City of Second Chances

Pre-Katrina, most casinos in Mississippi were required by law to be offshore. After the storm, all bets were off. The casinos rebuilt bigger and better on land, re-establishing the tax base and driving the Gulf’s economic recovery. Then guys like Tony Orlando, Travis Tritt and Tom Jones brought their uniquely different stage shows to town. Now c’mon, who doesn’t like Tony Orlando?

The gaming is there for those who want it, but that’s just a diversion. If your group wants a Southern beach town with big entertainment, nothing but new hotel rooms, and some sensational seafood—at prices suggesting the house doesn’t always win—grab a seat at the table.

The 1,740-room Beau Rivage Resort & Casino and neighboring Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi anchor what’s set to become the third major gaming/entertainment destination in the US. Presently there are eight full-scale waterfront casinos, most with full-service hotels, rimming Biloxi Bay and the Gulf. Harrah’s $700 million Margaritaville Hotel & Casino is stalled but still under development, and all of them are within less than 10 minutes of each other. Another three casinos are a short drive east towards Bay St. Louis.

“Our company (Harrah’s) made a decision within 48 hours after Katrina to reopen,” says Maureen Wooten, vp of sales at Beau Rivage. “We said we’re going to build back, and build back fast. This is a great market. In Vegas we have beautiful properties, but we don’t have the beaches or the Gulf.”

The resort was a game changer when it first opened in 1999—just after its Vegas sister property, Bellagio—and redefined expectations with its lavish spa, high-end restaurants and boutique shopping. This time around, Beau Rivage updated room design and opened the Fallen Oak golf course.

“We also added a deluxe pedicure room in our spa, so now up to six people can do pedi-parties together,” says Wooten. “It’s great for small incentive groups.” Beau Rivage is welcoming repeat groups too, especially the SMERF crowd who helped put Biloxi back on the map.

“Voluntourism is the buzzword today,” says Wooten. “A lot of people helped rebuild this area, and there’s an affinity there. They say, ‘I went down after the storm and now I want to go back and see how it’s changed’.”

Wooten suggests groups interested in CSR opportunities should first contact the Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB, who will introduce planners to operations such as Hands On Gulf Coast and the local Habitat for Humanity.

“The city turns 310 years old this year,” says Crystal Johnson, vp of sales for the CVB, who’s excited about life returning to normal. “There is a lot of history and culture here. Some of that we lost, but we’re working at getting it back.”

The demand is there. The Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center is on schedule to open its new 130,000-sf expansion in the fall.

“Next year, we’ll be in the new addition,” says Lauren Hodge, who orchestrated the 2009 Gulf Coast Food & Fuel Expo at the convention center this past February. She booked almost 500 attendees nationwide into Beau Rivage.