CARLIE KOLLATH: Be prepared to answer tourists’ questions

By Carlie Kollath/NEMS Daily Journal

“Where’s a good place to eat in Tupelo?” The right answer would have been rewarded with $20.
Unfortunately, the woman advised the tourist, who happened to be local restaurant owner Bernard Bean, to drive miles down the road. None of the restaurants within walking distance were mentioned.
Bean, a partner with the Eat With Us group, which owns Fairpark Grill, Harvey’s, Sweet Peppers and Park Heights, said he considered the answer a failure on his part.
He had hoped the woman would have suggested a nearby eatery.
Bean’s been an active part of an effort to educate downtown employees who interact with tourists about things to do downtown. Since the person he asked worked at a downtown business, he thought the woman would know about the handful of restaurants in the area.
He was wrong.
It was a wake-up call to him and should be to others, as well. Too often, we assume that people know what Tupelo and Northeast Mississippi have to offer.
Other cities assume that about themselves as well. Earlier this month, I was at a workshop at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism and one of the speakers opened by saying that “everyone knows” that her town was known for a specific thing. I’d never heard of her town, let alone its claim to fame.
The same conference gave about 250 people a reason to visit Tupelo. While many made the trek for the first time. We may be a popular destination for Northeast Mississippi residents, it’s a long haul for people in other corners of the state.
We are convenient in some respects (U.S. Highway 78, Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, Natchez Trace), but as a region we are relatively isolated. To wind up in Tupelo, you have to want to come here.
And when visitors show up here, they need to be reminded that they made the right decision so they’ll come back.
They need to dine at our special eateries, go to our only-in-Tupelo attractions and see all those hole-in-the-wall places that we love as residents.
Many tourism professionals work to make that happen, but they need our help because tourists don’t always go through the official channels. They stop to get gas and ask where to eat. When they’re eating, they ask their server about things to do in area.
As residents, we have to be prepared with answers, especially with peak tourist season right around the corner. Unfortunately, the answer I hear too many times is, “There’s nothing to do. Go to Memphis.”
It’ll only take you a few minutes reading the Daily Journal or NEMS360.com to see how wrong that answer is.
In fiscal year 2009, more than 255,000 people found a reason to visit Tupelo. They spent money, too, even if it was only on a tank of gas and bag of chips.
When tourists want to spend more money by going to dinner or by souvenir shopping, we need to be prepared with suggestions in Tupelo and Northeast Mississippi.
And who knows? Maybe we’ll be rewarded by an incognito businessman who wants to thank us with $20.