According to the U.S. Travel website, the Mississippi tourism sector has lost $2.026 billion in travel since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the area in March, including $1.07 billion from the weeks of March 28 to May 16, $550 million from May 25 to July 11, and $306 million from July 18 to Sept. 5.
That downturn was especially felt in Hattiesburg – Mississippi’s third-most visited city – which went from hosting more than 2 million visitors and employing more than 4,000 people in the tourism industry in 2019 to a fraction of that revenue after stay-at-home orders. To help mitigate those losses, officials from Visit Hattiesburg and other tourism boards worked together to receive guests in a safe manner, whether they be local or visitors.
Those efforts are being spearheaded locally by Marlo Dorsey, executive director of Visit Hattiesburg, who is serving on Gov. Tate Reeves’ Commission for Economic Recovery to chart a course for recovering from the pandemic and reopening the economy.
“We’ve been given a lot of really good information and best practices,” said Dorsey, who serves as chair of the Tourism and Hotel Committee for the commission. “Then we share things back from the ground level throughout the state back up through the proper channels, so that they can see really what’s going on throughout the state in hotels and tourism.
“That’s been nice for us, to be able to visit with our counterparts throughout the state and really try to talk about best practices.”
Dorsey and her staff have been vigilant in sharing the “Mask Up, HBURG” campaign, which was started in July by City of Hattiesburg officials to manage the risk of the spread of COVID-19 by wearing face masks or coverings at all times. To help in that endeavor, Visit Hattiesburg has purchased yard signs, flyers and other signage to display in hotels and restaurants throughout the city.
Visit Hattiesburg also has provided thousands of masks to employees with the help of the Forrest County Emergency Management Agency.
“We’ve really tried to keep our hotel partners engaged on all the best practices to be able to safely receive guests and sharing with them all the things that are coming from the American Hotel and Lodging Association on those said practices,” Dorsey said. “At first, when COVID-19 really started hitting the U.S. pretty significantly, people were very weary of even venturing out at all.
“So, when the economy started opening back up, and as we measured consumer travel sentiment, people were more willing to go places where they knew that those best practices were in place. They knew that those destinations who were taking the pandemic seriously were ensuring that their employees were trained, and they knew they knew the latest things they need to do to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Travelers were a lot more inclined to go to those hotels and those destinations where those best practices were taking place.”
A recent survey of American Hotel and Lodging Association members shows that 68 percent of hotels across the country have less than half of their pre-crisis staff working full time. In addition, 74 percent of respondents said that without further governmental assistance, they will be forced to lay off additional employees.
However, Mississippi has remained in the top 10 markets as far as revenue losses, meaning the state has lost less revenue than at least 40 other states.
“Cumulatively, we’ve lost $2 billion in visitor spending in the last six and a half months, and that’s coming off a $6.7 billion-year last year,” Dorsey said. “So, math shows you that’s about a 30 percent decrease in overall visitor spending for the state, and that’s significant.
“Imagine, if we are operating (at that level), and not in the bottom 10, what those detrimental, catastrophic losses are throughout the country.”
Dorsey attributes Mississippi’s standing, in large part, to close communication with destination managers and tourism partners throughout the state.
“In April of this year, my counterparts throughout the state … we all came together, and we visited with the governor’s office and the Legislature on how we believe we can try to minimize all the catastrophic effects of COVID-19 by creating the Mississippi Tourism Recovery Fund by asking for money from the (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act,” she said. “So, over the course of the legislative session, we spent a lot of time sharing the story about what COVID-19 has done to Mississippi’s hotel and hospitality sector, and all the losses to our restaurants and small businesses.
“Through much work, through much collaboration throughout the state, and really gaining the trust and providing these very details to our legislative leaders, we ultimately were able to receive $14 million in tourism recovery funding through the Mississippi Tourism Recovery Fund. They provided these dollars so that we could work on ways to safely showcase what we were doing at the destination level to receive visitors in our community.”
Dorsey said Mississippi is in a position to greatly recover from the pandemic.
“Now we’re all in the trenches, we’re all trying to do everything we can to work alongside of our restaurant partners and hotel partners throughout Hattiesburg and throughout the state to try to find ways to recover,” she said. “We know it’s not going to be easy, and we know some communities will weather the storm in better ways than others.
“For Hattiesburg, some things that have been pretty sustainable for us have been our leisure market – we continue to see an influx of people coming into Hattiesburg to have a good time in a safe way. Our military sector has really been also a significant component in keeping our hotels relatively full, as have construction companies and utility companies. In that very last week (Sept. 5), Mississippi as a whole was down $14 million from this time last year, and we really outperformed the country in that week because we had so many hurricane evacuees coming from other states into Mississippi.”