Promoting Tourism in
the Magnolia State
By Michele D. Baker | Photography courtesy of Rory Doyle and Laura Beth Strickland.
As president-elect of the Mississippi Tourism Association, Cleveland’s Kelli Davis is passionate about creating positive experiences for the state’s visitors.
Kelli Davis is fiercely proud of her adopted hometown of Cleveland, and a committed cheerleader for the Mississippi Delta. A marketing degree from Delta State University, experience as a writer and social media specialist, and a fresh-out-of-college job at Coopwood Communications are just a few of the stepping-stones that led the 38-year-old to the impressive position she holds now: Tourism Director for Visit Cleveland Mississippi, and president-elect of the Mississippi Tourism Association (MTA), a statewide association of tourism professionals created to support and empower Mississippi’s tourism industry through advocacy and education.
Growing up, Davis and her family moved around a lot and she experienced being the new kid and having to make new friends on a regular basis. “Good thing I played tennis and love talking to folks!” she jokes. “Seriously, though, those skills have served me well, and I now have family and friends all over. When I moved to Cleveland to attend Delta State, I was near my grandparents, and that was nice, too.”
The moving around also shaped her life in other ways which became clear only after she herself became a mother. “I have three children now: Ann Riley, Granger, and Henry. Instead of material things, we often take trips and enjoy experiences. I firmly believe in the motto ‘expand your brain’!”
Kelli is passionate about travel for its own sake, but she also recognizes its transformative impact on the state’s economy. “Tourism is the fourth largest industry in Mississippi, employing more than 127,000 people and generating more than $6.5 billion each year,” says Davis. “People don’t realize it, but more than 24 million people visited Mississippi in the past year. People come here because they saw a certain product on TV or read about a restaurant or a museum in a magazine, and they want to see it for themselves.”
Davis got involved in the regional arm of the MTA and was elected to the regional board as part of her job at the Cleveland tourism council, learning firsthand how hard it was to promote the sites in her own backyard.
“Funding for tourism statewide used to be so low, and we needed a way to advocate with our legislature and educate them on the importance of bringing more tourists into the state. So we worked through the MTA to get a 2 percent tax passed on hotels and restaurants, to use for promotion and marketing Mississippi.”
As president-elect, Davis will ensure that the Tourism Association’s executive director has the resources she needs to promote tourism. “The MTA also provides education – for example, with hotel staff – to ensure that front line employees know what to tell visitors who want recommendations for what to do, where to eat, where to visit. If those people don’t know and can’t help visitors, there’s a disconnect. We want all visitors to Mississippi to have a positive experience.
“But what exactly is tourism, and how do we move forward?” she asks. “Many people are just doing a drive-through, and then they find something amazing.”
Davis points out that there is so much available, even in a little town like Cleveland. “We have beautiful hotels like the Cotton House, James Beard-nominated chefs and culinary tourism, exceptional shopping on our Main Street downtown, civil rights sites, a railroad museum, the Bologna Performing Arts Center at Delta State, and so much more,” she gushes.
“People come to Mississippi, to the Mississippi Delta, the birthplace of the blues – everybody everywhere knows the Delta. I hear all the time how amazed visitors are at our hospitality, but to me that’s just manners,” she adds. “People usually come to see a specific place – like the Grammy Museum – but then they find so much more. It’s the authentic experience of Mississippi that keeps them coming back.”
“I’ve always been a people person. I love to know people’s stories, and to share my own stories and stories from the Delta. For example, right now in Cleveland, director Ivan Kavanagh is filming ‘Son,’ a horror/thriller starring Emile Hirsch,” notes Davis. “The cast and crew are calling me all the time, asking where they can get a certain prop, or where to go for dinner, or for location scouting. That’s not unusual at all. Everybody has a story.”
Ultimately, though, Davis is interested in more than just the tourism numbers and additional tax dollars. “Here in Mississippi, we have room to grow, there’s a high quality of life. We’re showing a positive side to Mississippi and leaving the area better for our children. I love to see Delta State grads move back and start their families here,” she explains. “Go off and experience life and see things, and then come back and appreciate where you came from.”