SONGS OF THE SOUTH: ‘Country roads’ culture can’t be beat

Travel South USA arrived in Canada this week to court the travel trade at gala events in Toronto and Montreal, enticing guests with “bacon, bourbon and blues” – the latter courtesy of special guest, American Idol winner (and Alabaman) Taylor Hicks, whose rootsy refrains provided the soundtrack of the evenings.

In Toronto nearly 80 guests were on hand at the W Hotel, along with close to two dozen representatives from the destination marketing organization’s 12 member states, from Alabama to West Virginia.

“We have geography, culture and the outdoors in common, but there is so much that is unique in each state,” said Travel South USA president and CEO Liz Bittner.

She added that the “the American South” has become a globally recognized region unto itself amongst visitors, and scores top marks amongst its US competitors as a brand and desired destination to visit.

That includes Canadians, who comprise the South’s top international market with approximately 2.5 million visitors a year. Moreover, according to survey results over 17% of Canadians consider the South the US’s most desired destination to visit.

This country is so important that Travel South’s chairman of the board (and commissioner of Kentucky Tourism) Mike Mangeot says this market is treated as domestic market by the organization.

The rise of the South amongst Canadians comes in part due to increased airlift to the region, into cities like Atlanta, Cincinnati, New Orleans, St. Louis, Nashville, Charlotte, and Charleston.

In fact, close to 40% of Canadians now arrive by air to a region previously considered exclusively a drive market.

Of course, that means 60% still drive (including on their way further south, including Florida), so a key aim is to encourage them to “stay a little longer,” says Bittner.

“I’m not going to stop Canadians from going to the beach,” conceded Mangeot to Travel Industry Today. “But go (on your trip) a day earlier to stop along the way. All the beaches are the same – but the South is full of memorable experiences.”

Indeed, authenticity is the South’s primary calling card – from its music to food (not least barbecue); and drink, such as Tennessee whiskey and Kentucky bourbon.

“When you go to that barbecue place, and are served by someone that’s been there for 20 years, that’s authenticity,” says Mangeot. “It’s those little surprises – the South is full of rich experiences and offers so much. I don’t see a region of the country that can beat us.”

Travel South group; Liz Bittner front row left, Mike Mangeot, back row left

Beyond its “country roads” culture, The South also drips with history, from the nation’s founding to the Civil War and Civil Rights movement of the 1960s (remembered and celebrated in many places, such as on Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail).

“You can’t ignore the past,” says Mangeot. “We acknowledge it and try to grow from it.”

“We are who we are, and we have to embrace it,” adds Bittner. “We have character.”

On a more contemporary level, the South also has nature, and lots of it, from the Appalachian mountains to the Atlantic coast and barrier islands, and the waterfalls of West Virginia to the lesser-known beaches of the Gulf shores of Alabama. And, upward, dark sky preserves. As such, it as playground for activities and adventure of every kind, from hiking to biking, and rock climbing to kayaking.

But it really all comes back to the culture. There are wine, whiskey, and craft beer trails; the holy tourism trinity of Elvis, Jack (Daniels), and Dolly in Tennessee; Route 66 (celebrating it’s centennial in 2024) in Missouri; Mardi Gras in New Orleans (and its older sibling in Mobile); the 63rd annual CanAm Days in Myrtle Beach, SC, this year; and much more.

Canada and the travel trade

All of this presents a great opportunity for the travel trade in Canada, says Bittner, noting that “the value proposition of the South is huge, and travel agents can find those activities where commission is built into a lot of the product. We’re not pre-packaged like Disney or a cruise.”

She suggests girlfriend getaways (including shopping), boys golf weekends, luxury experiences, sporting events, cultural festivals, and concerts, as possibilities – not to mention the plethora of hotel and resorts options, including glamping and other unique accommodations.

“These are things agents can make commission on – they are the trusted planner,” she says.

She adds that Travel South will continue to support the trade in Canada with marketing, representation (it engages Reach Global in Toronto), fams, and missions like the one conducted this week.

“We’ve been coming to Canada since the late 1960s,” she says of the Travel South USA collective. “We’re old friends!”

First published at Travel Industry Today


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