It was a big year for Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, the three-county tourism-promotion agency for South Mississippi, and the group touted the accomplishments at its State of the Travel Industry annual meeting Thursday at Lynn Meadows Discovery Center.

Consolidating into one organization was hard, said Don Welsh, president and CEO of Destination Marketing Association International.

What’s good, he said, is “seeing the work that we recommend to all our partners around the world is being done here already.”

Renee Areng, executive director of Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, said the numbers of visitors and room nights are up over the last year, even with 2,000 more hotel rooms in the market. The goal is to get from 5 million visitors in 2010 to 7 million by 2020.

Here is how the organization is working to attract more tourists:

Hosting new events: The first Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon runs across Harrison County on Dec. 10-11, and Areng said organizers announced more than 2,100 runners are registered. She expects that to grow to 4,000, as the event is a qualifier for the Boston Marathon. The run will help put South Mississippi into the sports arena, Welsh said.

Getting the word out: With the marathon comes a national safety and security conference to Biloxi. Areng said 75 marathon coordinators from around the world will use the Coast marathon as a case study. “We will get lots of worldwide recognition because we’ll do it really well,” she said.

Trying new promotions: The term “Mississippi Gulf Coaster” just got trademarked and soon will be used to promote favorite places to shop.

Spreading hospitality: Nearly 600 people in the area tourism industry are graduates of Coast Champions, a program that helps connect those who work in Coast hotels, restaurants and shops with tourists who are visiting.

Using technology: “Social media is our voice,” Areng said. “That is our word of mouth now.” People get their information from a lot of places, she said, and Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast has to have a footprint in all types of media and online.

Welsh said South Mississippi should look at new ways to attract tourists by thinking totally outside the box. In Chicago, where he worked in tourism promotion, four-day music event Lollapalooza draws 100,000 fans a day and has a $143 million economic impact.

“Culinary tourism is becoming critically important to a destination,” he said, and Chicago went after the James Beard Awards, which had never been held outside of New York. That alone elevated the prominence of Chicago as a food destination and provided significant media exposure, he said.

The city also landed the NFL Draft, also always held in New York, and got into the film and television business, transforming itself into a major player in film, television and music.

“You can’t be just one thing,” he told the audience. “You’ve got a very, very special part of the world down here,” he said, and told them to expose as many people as they can to the Coast.

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