n Tourism will be tough in 2009, but an industry veteran says there are ways to succeed.

By Carlie Kollath

Business Journal

The state's tourism and hospitality industry will have its share of challenges in 2009.

First, the state should expect at least 5.9 percent fewer tourists this fiscal year than last year, according to the Mississippi Development Authority's tourism division. And depending on the economy, the drop-off could be almost 11 percent.

Visitor spending is expected to drop in line with the decreased tourists for the fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30.

Second, the MDA is forecasting a net loss of at least 6,900 direct and indirect tourism jobs across the state. Total tourism-related jobs are forecasted to dip at least 6 percent from fiscal year 2008.

And third, state tourism taxes are expected to fall by at least $26 million from last year's $436 million collected, according to the MDA report issued in February. With the drop, MDA expects tourism will contribute at least 5.9 percent less than last year to the state's general fund.

But MDA couched the predictions, saying they are based on short-term factors.

Yet, the economic troubles already are hitting home in Tupelo.

In January, the Tupelo Convention amp& Visitors Bureau reported a 0.56 percent growth of the tourism tax revenues for November. The percentage comes after the CVB reported growths for the previous months of 7.57 percent, 14.55 percent and 8.28 percent. Sales growth this fiscal year currently averages at 7.8 percent.

Even though the January increase is a smaller growth than the CVB typically posts, CVB Executive Director Linda Butler Johnson said she's happy that it is still growth.

"There is no way to sugar-coat the current financial situation," Johnson wrote in her 2009 letter to Tupelo's hospitality participants. "All the national reports reveal that we are experiencing hard times - but hard times do not mean end times ... We are an industry that is resilient and skillful."

According to the MDA report, tourists spent more than $227 million in Lee County in fiscal year 2008. The MDA's research department estimates that 86.5 percent of the county expenditures were in Tupelo.

In addition, during the time period, 3,655 people were directly employed by the tourism industry in Lee County.

Johnson said the key to keeping the hospitality industry successful this year will be customer service that will retain customers and lure new ones.

She said any time a ticket is purchased, a meal is served or a lodging is booked, tourism professionals have the "opportunity to gain a customer for a lifetime of experiences."

"As we stress at the CVB, excellent customer service creates repeat business while poor customer service drives people away, never to return," she wrote in the letter.

"Repeat business" is part of why the MDA considers tourism "one of Mississippi's largest export industries." When tourists visit the state and return home, MDA officials say they are likely to become brand ambassadors for Mississippi if they had a good visit with good customer service. The results could mean a second visit, new tourists or new businesses.

Along with customer service, Johnson said the tourism and travel industry this year must market more strategically and rely more heavily on partnerships. In Tupelo, she cited partnerships with the state's Blues trail, in addition to the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance, the Natchez Trace Compact and the Tupelo Film Commission.

"Although we may be bombarded with news about financial turbulence, let's make plans to move forward, by working together to provide meaningful and memorable experiences for the citizens of Tupelo, the State of Mississippi, the nation and the world," she wrote.

Contact Carlie Kollath at (662) 678-1598 or carlie.kollath@djournal.com.

Carlie Kollath

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