For John Serda, the meetings industry has had a dramatic impact on downtown business and in helping him through the “zombie” apocalypse.
The owner of Serda’s Coffee downtown opened his shop in 2008 when a Carnival cruise ship was in port and many of the buildings downtown were shuttered.
“At the time I saw a lot of people you called tourists and we called zombies downtown,” he said during a press conference Thursday morning. “They would stumble around … not looking for brains to eat, but a sandwich.”
In those early years, Serda said there wasn’t much going on downtown, but the cruise ship helped bring in good business. When the cruise ship left, Serda struggled. But he recalled business being lifted one week when a teacher conference came to the city.
“As the years went on, conferences came more and more often,” he said.
Now, there’s a lot more going on downtown, but he said he appreciates those conferences for helping him get through lean years.
“Eight years later, I don’t see [boarded up] windows,” he said. “I don’t see zombies walking around … I see tourists.”
The city attracted roughly 2.9 million tourists last year, according to Mayor Sandy Stimpson. Of those, about 76,000 were lured by conferences.
“You have to take opportunities in tourism and build on those,” Stimpson said. “It’s all about great experiences. We recognize we need to improve the quality of life not just for residents, but for visitors as well.”
With a better quality of life, Stimpson said, the city can convince people to have meetings and conferences in the city.
A step along that path came Thursday with the recognition of Global Meetings Industry Day and a new effort to attract more conventions to the Port City.
Al Hutchinson, CEO of Visit Mobile, said nationally the meetings industry contributes more to the gross domestic product than the transportation industry, among others. The industry represented a $280 billion investment nationwide and $88 billion in tax revenue in 2012, he said.
Meetings mean a lot locally, too. Visitors from all over the country come to conventions in Mobile and spend money in hotels, restaurants and local attractions, he said. It’s revenue for the city that doesn’t tie up additional resources.
“They come in and they leave tax revenue right here in this city,” Hutchinson said. “They leave tax revenue here and they go home.”
At the press conference, Hutchinson also announced a new local campaign called “Bring Your Meetings Home, Mobile.” The effort, which includes a new website at www.bringithomemobile.com, targets residents belonging to clubs or organizations, or those who travel to professional, trade association, educational, or other regional and national conventions and is intended to generate leads for pitching the city to these organizations.