Rickey L. Thigpen is the president and CEO of Visit Jackson. He joined Visit Jackson, then known as the Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau, in 1987 as the information systems manager and served in multiple management positions within the administrative and marketing disciplines until he was named president and CEO on Feb. 1, 2019.
A native of Jackson, Thigpen earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Mississippi Valley State University and a master’s degree in leadership from Belhaven University. He is a Ph.D. candidate at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, finalizing degree requirements in psychology/organizational leadership.
He has earned professional certifications from the University of Southern Mississippi, the Mississippi Tourism Association and Destination International and belongs to numerous professional organizations, including the U.S. Travel Board of Directors, Destination International, the Mississippi Tourism Association Board of Directors, the Mississippi Tourism PAC and the Downtown Jackson Partners Advisory Board.
Thigpen engages civically with 100 Black Men of Jackson, Inc., the Mississippi Valley State University National Alumni Association, the Greater Leadership Jackson Alumni Association, the Alpha Foundation, Inc. and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.
He has received numerous awards, including the 2020 Events Industry Council Social Impact Award, the Mississippi Tourism Association Member of the Year for 2019 and recognition in Black Meetings & Tourism magazine as one of the most influential African Americans in the tourism industry. In 2020, under Thigpen’s leadership, Visit Jackson was named the Destination Marketing Organization of the Year.
What is the purpose of Visit Jackson and how is it funded?
“The mission of Visit Jackson is to connect, engage and inspire the Jackson community to be a welcoming destination for conventions, meetings, sporting events and special events, resulting in rich, cultural and memorable experiences with a rewarding sense of place for visitors and an economically beneficial and an enhanced quality of life for residents. Visit Jackson is funded by a 1 percent tax on hotels and restaurants in Jackson.”
Do people visit Jackson at one time of year more than another?
“We just finished a study, and visits to Jackson are almost equally spread out in the four seasons of the year. Summer is not any larger than wintertime. Jackson has the advantage of being the state capital, so when the Legislature comes to town, it causes economic impact and so do lobbying groups. A lot of associations meet during the first quarter of the year.”
What draws people to Jackson?
“Number one is our food. They love our food. We have over 350 restaurants in Jackson. We have many James Beard Award-winning chefs and restaurants that people in Jackson really aren’t aware of, but we’re really proud of it.
“Our civil rights history is another leading driver for visitation. Civil rights history is not only a domestic tourism driver but an international tourism driver. Before the pandemic of 2020, we saw an uptick in our international travel because people were interested in the Two Mississippi Museums (the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History). We
also have the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center, which was built in 1894 as Jackson’s first public school for black students, and the home of slain NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers.
“The other side of it is what always undergirds healing from civil rights is arts and culture. The Mississippi Museum of Art and an amazing explosion of public art that we’ve had in the city undergird a lot of activity and excitement. Outdoor adventure also draws visitors.”
Does Visit Jackson have a particular focus for 2021?
“One of the things that we’re going to focus on this year is making our local tourism product more aware to our local citizens. People are staying close to home, so we’re encouraging Mississippians to rediscover their capital city. We want people to visit the new museums, the new exhibits, the new restaurants and new attractions.”
How important is tourism to the state’s economy?
“Mississippi tourism impacted the economy by $1.2 billion last year. Jackson tourism impacted the economy by $11.8 million last year.”
How much has visitation to Jackson dropped off because of the pandemic?
“Jackson visitation is down by 17 percent because of COVID-19 compared to Mississippi visitation, which is down by 22 percent. Nationwide visitation is down by 48 percent because of COVID-19.”
How has the pandemic affected the work of Visit Jackson?
“We never shut down but worked from home, sheltering in place. We shifted some of what we do to become a major resource to our industry partners. We went into high gear helping our restaurants gear up to do take out, carry out and curbside. We provided resources to help museums do virtual tours.
“We did virtual FAM tours. That’s a tourism word that means familiarization. We did videos in front of museums and attractions so tour group operators could see what we have to offer. We reached out to writers of travel articles about our destinations.
“We also reached out to meeting planners, saying, ‘We know you can’t meet now, but when you get ready to meet, let us show you Jackson. We have a new management company at the convention center.’
“We had to shift and become a resource for our tourism partners so that they would not just die. When the first round of funding options for small businesses came out, we went to restaurants to assist and help them fill out applications.
“We’ve provided mask and hand sanitizers and, and we’re continuing to do that. We’ve designed for hotels and restaurants and attractions signage reminding people to wash their hands and social distance. We became very innovative and it has heightened our awareness of how we need to be more community engaged and partner engaged. While we’re hoping to be able to start coming out of COVID, we never will back up on providing those resources to our industry partners.
“Every time we get a governor’s order or news from the city, we repopulated it to all of our partners. There is so much information out there and we want to get out accurate, up-to-date information so our partners can execute their business in the most effective way possible.
“Another positive thing from COVID is that we work more closely now more than ever before with the city, the state, the health department, the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership, the airport and our other partners. We now all speak with one voice, allowing for each other’s area of expertise.”
How has Visit Jackson continued to attract meetings to Jackson?
“In the middle of the shutdown, our sales staff sent out 300 boxes of candy apples, made especially for Visit Jackson by Nandy’s Candy, to meeting planners across the country. We did a promotion about don’t cancel your convention but just postpone it and we’ll give you a sweet deal at the Jackson Convention Center. We offered a financial incentive to sponsor a reception for those who rebooked their conference or meeting in Jackson. Starting in May, we expect we’ll see an uptick in meetings.”
What does the slogan, The City With Soul, mean?
“We spent lot of money to do a market research to talk about what the city of Jackson is known for and what we should hang our hat on. What came back over and over again is the people of Jackson are its strongest asset.
“We have the most hospitable, kind people and because we live, work and play here, we take it for granted. But if you don’t believe me, go to the New York or Atlanta or Chicago and try to ask for directions. Here people will not only help you but say, ‘I’m headed that way. Follow me.’”
“The heart of our community is our people. We are The City With Soul. We have great culture, great food, great music and great people and all of that represents The City With Soul.”
What are three of your favorite places in Jackson?
“The Mayflower restaurant in downtown Jackson is one of my favorite because it’s one of the oldest restaurants in the city of Jackson. The food is amazing and it’s so authentic.
“Of course, I love the Two Museums. They’re done so well. The Civil Rights Museum is a hard place to visit but it tells the story so truthfully. I’m proud of it. It humbles me and encourages me at the same time.
“My third choice is a combination of visits to all of the colleges and universities in our area. We have five major colleges and universities right here in our city: the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Tougaloo College, Millsaps College, Jackson State University and Mississippi College School of Law.
“You’re going to see us do more things to promote colleges and universities. I have been meeting with colleges and university presidents. We are in their strategic plan and they are in our strategic plan.”
What stands out as a memorable experience for you when family visited Jackson?
“My family reunion was in Jackson about four years ago. We rented a charter bus and the first stop that morning was at the William Winter Archives & History Building in downtown Jackson. Nobody on the bus wanted to get off because they thought it would be the most boring time in the world.
“First-time visitors have to obtain an I.D. card (a reading room identification card), which is free. All of the younger kids enjoyed the experience of getting I.D. cards.
“I set up teams, each with a middle-aged person, an older member and a young person, and they received a name to research. They got caught up finding family members, what they did, their impact on the community and more, and I had to drag them out of the building to continue on to the next stop.”
How do most people obtain information about a city they may visit?
“Most people go to a city’s tourism website or social media and look to see what they can find. We have had significant uptick in traffic on our website while visitation has been down. Visits to the visitjackson.com website are up 50 percent and the jxn.ms website is up 20 percent. Our social media pages are up, too. Instagram is up 40 percent. Our Facebook page is up 25 percent and Twitter is up 50 percent. People are ready to travel and they are researching and planning their trips.”
What do you enjoy about your job?
“My job is so fluid that it’s never dull. It’s always exciting, I get a chance to work with the most amazing people and I have the opportunity to be a part of projects that I know will be here long after I’m gone. When I go to bed at night I’m typically exhausted but I sleep well knowing that my staff and I have given 110 percent and the next day we’ll do that again.”
Where is the JXN Welcome Center located?
“It’s in downtown Jackson at 308 E. Pearl St. on the first floor. Our staff has maps and other information. The center also has the most amazing Jackson swag such as T- shirts, caps, postcards, blankets and umbrellas, all kind of cool things, for sale.