In the two years since the epidemic ended, pent-up demand from individuals who had been cooped up at home and were ready to travel led to record visitation to National Parks, theme parks, and other popular attractions.
Tourism boomed even in Tupelo. Tourism tax receipts increased 14% to $4.9 million in fiscal year 2021 and 12% to $5.6 million in fiscal year 2022. Collections are up 19% to $3.1 million six months into the fiscal year.
Inflation contributed to higher revenues, but more people were and are spending money in the city.
Elvis visitors and business travelers haven’t necessarily driven the significant rise.
Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director Neal McCoy said sports tourism helped the economy recover. Soccer, baseball, softball, and tennis are sports tourism. Regional tourists visit Tupelo’s aquatic center.
More visitors strain the service industry.
“The service industry was a lot like everybody else—it was hard to have enough workers to sell all the hotel rooms and have them change them over and also have enough waitstaff and kitchen staff to meet demand,” McCoy said. “It was a struggle for a year, and it still is.”
In 2021, Lee County had over 3,650 tourism-related employment, including lodging and food service, according to the Mississippi Development Authority (2022 data were not broken down by county).
The CVB is prepared to launch a new visitor profile and market segment study to find out who comes to Tupelo, why, how long, and what they do outside their purpose for visiting.
The Smith Travel Report, which analyzes hotel occupancy rates, is another important CVB data source. Tupelo CVB purchases statistics on the city’s top 1,600 rooms (out of almost 2,000). The previous few weeks have been eye-opening for McCoy.
“Three of the past four weekends, our occupancy rate was over 94%; the fourth was over 87%,” McCoy added. “That’s changed too. We worked hard to make Tupelo a weekend leisure market, whether through athletics or a weekend trip, before COVID.
Blue Suede Cruise, Gumtree Art and Wine Festival, and GumTree 10K Run were held those weekends. Morgan Wallen’s Oxford performance drew overnight guests.
Hotel costs have soared with demand.
McCoy stated that weekend hotel rooms in Tupelo used to cost under $100. “Over $150 per room this weekend. No more substantially reduced hotel prices on Priceline or elsewhere.”
Summer travel will boost hotel room and food and drink demand.
The 25th Tupelo Elvis Festival is likely to draw visitors next month. The first Elvis Fest since Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” movie’s success has recruited younger admirers.
Roy Turner, executive director of the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum, predicted a busier year.
“We are going pretty darn wide open,” he remarked. “At the end of April, we sold 10,000 tickets to our venues, and not everyone buys a ticket. We have 69 tour groups booked till the end of the year, and Graceland sends a group every Friday, which is sold out. Traveling Elvis fans have been great to us.”
The CVB invests extensively in destination development, and McCoy said the Birthplace makes Tupelo a destination.
“It’s creating reasons to come—for a product, for an event,” he remarked. “The board recently invested $1 million in a pickleball facility, and there won’t be a bigger or better one in the state.
Our state’s top aquatic center is over a decade old, therefore we need to figure out how to attract guests.
People prefer interactive museums than static ones. We must provide them with event rooms, sports facilities, and chill locations to connect.
McCoy said the CVB continuously seeks activities to attract visitors but avoids stacking them.
“We’re trying to space out our events and not overburden our city resources, whether it’s Public Works or the police,” he added. “I’ll use a baseball analogy—we’re not trying to hit a home run every weekend, but singles, doubles, and even triples add up to runs scored… Numbers show that.”