The Mississippi Gulf Coast is a wonderful option for planners seeking affordability in an action-packed yet laid-back destination.
From casino thrills and golfing to lovely beaches and shopping districts, the area has something for everyone, according to Crystal Johnson, director of sales at the Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB.
“When groups are not meeting, there are plenty of options for free time—golf courses, outlet and boutique shopping, charter fishing, around-the-clock entertainment at the casinos, delicious dining, and even just lounging on the beach,” she says.
Couple those diverse offerings with meetings-equipped resorts and hotels and planners quickly note the area as a go-to Southern gem for group gatherings.
Starring miles of white-sand beaches and the majority of the coast’s casinos, including Margaritaville Casino opening this month, Harrison County features the group-friendly cities of Gulfport and Biloxi, where planners can host affordable events.
“Group business has been returning to the area and attendees are able to see the value in our destination with comparable destinations in the region,” Johnson says, explaining marketing assistance from BP has helped promote the area since the Gulf oil spill. “In 2010-2011, we received a BP grant that allowed us to hold four familiarization tours on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We were able to identify meeting planners, tour/travel planners and media, and invite them here to show them firsthand all the great things we have to offer.”
Additionally, the Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB offers complimentary convention services, including registration assistance, computer-generated name badges, destination brochures and small trinkets for goodie bags to groups that utilize area hotel facilities.
“For those larger groups, we may also offer incentive monies that can be used to help offset transportation or convention center costs, etc.,” Johnson says.
The Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center is located in Biloxi and offers 410,000 square feet of flexible meeting space with on-site catering for groups of up to 6,000 attendees. The IP Casino Resort & Spa and Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, both in Biloxi, also offer meeting space for larger groups, Johnson adds.
Other Biloxi-based casino properties with meeting space include the Palace Casino Resort, which after a recent renovation is the Gulf Coast’s only smoke-free casino, the newly opened Margaritaville Casino, the Grand Biloxi Casino Hotel & Spa, Treasure Bay Casino Resort, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and Isle Casino Hotel.
Situated steps from the Beau Rivage is Four Points by Sheraton Biloxi Beach Boulevard. And the beachfront South Beach Biloxi Hotel & Suites accommodates smaller groups.
Attractions that double as off-site event venues include Biloxi Schooners, which features replicas of oyster schooners from days past, and the Frank Gehry-designed Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, which Johnson says is a great setting for cocktail receptions.
After the meeting, groups have a wide variety of activities to choose from along the coast, including golf tournaments at area courses, including Grand Bear Golf Course and Fallen Oak Golf Club, fishing tournaments via area charters and a bonfire/shrimp boil on the beach.
“They can also enjoy a trip through old Biloxi on the Biloxi Tour Train or paint their own masterpiece with [Gulfport-based] Canvas & Cocktails,” she says.
Also in Gulfport is Gulfport Premium Outlets, a collection of 70 stores, including Banana Republic, Coach and Nike for the shoppers in the group, and group-friendly restaurants including Lookout Steakhouse and Latitude 30 Restaurant & Bar.
Bay St. Louis/Hancock County
Hancock County, known as Mississippi’s West Coast, is another beachfront community that’s big on hospitality and group-friendly appeal. The easily accessible area, anchored by main meetings player Bay St. Louis, is located 30 miles west of Biloxi and 57 miles east of New Orleans.
“The area is unique in its quaintness as a small-town atmosphere with a large art community, and is a history lover’s dream,” says Myrna Green, manager of the Mississippi West Coast/Hancock County Tourism Development Bureau.
She adds the tourism bureau provides a number of complimentary services to attract groups, including goodie bags with items and information, nametags, coordination of tours and off-property events, step-on guide services, dinearound and registration assistance, and attendance-builder promotions.
One attendance-builder is the newly opened Infinity Science Center at NASA Stennis Space Center, a multimillion-dollar, 67,000-square-foot facility attendees will enjoy visiting and exploring. Green says it’s also available for group gatherings.
Other group activities include outdoor pursuits at area beaches, visiting Silver Slipper Casino for gaming fun or strolling around Old Town Bay Saint Louis and the Depot District, where unique shopping opportunities are found.
“Old Town is the perfect setting for a block party or shopping event,” Green says, adding the nearby community of Kiln is the home of Brett Favre and is a draw for avid sports fans. “Kiln has a large multipurpose arena with a covered pavilion and can be used for outdoor events and concerts or any other creative purposes.”
Green adds the boarding house used in the 1966 movie, This Property is Condemned, with Robert Redford and Natalie Wood, has been restored and is now the home of the Bay St. Louis Little Theatre, which is well-suited for receptions and small events.
“Hancock County is well-known for its numerous unique and family-owned restaurants, many of which do catering and have space for private events,” Green says, citing 200 North Beach Restaurant, Trapani’s Eatery and West End Restaurant.
Additionally, planners can ask about private culinary events with local chefs, including Nancy Moynan from Lulu’s What’s for Lunch or Hank Plauche from Jourdan River Steamer.
Mardi Gras parties, art demonstrations and classes, and day trips to New Orleans, only an hour away, are popular options with delegates as well.
“We as a tourism bureau can facilitate these group events and custom-design them to fit the needs and interests of the groups,” Green says.
The area’s primary meetings location, Hollywood Casino Bay St. Louis, is a self-contained resort with a casino, hotel, meeting space and an Arnold Palmer golf course that accommodates group tournaments.
The Bay Saint Louis Community Hall and the Waveland Community Center also provide full-service meeting facilities for group gatherings.
Ocean Springs/Jackson County
In step with its neighbor Bay St. Louis, Ocean Springs is another pedestrian-friendly beach destination known for its arts community.
“We are the arts center of the Gulf Coast, with more than 400 artists belonging to our Ocean Springs Arts Association, and the Chamber−Main Street−Tourism Bureau hosts the largest fine arts festival in the state, the Peter Anderson Arts & Crafts Festival, each November,” says Cynthia Dobbs Sutton, events coordinator at the Ocean Springs COC−Main Street−Tourism Bureau.
Ocean Springs hosts a festival or event each month so there are always fun activities attendees can participate in, including May’s Taste of Ocean Springs Food & Wine Festival, June’s Red, White and Blueberry Festival and July’s Sidewalk Sale, during which local shops bring their best sales to the sidewalks.
Of the more than 150 shops located here, the majority are downtown, making Ocean Springs a preferred shopping district for groups convening here or visiting for the day from nearby Biloxi and elsewhere.
“The shops are one-of-a-kind, small and privately owned,” Dobbs Sutton says, citing Hillyer House, a staple on the coast for more than 30 years that carries paintings, pottery, jewelry and handmade stainless steel items, and Gina’s, an antique store with jewelry, Christmas ornaments and more for sale.
To break up a day of shopping, attendees might grab lunch or dinner at a local eatery, including Phoenicia Gourmet Cuisine, Al Fresco Italian Bistro, Mediterraneo or Bayview Gourmet.
The Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center, Dobbs Sutton adds, offers cooking, painting, pottery and other classes, as well as performances in its theater.
“They have a Thursday Lunch and Learn from 12 to 1 p.m., and daily cooking sessions where they teach everything from how to hold a knife to how to cook the perfect steak,” Dobbs Sutton says. “Culinary classes are very popular right now.”
The Walter Anderson Museum of Art, dedicated to artist Walter Inglis Anderson, who inspired much of the economic development of the town, according to Dobbs Sutton, doubles as an off-site venue for group events.
Among the other group-friendly facilities here are the Gulf Hills Hotel & Conference Center, which sits on a bayou with a golf course, and the Ocean Springs Community Center, which is covered in Walter Anderson murals.
Carolyn Blackburn is a frequent contributor to Meetings Focus South.