg locations to drum up interest. The new VISITHattiesburg mobile app and desktop trip planner provide directions and information users can easily share during their visit. The integrated marketing campaign has earned more than two billion impressions as of October.

Dorsey says while there were losses and challenges in the beginning, the $300 million tourism spending in 2019 dropped to $257 million in 2020.

Despite the shift in their plan, the VISITHattiesburg team has remained determined to provide safe entertainment opportunities to keep tourism coming into the city.

Dorsey says they’ve been successful.

“You can look at our hotels and you can look at our restaurants in comparison to a lot of other parts of the country, and also in Mississippi that we’ve done a lot of things collectively as an industry right here, to really be able to enter 2022 in a very strong way,” Dorsey shares.

According to VISITHattiesburg’s 2019 study, day-trippers spend an average of $191 per group during a trip to the Hub City. Overnight visitors spend an average of $498 dollars per group.

You can find VISITHattiesburg’s yearly reports here.

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