Definition of ‘tourist’ likely to expand

By Carlie Kollath/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The tourism industry is expected in the next decade to shift from the emphasis on “tourists” to “travelers.”
According to national consultant and researcher Berkeley Young, the term “traveler” is a more accurate reflection these days of the people who are staying in hotels.
• Nationally, one-third of hotel visits are from business travelers.
• One-third is from groups such as team sports, school groups, conferences and motorcoaches.
• One-third are individual leisure travelers, many of whom are visiting family and friends.
Tupelo has an opportunity to grow in all three categories, he said, if it has the right attractions.
But he warned Tupelo leaders during a recent presentation not to fall into the trap of “build it and they will come.”
“People aren’t going to come just because you build it,” he said. “If you’re going to build it, do real solid research first.”
The key to future growth, Young said, is for communities to focus on what is unique about them.
For Tupelo, many people consider Elvis to be that unique aspect.
The Elvis Presley Birthplace attracted about 45,000 visitors in 2010. Leaders at the birthplace hope to substantially increase that number with a building expansion, which will include an indoor theater and an outdoor amphitheater.
Events will be held later in the afternoon or evening, with the goal of keeping tourists for an extra two or three hours, in hopes of getting them to stay for dinner and then for a night in a hotel.
The birthplace leaders also are working on educational plans that will use the Elvis story to teach junior high students about dedication, hope, inspiration and consequences.
“The goal is to tell them that they can dictate their own life,” said Tom Robinson, vice chairman of the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation. “Kids are making some pretty important decisions when they’re 14, 15 years old. … We’re not trying to take the kids away from their schools. We’re just providing the opportunity and the venue.”

Capitalizing on our culture
The experts anticipate cultural and heritage tourism will grow even more than it has in the past five years.
Groups like the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance hope to capitalize on the trend. The group, made up of representatives from across the region, is planning a heritage center inside the Renasant Center for IDEAs in downtown Tupelo.
The group wants to serve as the aggregator for cultural and heritage tourism information in the region. It recently was successful in getting the Hills named as a National Heritage Area, and Kent Bain of MHHAA has big plans for the next decade.
He envisions robust online itineraries that allow visitors to travel the region by theme and hopes the organization will be able to work with area attractions to help them develop their tourist appeal.

Good sports
The Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau is working with MHHAA on the cultural and heritage tourism efforts, but it also is planning for growth in other areas, including sporting events.
In 2010, the CVB reported, sporting events in Tupelo had an economic impact of almost $14 million.
Weddings, conventions, trade shows and meetings also contributed additional tourism dollars. The North Mississippi Medical Center plays a role as well.
“Every time a life flight comes in, two to 10 family members are going to come in,” Young said. “It all drives rooms.”
The growth will require more hotels and a transition with the current hotels, Young said.
In January 2000, Tupelo had 1,492 rooms spread across 19 properties, according to figures from Smith Travel Research. Ten years later, Tupelo had 1,818 rooms across 23 properties.
As of December 2010, Tupelo had 1,792 rooms across 29 properties.

Downtown hotels
During a recent visit to Tupelo, Young noted that Tupelo’s hotels are clustered in near the Barnes Crossing shopping district. Plus, three more currently are under construction in the North Gloster Street area.
“I think it’s inevitable that you’re going to get more hotels downtown,” Young said, citing the increased emphasis on revitalizing downtown Tupelo and the proximity to the Elvis Presley Birthplace. “That only benefits everyone in the market because you can go after larger groups.”
He also expects more hotel brands to show up in Tupelo.
But with the new hotels, the burden will fall back on the tourism industry to answer the ongoing challenge:
“What are we doing to keep people here?” Robinson said. “They love coming to Tupelo but what are we doing to keep them here?”