Liz Bittner thinks she has put her finger on why the South consistently ranks as America’s top-rated travel region. No, it’s not its beaches, even though more than half of her 12 member states border on either the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico. And it’s not the food, even though regional delicacies across the South earn worldwide acclaim.
“It’s our people,” she said. “I’ve thought about this a lot, and the people of the South are its biggest draw. They are the biggest reason our region had such a great 2014 both domestically and internationally, and they are the reason we’ll probably do even better in 2016.
“From the tour operator to the docent to the person at the front desk, Southerners are hospitable to everyone,” said Bittner, president and CEO of Travel South USA. “It influences everything we do. We’re listeners. We listen to people who come to the South. We listen to our customers, too. At the end of the day, people do business with people. That works to the South’s advantage.
“Take tour operators, for instance,” she said. “In our office, we deal with them every day. They tell us they like us because we give them customized, individualized responses to their questions. They don’t want a list of 50 restaurants. They can get that off a website. They want a personal recommendation.
“We hear it all the time. It’s that little barn dance along the way to somewhere else that nobody knows about. That’s the difference they’re looking for. And in the South, that’s what we offer them. That’s what we talk about.”
Bittner knows that travelers to the South come from the next state over — or half a world away. When we spoke in November, she had just returned from coordinating a delegation of more than 50 Southern representatives at World Travel Market (WTM) in London.
“The United Kingdom is still our largest international market,” she said. “Visitor numbers from the U.K. were up 24 percent in 2014 over 2013. And we expect to be up over that this year.”
Bittner and her organization followed up that effort and others when they hosted 90 inbound tour operators during their International Showcase in December in Charlotte, North Carolina.
But travel groups from across the United States and Canada also get that kind of attention from Travel South USA.
“Our domestic programs are taking off,” she said. “Our Domestic Showcase will draw tour operators and consumer journalists from throughout the country to Winston-Salem in March, and our Ad Challenge media program will draw participation from some of the country’s best consumer media again. Collectively, I expect our states to buy around $750,000 of advertising for creative readership promotions by media like Garden and Gun, BudgetTravel.com and Food Network magazine.”
As we wrapped up our interview, Bittner cited the example of her newest member, the state of Missouri, as a beneficiary of the collective clout of Travel South USA.
“At World Travel Market, Missouri was with us as part of our delegation. While we were in London, Kansas City won the World Series and the Kansas City Chiefs played an NFL game at Wembley Stadium. So they ended up looking like rock stars to tour operators in the U.K. Our collective buying power makes attendance of WTM affordable for our member states.”