TUPELO - Tourism leaders from around the region met Tuesday to help drill down what makes Northeast Mississippi special to travelers.
The overarching themes for the region - as identified by a preliminary report from consultants - were black history, the Civil War, the Arts and architecture. The board of the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance also discussed an itinerary themed around the region's Native American history.
The board is responsible for overseeing the Hills national heritage area, a federally recognized region that gets local, state and federal funding.
As part of the national heritage area program, the board must develop a management plan. It's paying Phil Walker of Nashville-based Walker Collaborative $150,000 to do the research and put together the plan.
The board is made up of representatives from member communities throughout Northeast Mississippi. Attractions include everything from Elvis' birthplace to the contraband camp in Corinth to William Faulkner's house in Oxford.
"It's tricky because there are a lot of stories," Walker told the group. "But you have to focus if you want to market it. ... If you have a visitor from San Diego, you can't throw everything at them. You have to have an elevator speech that you can sum up why people should come here."
Consultant Randall Gross is working with Walker on the plan. During Tuesday's six-hour meeting, he said the region has many strengths and weaknesses.
He said the region has a wonderful diversity of attractions, but that the size of the region and the many attractions make it challenging to market one message to visitors.
According to his research, almost 60 percent of the region's visitors to heritage sites came from the South, with many signing in from small towns.
International travelers make up 5 percent of the area's tourists, he said.
He encouraged the board to use the research to help market to the appropriate segments.
For example, his research found that the music heritage attractions, such as Elvis and the Blues, draw more affluent, international and big-city visitors.
His research shows that festivals have the fastest growing audience of heritage events and the board should market to festival-goes in Memphis, Jackson and throughout the immediate region.
He also found that the fastest growing audience support is for art/music/design venues, followed by Native American museums, then science and industry and history.
He reiterated that much of heritage tourism is driven by education. The more education a person has, the more likely he or she is to visit a museum or a historic site.
"Only one in 10 people with less than high school education will visit those," he said.