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July 16, 2024

Tourism Statistics Report

Visitors from across the South flocked to Cleveland in 2023

By Becky Gillette

The Bolivar Bullet

Visit Cleveland MS has recently begun using Placer.ai for visitor analytics, a service that tracks cell phone data allowing tourism officials to see actual visitation traffic and trends for Cleveland attractions. By knowing where visitors are coming from, how long they stay, what sites they are visiting and other information, Visit Cleveland MS is able to better hone its advertising, said Sean Johnson, Director of Tourism for Visit Cleveland MS. 

Johnson said he loves to be able to go in and crunch numbers. Looking at visitor origination by zip code, advertising can be finely targeted. 

“It is an amazing time to be a marketer, for sure,” said Johnson. “This data helps us to know when, where, how and who to target for visitation to Cleveland. With this cell phone data, we not only know where people are from but also know their income levels, their ages, everything about them, though it is done in a way that preserves their privacy. We’ve learned what we kind of expected. Most of our overnight visitors are in the mid-upper income bracket, they are in their 30s and have a medium home value of between $150,000 and $300,000. We are looking at a solid middle class.”

Visitors run a little younger than Johnson thought. His expectation would be that it was mostly upper-middle aged and older people who visit, but actually Cleveland gets the most visits from young adults and people who are in their early middle age. When people go online to the visitclevelandms.com website, the ages generally skew older, but actual visitation is mostly from people 30 to 50. He expected it to be 45 and up. 

The latest cell phone data report showed that in 2023 Cleveland had 120,000 visitors from more than 50 miles away. That is 11.5% growth year-over-year. Cleveland’s top five feeder markets are Memphis (19,000 visitors), Jackson (15,000 visitors), Starkville (3,500 visitors), Dallas (3,000 visitors) and Oxford (2,600 visitors).

“We have seen a lot of growth in folks from eastern Mississippi including Starkville, Louisville and Fulton,” said Johnson. “When I lived in that part of the state prior to moving here, I never saw advertisements for Cleveland. But now we are including that area in targeted online advertising and social media buys, and seeing results. Interestingly, we get more people from Starkville visiting than folks from Oxford.” 

Cleveland is particularly popular with visitors coming from the Jackson markets including a lot interested in McCartys Pottery in Merigold. 

“We have also seen a large number of out-of-state visitors,” said Johnson. “Most are coming from Memphis. After that, we are looking at lots of people from Dallas and Houston. The Woodlands area north of Houston shows up quite often. Texas is a six-hour drive so those people are definitely spending the night. After Mississippi, people from Texas spend the most time on our website and third is people from Tennessee. We get a lot of visitors from small rural towns throughout Arkansas, but not so much Little Rock. We are starting to see an increase in folks from Florida.”

Cleveland gets more visitors from Georgia than from Alabama, even though Alabama is closer.  Many of the Georgia visitors are from Athens and other locations in north Georgia. With Cleveland midway between Atlanta and Dallas, you might think people were using it as a stop on a journey between those two cities. 

“But since there isn’t a highway through Cleveland from Atlanta and Dallas, people aren’t stopping here on the way to another city,” said Johnson. “They are coming to Cleveland for the most part. That is the thing about Cleveland: unlike interstate towns such as Tupelo, Corinth and New Albany, which are getting numbers by default because of people driving through the towns on major interstates, Cleveland’s visitation is because Cleveland is the destination. Other than on Highway 61, travelers don’t really come through Cleveland on their way somewhere else.”

Two other things that really struck him about the cell phone data was the number of visitors from Florida, Missouri and Oklahoma. Plans are in the works to start running some ads in these markets in the spring. Not so surprisingly, data shows that Cleveland is also visited by a lot of people from the northern part of Louisiana.

The cell phone data service also shows that GRAMMY Museum Mississippi hosts more visitors than any other Delta museum. The museum brings in tens of thousands of visitors a year. 

Overnight stays in Cleveland are up about 15% over the past fiscal year while visitor spending is up 13%. November 2022 and February and June of 2023 saw the highest rates of growth in overnight stays.

“We are seeing hotels take up a bigger share of tourism tax revenues,” said Johnson. “Overnight stays are really strong for us, and that’s key in tourism. People who are staying at hotels are actual tourists. When local residents eat at a Cleveland restaurant, they still pay the tourism tax, so the tourism tax revenues are sometimes padded by local spending. But we’ve been seeing recently that restaurant spending by locals has decreased. During Covid when everyone was getting stimulus money, locals were eating out more. Now restaurant sales have declined a bit. I’ve spoken with several of my colleagues in other markets and they’re seeing the same thing. Inflation may be starting to have an effect on local spending by lower income communities. However, spending by higher income families and travelers remains strong.”

October hotel occupancy in Cleveland was up 12% over October 2022, and it was up 7% for the year. Revenue for hotel occupancy was up 21% in October compared to October 2022. Johnson said they are close to 60% hotel occupancy in town. “Generally, when a town hits around 65% occupancy or so, another hotel shows up,” said Johnson. 

For the fiscal year, Cleveland had $1,330,000 in tourism tax revenues. Visitor spending was estimated at $42 million. “It is a pretty big industry,” said Johnson.

Some tourism organizations farm out marketing to big firms, possibly even in another state. Cleveland does pretty much everything in house. All the ads, social media and everything else is done right out of the Visit Cleveland MS office. Even their videos, which have been popular, are done by Cleveland resident Ben Powell.

“Some out-of-town firms may come in once a year to meet with you and have no idea about the special, magical parts of the town…the real flavor of the place,” said Johnson. “For me, Cleveland is my only client. If I was an agency, I would have several clients. Instead, I get to focus just on Cleveland. It’s a great product to work with.”