By MARK MAYER
The 2003 American Gaming Summit could be seen as a coming out party for the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
"Las Vegas comes off as the only pleasure destination with gaming," said Stephen Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. "I would classify the my region as convenience gaming, but we’re gaining."
Richer had some evidence to back up his claim, as he passed on booklets selling his resort.
"Our room inventory has climbed from 6,000 to 18,000," he said. "Our airport is the fastest growing in the nation since 1999. We have the landscaping, arts and celebrity backing to bring people to the Gulf."
The Biloxi/Gulfport area is 90 minutes from New Orleans and not much further to the beaches of Alabama and northwest Florida along the Panhandle.
"We have 12 casino resorts, 22 golf courses, 78 percent repeat visitors and a perfect 100 percent satisfaction rating from first-time customers," Richer said. "We have quietly established our mark as a vacation and gambling resort destination."
Richer said the addition of a new museum by 2005 and an agreement with noted cook Emeril Legasse will further enhance the area’s image as an arts and dining venue.
"We’re proud of our heritage," Richer said. "The Jefferson Davis mansion (Beauvoir) is a great attraction. The gaming industry may have leveled off, but we are making a strategic effort to attract people to our casinos and enjoy the Southern hospitality."
Richer said he saw no problems being able to operate with a $2 million budget, compared with Las Vegas.
"We would love their $50 million budget," he said. "But we’d rather use what Las Vegas has done for itself as a role model. Our figures show that people who come to the Gulf Shores tend to return more than once. I think we could be as big as Vegas in terms of economic impact."
Atlantic City is also looking to change its image.
"There is the conception that we are a drive-in market catering only to the casinos," said Jeffrey Vassar, executive director of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority. "It’s true that we’re not a well-rounded destination, but with the opening this summer of the Borgata, we’re hoping to start erasing that image."
Vassar said that Atlantic City has a long history in booking conventions, dating back to 1929.