Hattiesburg Tourism Commission looks to weather economic loss at hotels caused by the coronavirus

By HASKEL BURNS,

According to the website of VisitHattiesburg – formally known as the Hattiesburg Tourism Commission – more than 1.8 million visitors spent $278 million in Hattiesburg’s economy in 2017, making the Hub City Mississippi’s third-most visited municipality.

It’s safe to say those numbers will take a significant drop this year, as recent statistics from the American Hotel & Lodging Association show that 44 percent of hotel employees in every state are projected to have lost, or to lose, their jobs in the coming weeks because of restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic – including 14,831 of Mississippi’s 33,078 direct hotel operations workers. With that being the case, officials from VisitHattiesburg – which is funded, in part, by a 2 percent tax on hotels and motels in the Hub City – are in the trenches with partners like hotels, restaurants and small businesses to help mitigate the financial damage caused by the virus and prepare for the future.

“We have reached out to them every day; we have made outreach calls to let them know that we’re here for them,” said Marlo Dorsey, executive director of VisitHattiesburg. “They are part of what makes up the beauty of Hattiesburg, and as we look through the lens of these unprecedented times, we’re all in this together.

“So for the past week, since Thursday, March 12, we’ve been doing daily outreach calls, text, emails, Facebook groups. We are going to get through this, but how we react right now, and in the next few days, is really going to determine our future.”

While VisitHattiesburg officials are concerned about the significant financial loss and economic disruption caused by the virus – including the loss of jobs coupled with fear and anxiety of the situation – the organization’s foremost priority during the crisis is saving lives and keeping residents safe. To ensure the tourism industry comes out of the adversity stronger than before, Dorsey and her staff are following all the latest public safety guidelines from heath officials and local government authorities.

“I can’t say enough positive things about our mayor, Toby Barker, and the many resources that he is reviewing and looking at,” Dorsey said. “He has been so diligent in staying totally connected with our public health officials, the best practices of communities throughout Mississippi and the country, and being ever-vigilant to make sure that he is putting first the lives of our citizens and their safety.

“At the same time, he’s making sure to do everything that he can in working with direct cooperation with VisitHattiesburg, with the city, with the county, and with many other people to see what that revenue recovery effort looks like. It’s a lot to think about and consider, but the most important thing we can do right now is to make sure that we’re putting the lives of all the people we care about in our community first.”

Dorsey, who serves on the board of directors for the Mississippi Tourism Association, has been in touch with more than 20 other destinations throughout the state to discuss matters from a business-tracking standpoint. That includes best practices, methods that are being utilized, and how best to communicate with state leaders and the Congressional delegation.

“We can share with them the things we’re seeing in our community, present to them what our needs are, and (talk about) how we can get over this immediate ‘stay at home for the next 15 days or so’ while following the guidelines that have been put into place locally,” Dorsey said. “How can we begin putting together what that recovery effort looks like?

“From a hotel perspective, it’s been just such a disappointing time, because so many of the people that we all work with … many of them are off. We’re looking at significant disruption in our hotels right now. It’s unprecedented – not just Hattiesburg; it’s everywhere, and it’s our industry.”

Although tourism officials know they will be looking at a sharp decline of what their financial expectations were for this year, Dorsey is putting faith in local leaders – as well as the federal government, Gov. Tate Reeves and the Mississippi Legislature – to come together to help provide the community with the necessary lifeline to rebuild and recover the community. In the meantime, she is urging residents to practice patience, compassion and understanding on the issue of lost revenue.

That includes keeping daily records of those losses and staying in touch with each other to better utilize that government aid when it arrives. To that end, VisitHattiesburg has worked to share best practices with local hotels, restaurants and small businesses, as well as to encourage those businesses to write to their Congressional delegation to make legislators aware of their plight.

“So we’ve been vigilant about making sure that we’re providing all the resources to our partners,” Dorsey said. “But at the same time, it’s most important to make sure that we’re putting the safety and security of all the people that we care about first.”

Dorsey commended the managers and owners of Hattiesburg hotels, who have been forced to make difficult decisions because of the financial losses caused by reduced occupancy.

“I can personally attest for those that have had to put people on furlough, lay people off, or take other practices to reduce the amount of staff that they have – they haven’t done so lightly,” she said. “Those (employees) are their work families, they care about them, they’re in the hospital industry on the front lines, and so it hasn’t been easy decisions that they’ve made.”

A majority of the hotels in Hattiesburg are still open and are following stringent health guidelines, including sanitizing surfaces every three hours, to ensure hygienic stays for their guests. With those practices in place, Dorsey fully expects the industry to rebound in a strong way as soon as the pandemic subsides.

“We just are going to have to hold on a few weeks – potentially months – and stay in regular contact with one another so that we’re all following the latest and best practices,” she said. “(We want) to provide those limited guests that we do have to see the city of Hattiesburg’s hospitality at its finest.”

In addition, VisitHattiesburg’s Hotel & Hospitality Association has been distributing the latest information to its partner restaurants, hotels and event venues to ensure those establishments are complying with best practices and local mandates.

VisitHattiesburg also has been working on similar measure with the Hattiesburg Restaurant Association, sharing required guidelines and executive orders restricting certain services at those locations.

“This group also has received the latest information on all of their tax extensions, so we’re providing (Small Business Administration) updates from them through the governor’s office,” Dorsey said. “We’re making sure that we’re providing all that information back to them so that they have one place they can go to get all that latest information.

“At the same time, they’re providing back to us what their hours of operation are, what they’re doing to be able to provide any type of services, even if it’s limited, back to the Hattiesburg community in the form of curbside delivery or takeout.”

Although the list of restaurants that have been forced to temporarily close grows longer as the pandemic stretches out, VisitHattiesburg has committed to do everything it can to help those businesses when they do re-open.

“We want to share when they open back up,” Dorsey said. “We’ll provide all of that information back through our channels, through downtown Hattiesburg channels, the city’s channels, and the media to make sure we’re sharing all of those opportunities for what they have.

“I’ve spent 16 hours a day – the mayor’s probably spent 20 or more a day – in making sure that we’re maintaining contact with our community partners to provide them with the information they need. And at the same time, we’re keeping track of all the losses at our hotel properties, since that is our major funding support. While we’re concerned about that in the long term, today it’s more important to help save our community and our destination, and rolling up our sleeves and helping the people who make Hattiesburg what it is.”