Officials beaming over success of Pilgrimage

April 16, 2013 10:05:11 AM

Carmen K. Sisson - csisson@cdispatch.com

 

The 73rd annual Spring Pilgrimage ended Saturday, concluding what organizers say was the event's most lucrative year in a decade. 

 

Late Monday night, Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Nancy Carpenter was still riding high on the almost unprecedented success, her words tumbling one over the other as she gave the numbers that tell the story.  

 

Approximately 10,000 visitors attended, representing 46 states and 16 countries. Ticket sales totaled between $55,000 and $60,000 -- 38 percent higher than last year's revenue. The city's 900 hotel rooms remained between 65 percent and 85 percent occupied during the two-week span, Carpenter said.  

 

She attributes much of the success to savvy marketing and a handful of changes she believes paid off in big ways.  

 

By purchasing advertising "remnants," she was able to publicize the pilgrimage in both the Wall Street Journal and New York City's Times Square. She mailed more than 2,000 press releases, specifically targeting members of the Mississippi Press Association she felt would be interested. 

 

She also made a few minor adjustments from the previous year, kicking off the event on April 1 with a crawfish boil instead of the usual fish fry. Carpenter said the change was "a tremendous hit," with attendees purchasing more than 600 pounds of crawfish and 75 pounds of shrimp.  

 

Another change included adding Errolton to the homes on the candlelight tour,  

 

But the old standards continued to be popular this year as well, with 775 people riding the double-decker bus and 500 riding in the horse-drawn carriage.  

 

The "Tales from the Crypt" performances also saw record attendance, despite being cut from six nights to four due to scheduling and inclement weather.  

 

Approximately 1,879 people -- up from 1,700 last year -- lined up in Friendship Ceremony, at times waiting nearly two hours to see narrative monologues presented by students from Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. 

 

"I'm not sure about other areas during Pilgrimage, but we seemed to have more out-of-town folks this year, and we had several tour buses come through," director Chuck Yarborough said Monday. "It was an excellent year for "'Tales from the Crypt.'" 

 

Area shopkeepers and restaurateurs also noted brisk business, saying they felt the crowds were as good or better than last year.  

 

Deep South Pout, located on Main Street, distributed coupons to ticket buyers at the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center, offering 15 percent off all items in the store. The strategy was effective, store manager Jackie Chasteen said.  

 

Over at Harvey's restaurant, general manager Pat Donahue had his hands full as well, with multiple reservations of 52 or more people.  

 

With so many out-of-towners, there was plenty of incentive to put their best foot forward, from showcasing their most popular dishes, like the granny apple-infused, bourbon sauce-drenched, powder sugar-sprinkled bread pudding, to greeting every customer with a smile. 

 

"The item we got complimented on most was the hospitality of our staff and everybody these people encountered in the city," Donahue said. "Overall, it was a really good two-week period. I'm glad the weather cooperated, for the most part." 

 

This year marked Gloria Herriott's 17th pilgrimage as the owner of Hollyhocks gift shop downtown. Experience told her to stock up on her supply of Columbus and Mississippi-themed merchandise. But like Donahue's patrons, Herriott's visitors were most impressed by the intangibles. 

 

"If this is their first trip here, they are so pleasantly surprised at how gracious the people are and what a beautiful downtown we have," Herriott said Monday afternoon. "I guess that's the biggest thing. People from here take it for granted, but the rest of the world is not as charming as Columbus, Mississippi, that's for sure. They always say what an enjoyable trip they've had." 

 

Pilgrimage is an important part of her business, she said, especially in April, which is typically her slowest month. While she won't know the final sales totals until the end of the month, she said she is confident her sales will surpass last year.  

 

"It's all good for us because it gets us past the winter into spring," Herriott said. "Easter and Pilgrimage are the real rites of passage and have a pretty good tourist trade. Other merchants will send people to our store." 

 

It's all a little remarkable, given inflated gas prices and the continued economic slump, Carpenter said.  

 

"A lot of thought was put into this; it didn't just happen," she said. "There were people of all races, socio-economic levels and ages. It was just a wonderful year. We anticipate there will be visitors here throughout the spring and summer. Our plan is to continue to promote Columbus. That really is our mission."

Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.