HOUSTON – Grabbing that leisure dollar is easy if the tourist are coming to town, but the secret is to make them want to come and then be ready to serve them when they get here.
Michael Jones, of the Mississippi Development Authority tourism division, met with more than a dozen CDF members and local business leaders Dec. 3, to explain what it takes to draw tourist to town and then how to get them to spend the dollars they have in their pocket once they arrive.
“You’ve got to market your assets,” said Jones. “There are all kinds of tourist – Civil War history, Blues, country music, hikers, cyclists, ATV, fishing, camping, even agriculture.”
Jones pointed out the opening of the Tanglefoot Trail has provided Houston with a golden opportunity to cash in on some of those tourism dollars and he urged the community to band together to develop their tourism niche.
“Whatever reason they come to town, you have to have things for them to do and enjoy,” said Jones. “You don’t care if they came to visit a Civil War site and decided to ride the Tanglefoot Trail or if they rode the Trail and decided to go to your museum.”
Jones said state data shows people come to Mississippi for Blues, Elvis and golf courses followed by fishing and camping.
He said the state has also found a lot of people come to the state to enjoy the outdoors. He said the state is putting together a list of cycling, hiking, equestrian, ATV and water trails to attract bikers, cowboys, campers, canoers and kayakers.
“I also urge a regional approach, where you get towns to band together and work together to keep tourist busy,” said Jones. “Someone may come to ride the Trail and you can send them to visit antebellum homes in the next town. When someone comes to stay at a bed-and-breakfast inn, they will send them here to cycle the Tanglefoot Trail.”
Jones said the Natchez Trace is a huge tourist draw and Houston, Houlka and Okolona have to find ways to get people to stop in their town.
CDF Vice Chairman Jason Brooks said the opening of the Tanglefoot Trail has made Chickasaw County realize how much they have to offer.
“We have a lot more tourist resources than we probably realized,” said Brooks. “We just need to bring it together, tell people about it and then treat our tourist special when they come to town.”
The group pointed to the Blues Trail featuring Bukka White and the Country Music Trail featuring the Sparta Opry and Bobby Gentry. The Chickasaw County Museum, Flywheel Festival, Davis Lake, the Tombigbee Forrest and even the county’s four Indian mounds were listed as tourist attractions.
Chickasaw County Supervisor Russell King said CDF needed to look at plugging into the community’s Indian heritage and see about getting tourist resort status for Davis Lake.
“We already have people who travel up there year round to fish and camp in the summer time,” said King. “Maybe we could hold a bike race in the area that would draw people here. I’d also like to see us attract another hotel where people could stay.”
Don Locke, Tanglefoot Trail Manager, said the Trail is bringing people to town, but Houston needs more businesses to serve the needs of cyclists.
“The three things they want are a place to eat, a place to shop and a place to camp,” said Locke. “The Trail will get them here, but we need business people to step up and provide the services they need.”
Locke said one of the nicest bike shops in the state recently expanded in Starkville. He said if they can’t find it in Houston they will buy it someplace else.
Brooks said Houston businesses need to bend over backward to cyclists and give them a good customer experience when they come to town.
“These people get on the internet and blog about their visit to town,” said Brooks. “If they don’t get good customer service or a business is rude to them, they tell other people and the word gets out.”
Jones suggested Houston do those things that make it “bicycle friendly.”
“It may be as simple as businesses putting up bike racks out in front of their store,” said Jones. “Signs directing cyclists to restaurants, motels and shopping would be next. You also might want to consider putting in bike lanes on some of your major streets.”
Jones said developing a list of assets and then getting that information in the hands of state and local tourism professionals is a good first step.
“Like I said earlier, you have to pull all your information and all your people together,” said Jones. “Then you have to promote it and watch the tourist come in.”