Sugar Bowl sweetens a sour time for hotel execs

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - It's Sugar Bowl week along the gulf coast. The game is this Friday in New Orleans. That night, more than 70,000 people will be in the Superdome to see Alabama play Utah.

In the days leading up to the showdown, tourism leaders here expect a significant number of those fans to stay and play in south Mississippi. Because of that fact, the Harrison County Tourism Commission is spending $50,000 in Alabama. The hope is that those spots will encourage Crimson Tide fans to visit the coast before and after the game.

"We're showing some bookings," Hilton Garden Inn General Manager Kenny Glavan said. "We'd like to see a few more. But we are seeing a few, and that's encouraging."

The Harrison County Tourism Commission ran an ad during the SEC championship game that claimed New Orleans hotels were sold out for the Sugar Bowl. In news reports across Louisiana and Mississippi, the president of the New Orleans visitors bureau said his associates were offended by that ad.

"We are very disappointed in Mississippi, our neighbor we love, creating false and misleading advertising in a lame attempt to entice Sugar Bowl attendees to miss the authentic, amazing nightlife, restaurants and hotels of New Orleans, and all of the buzz and excitement of actually being in the Crescent City near the Dome for a long drive in and miss all the fun," the visitors bureau's Steve Perry said. "It is doubtful that the savvy fan of today will fall for this misguided attempt to deprive fans of the New Orleans experience."

The Sugar Bowl had suddenly become a war of words between south Mississippi and New Orleans.

Richard Forester is the executive director of the Harrison County Tourism Commission.

"We were simply attempting to offer our destination as a viable, affordable, and convenient option for people who might be going to the game," he said.

After New Orleans leaders complained about the original ad, Forester issued what his commission considered an inappropriate and insensitive response. The commission "does not condone, adopt or approve of handling public relations in this fashion," a statement said.

The tourism agency then launched a new ad that only focused on south Mississippi.

"It's an opportunity for us to market the destination to perhaps an audience of people who are not aware of everything that we have to offer," said Forester.

And at a time of year when many hotel rooms are empty, the Marriott Courtyard's Peter Magee says that sort of marketing is greatly appreciated.

"Any business would be great," he said, noting however that his Gulfport hotel hadn't received any Sugar Bowl reservations yet.

Kenny Glavan expects quite a few Sugar Bowl drive ups between now and Friday's game.

"If we can obtain 75 percent occupancy, I think that would equal success," Glavan said. "Right now, we're about half way there. So, we've got a little bit of ways to go to get across the goal line."

One enticement being offered to Sugar Bowl fans is bus transportation to and from the game. For $50 roundtrip, the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association will make sure football fans get from their hotels to the Superdome.