For the seventh straight year, Sarah Forgey and her family drove to Biloxi to spend time at a beach front hotel. "We stay here because it's on the beach," she said.
The hotel is not affiliated with a casino, and that's something Forgey likes.
"The family environment here at the Emerald Beach is just terrific."
But Emerald Beach executive John Bosch says his problem is that not enough families know about the coast anymore. To him, the coast "is just too focused on gaming only. We're not getting the travelers that we used to get, and we're losing some of the one's that we, we're not growing."
Mickey Culberson disagrees with that assertion.
"I think that it's not all doom and gloom," the general manager of a casino hotel said. "I mean we grew occupancy 5 percent from 1999-2000."
Culberson is more than the general manager. He's also the president of the newly named Gulf Coast Hotel and Lodging Association.
"I think we're going in the right direction," Culberson said. "I mean there are very few destinations that can grow 300,000 room nights a year and not be pleased with that."
Yet at small hotels away from the coast casinos, there is some displeasure. Cheryl Henry is a hotel executive who's seen colleagues struggle to fill their rooms.
"I wouldn't come here to buy a hotel or build a hotel," she said. "I believe the market's oversaturated."
Statistically, most of the new room nights were going to the casino resorts. That's why last year, their occupancy numbers reached the 88 percent level. Check-ins at the smaller hotels were off nearly 20 percent compared to 1995.
"It says that we're not diversified enough, that we're too one-dimensional," Bosch said.
Hoteliers say that may be because the casinos do so much advertising to fill their hotels. Culberson is very aware of the fact that "the casino properties have a budget to market with. So they're out there spending dollars to bring business in."
According to last year's occupancy numbers, that business is helping the coast overall. Hoteliers say it's just not making much of a splash at the non-casino hotels.
The Harrison County Tourism Commission is in the middle of a three-year study that analyzes why people come to the coast, and why they stay on the coast. The results will help tourism leaders pinpoint their marketing efforts, so visitors stay at all coast properties.
by Brad Kessie
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