Meridian Star

March 4, 2013

Meridian putting its best foot forward

By Terri Ferguson Smith /
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     Company is coming to Meridian and just as people who have 'company coming' into their homes are expected to spruce up and put their most hospitable foot forward, Meridian residents are being called upon to become tourism ambassadors.

    Dede Mogollon, executive director of Meridian Lauderdale County Tourism, said people who meet the public are already tourism ambassadors whether or not they know it.

    Mogollon, who became tourism director in October of last year, said the new mission statement for the bureau is: Celebrating the people, places and events in Meridian and Lauderdale County; past, present and future.

    "Just like when company comes to your house, you clean your house, you're there when they get there. You greet them, you make sure you ask them what they want to do while they're in town," Mogollon said," every Meridianite plays a role when those visitors come to town."

    Mogollon also wants people to understand that a tourist is not necessarily a person who comes here on vacation. Anyone from out of town who stops in Meridian or Lauderdale County — whether to fuel up their vehicle or stop for a bite to eat, can be considered a tourist.

    A customer at a convenience store might overhear someone asking for directions. That is an opportunity for the Meridian resident to help out and even offer suggestions for a place to eat, if the visitor asks.

    Since assuming the role as director, and with the help of assistant director Steve Martin, Mogollon has worked to identify Meridian as a destination locale.

    "We don't create events. We promote events. We promote everything that is in Meridian," Mogollon said.

In many cases, Meridian residents don't necessarily see the work of tourism officials, she said.

    "Meridianites themselves won't see where we are advertising unless they are picking up The Oxford American or Mississippi Magazine or any outlying areas," she said, but the push to promote Meridian and Lauderdale County is on.

    In the meantime, efforts are also under way to build relationships among area businesses and agencies that benefit from tourism dollars.

Mogollon said the department started a Meridian events meeting in January and it has been quite successful. Events planners and anyone else who is engaged in businesses that benefit from visitors to the city and county were invited.

    "We decided, let's all get around the table and let's talk about best practices and dates, and how we can cross promote those sorts of things," Mogollon said. "That group got together and said, 'Can we do this quarterly?'"

    And from that initial meeting came solid ideas on how to better promote the area, she said.

    "It is huge for Meridian for all those partners and people to sit around the table and for that idea exchange to be there," Mogollon said.

Participants wanted to coordinate a calendar of events well in advance so that everyone will know what is happening and when.

    They put forward other ideas as well.

    "We're working from that meeting, to synergize Meridian as a complete package," she said. "We're identifying our undeveloped tourism assets, outdoor recreation, Civil War heritage, civil rights heritage, and musical heritage."

    Meridian has a lot of history it can promote, she said.

    "We're not Gulf Shores, we're not the mountains, but people are looking for that authentic experience," Mogollon said. "We want to put all of this together, all of our events, our history, our future, our musicians together and package the whole thing. Everybody's really excited about that."

    Meridian is also rich in outdoor recreation opportunities, she said. A goal of tourism officials is to put all of Meridian and Lauderdale County's opportunities for visitors together in a promotional brochure.

Capitalizing on the area's oral history tradition is important also, Martin said.

    "I think it's been more of an oral history passed on from family to family and not necessarily a collateral piece where you can share that," Martin said. "As a community we've kept that among ourselves and repeated the stories, but in order to attract new people in the community we have to somehow organize this information in a cohesive, presentable form."

    There is also a need for a Meridian visitor's center, Mogollon said.

    "When you come into the state and the welcome centers are right there, you can find out what there is to do in the state," she said. "We want that for Meridian so when someone comes into town they can come to the visitor's center."

    There should be a place where visitors can purchase Meridian souvenirs, she said.

    "Everyone asks, 'Where can you get a postcard of Meridian. Currently there are very few, off-the-beaten-path places," she said.

Tourism officials will also continue to promote Meridian as a meeting place.

    "Meridian is a major player in the convention market statewide. The Riley Center provides us an amazing venue for conventions. It's like no other in the state," Mogollon said. "They work hand in hand with hoteliers to provide a great package. The city steps in and Meridian Main Street steps in. We're leading the state, we think, in a community-centered approach for conventions. It's being noticed."

    Mississippi Municipal League was here this past November, and told Mogollon it was their best convention yet.

    "A lot of Meridianites don't see us having a big convention center, but our hoteliers, the Riley Center, and all of our tourism partners in Meridian have really stepped up to the plate," she said.

    On May 8-10, Meridian will host the Mississippi Society of Association Executives Convention.

    "We will get to showcase everything we have and there's a fabulous program planned," she said. "The community will be hearing more about that because that is a very big 'Company is Coming' event."

In April, she said the Young Professionals of Mississippi will have their first statewide summit in Meridian.

    "These are opportunities for Meridian to show off everything we have to offer," Mogollon said.

    Other tourism goals include:

    Create a hospitality recognition program where front line tourism partners can be recognized for exceptional promotion of Meridian to visitors, and

    Continue to provide the regional convention market a premier product, increasing the number of conventions and their expenditures to increase tax revenue for the community.