Miss. Gulf Coast makes pitch for national spotlight


BILOXI, Miss. -- Casino and tourism officials here are betting that an increase in direct jet flights, coupled with an expansion in hotel room inventory, will help the Mississippi Gulf Coast evolve from a drive-in market with a customer range of 150 miles into a regional and national destination.

This year, AirTran became the fifth carrier to offer jet service to the gulf coast.

The others, all 1998 entries, are Continental Express; ASA/Delta; Northwest, replacing Airlink, and Nation's Air, replacing Reno Air.

AirTran links the regional airport with nonstop flights from Dallas/Fort Worth; Houston; Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, Fla., and AirTran's hub, Atlanta. It also provides one-stop service from other gateways through Atlanta.

The new service provides eight roundtrip daily flights, increasing the amount of incoming seat availability from 1,224 to 2,050 per day.

According to officials at Gulfport-Biloxi Airport, the airport's passenger count last year numbered a record 379,764, a 25,000 increase over 1997.

To meet the demands of a growing market, airport authorities have hired the Atlanta-based LPA Group Inc. to prepare a 20-year master plan.

The immediate need, according to Frank Genzer, chairman of the Gulfport-Biloxi Airport Authority, will be to expand the airport terminal to handle more jets and to add 400 parking spaces.

AirTran's entry into the area derived from an underwriting agreement with the 1,780-room Beau Rivage Resort, which opened here in March.

Under the terms, Beau Rivage -- a subsidiary of Mirage Resorts Inc. -- is responsible for promoting AirTran flights, filling each plane and establishing the fares.

Beau Rivage markets and advertises the service in conjunction with AirTran and in concert with Mirage Resorts Vacations, which also is a subsidiary of Mirage Resorts Inc., and the Mark Travel Corporation of Milwaukee.

Mirage Resorts Vacations books room/air packages.

"These two developments, the opening of Beau Rivage and the introduction of daily nonstop, scheduled jet service from AirTran, will provide convenience and accessibility to the Mississippi Gulf Coast," said Barry Shier, chairman and chief executive officer of Beau Rivage.

Besides Beau Rivage, 11 other casinos float atop stationary dockside platforms along the casino belt that stretches 26 miles from Bay St. Louis to Biloxi.

A number of the casinos are planning to expand.

With new air service and the increase in hotel rooms (projected to total more than 16,000 by year's end), the coast has been hosting a myriad of significant travel industry meetings.

In April, the top 35 U.K. travel executives used Delta Airlines to fly here for an annual retreat hosted by the Mississippi Division of Tourism, the Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB and Beau Rivage.

The meeting series continued into mid-April, when travel agents headed here for the Travel Agent Gaming Expo and Southern Showcase, held at Beau Rivage.

The American Bus Association held its annual Coach Classic here in June.

Travel agents will gather here again March 16 to 19 for the Association of Retail Travel Agents' national convention.

More than 100 tour operators are expected to travel here for the National Tour Association Spring Meet in 2002, the first time it will be held in the South.

"All of these events will give our emerging destination the opportunity to generate millions of dollars of new business immediately," said Stephen Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB.

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