SUCCESSFUL MEETINGS December 2006 Don't count Biloxi and Gulfport out of the gaming destination race-this area is pumping money back into its properties faster than you can say "double down." There is still much to be done, but the amount of progress in little over a year is astonishing. Work is under way at the convention center, which will double in size by 2009, and Gulfport International Airport is getting a major facelift to the tune of $51 million. When complete in the spring of 2007, the airport will sport two New gates (possibly for two new airlines), a larger baggage claim area, larger security checkpoints, and an expanded lobby and ticket area.
Essential Tool Box
Convention Facilities: Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center, 180,000 sf of dedicated meeting space; 23 meeting rooms. (Coliseum open now; convention center to reopen by Jan 2007.)
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Facility Quick Search at www.mimegasite.com
From Airport to Center: Gulfport-Biloxi Int'l Airport, 14 miles
Daily Business Costs*: Hotel $144.48 F&B $55.06 Car Rental $69.70
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Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB
*Business Travel News 2006 Corporate Travel Index
The Big News
The 1,740-room Beau Rivage reopened on the one-year anniversary of Katrina and continues to add amenities. Three fine-dining establishments are set to open by year end, the retail corridor has reopened, and Fallen Oaks, an 18-hole, Tom Fazio-designed championship golf course opened Nov 6. A high-limit area, poker room, and lounge add to casino floor offerings.
* The 1,087-room IP Hotel & Casino reopened Dec 22, 2005 and now offers renovated guest rooms, with wireless Internet and new bedding. New dining establishments include the Infusion Coffee Bar; Carnaval de Brasil, a Brazilian steakhouse with tapas served at the bar; and Thirty-two, the fine-dining restaurant on the 32nd floor. Some meeting space is currently available, with more expected to become available within the next year or so.
* The Hard Rock Biloxi, which had been scheduled to open days after Katrina hit, is rebuilding and expected to open in the third quarter of 2007.
* The Grand Biloxi Casino, Hotel & Spa underwent a year of renovations and reopened to the public on Aug 18 with 500 guest rooms, more than 800 slots, and 28 table games. The Grand's parent, Harrah's, has put further development in the area on hold, although it retains ownership of the Casino Magic next to the Grand.
* Work is under way at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center, where an expansion had been approved pre-Katrina. All work is expected to be completed in early 2009 at which time the center will be 347,000 sf and include 14 loading docks. The convention center will close for six months in July 2007 for renovations to Hall C; the arena will remain open.
On Site: MS Gulf Coast
Still Construction Ahead
Tourism officials tell me that there was a silver lining to Hurricane Katrina, since it allowed for the complete overhaul of properties that might otherwise have taken years to update. And it really is amazing to see the progress that has been made in little more than one year.
The IP, where I stayed, has been completely redone, including guest rooms, bars, and restaurants. One addition to the dining options is Carnaval de Brasil, a fun Brazilian steakhouse where gaucho servers carve meats tableside until diners cry uncle. The restaurant is designed to look like the interior of a mine, with stone walls and torch lighting.
Certain historical landmarks, such as Mary Mahoney's Old French House Restaurant (which dates back to 1737) withstood the storm. Mary Mahoney's is worth a stop when you are in town and able to wrest yourself away from the hotspots in casino properties. The restaurant serves fabulous fare (try the shrimp and crabmeat au gratin-you'll need a nap after lunch, but it's worth it!) with Southern grace and hospitality in a creaky and charming former home.
Even so, I was ill-prepared for some of what I saw. Bedding still dangles from trees in Katrina-devastated Biloxi and Gulfport. Abandoned homes sit across the street from sparkling casinos, or next door to brand-new builds (raised 18 feet, per FEMA guidelines).
But what struck me most was how genuinely grateful area residents seem to be to have visitors back. Valerie Cushman, of Eclectic Jazzy Merchandise, a Biloxi gift shop, mentioned what a positive impact has been made by media coverage of the area and people beginning to visit once again. Cushman sees the humor in all of this, too: Her shop sells handmade Christmas ornaments of FEMA trailers and blue-tarp-topped houses.