By Mary Perez - The Sun Herald

At this pivotal time for Mississippi Coast tourism, Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast couldn't be in better hands.

Milton Segarra has been on the job as CEO of the regional tourism bureau just five months, but he has a handle on the Coast's opportunities and challenges. And he has plans to take advantage of the opportunities and overcome the challenges.

For the next few months, Segarra wants to solidify the three Coastal counties' place as an affordable destination, nurturing that sense of place and warm hospitality that pleasantly surprises first-time visitors.

And by fall, he hopes Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast will be poised to rebrand the Mississippi Coast into a rising destination with an expanded pool of potential visitors, visitors with deeper pockets.

First, Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast is contracting with a "high caliber" company to help reassess that brand. It also will bring in 14 top-level executives from all over the United States to help brainstorm about the business model.

"We'll start fresh, clean with a new vision, with a new business plan and start getting better numbers," Segarra said.

Chances are, Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast will head into that fresh start riding a high tide. The tourism numbers for the first half of the fiscal year have been outstanding.

Hotel occupancy was 67.7 percent and the average daily rate was $76.81, both increases over the first half of the previous fiscal year. That led to a 9 percent increase in occupancy tax collections. The Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast sales force has landed 86 group bookings, which it estimates will bring 21,329 people to the Coast and a $7.7 million boost to the economy.

Segarra is quick to spread the credit around and said he knows that he needs the support of elected officials, stakeholders in the hospitality industry and the people of the Coast to keep those numbers trending northward.

"We have good leadership," he said. "They're willing to go the extra mile and that's very important."

We urge those leaders to continue to stay plugged in and to pitch in when called upon.

Segarra is sold on the One Coast concept. He wants to market "The Coast" and show Casino players there is more to the Coast to Gulfport and Biloxi, and that Bay St. Louis, Pascagoula and other cities have something unique to offer.

"The next five years is going to be decisive in terms of how big we'll be," Segarra said. "As far as the regional effort, we're trying to create the sense like when you go to Disney. When you go to Disney, you open a big brochure ... you see the Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom, Hollywood studios. And you are going to stay there for a week. The first two days you will go to Animal Kingdom, then the next three days (somewhere else)."


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