Hot rods, packed hotels, and a steady cash flow: Mississippi’s largest event is about to kick off on the Coast, bringing with it one of biggest annual boosts to the state’s economy.
Cruisin’ the Coast last year generated an economic impact of just over $36 million for the entire state from out-of-town spenders, according to a study commissioned by the car show’s founders. That was after record-breaking attendance, prompted by visitors hungry for travel following a nationwide lull to tourism from the pandemic.
“It was the 25th anniversary and the weather was tremendous,” said Cruisin’ the Coast executive director Woody Bailey. “It was very special.”
Bailey wasn’t sure this year would be able to touch that.
“But we’re actually pretty close to being on the same track as last year,” Bailey said.
The bulk of cars will swarm the coast Saturday, Oct. 1 for the weeklong vintage car expo. Gulfport kicks off the scheduled events Sunday morning with the all-day “View the Cruise” downtown. The week’s events span several cities in Jackson, Harrison and Hancock counties before winding down on Oct. 9.
The number of pre-registered cars is just 17 shy of what it was last year. Cruisin’ won’t know the final count until on-site registration is over. About 9,500 cars registered by the end of the cruise week in 2021.
So far, car owners have registered from 44 states and Canada. For the first time ever, a classic car owner from England has registered. Bailey said he has a ‘74 Thunderbird.
Total attendance is hard to track. Most events are free. Up to 3,000 cars show up that opt not to register for the official events but just enjoy the scene, according to Bailey.
At last year’s cruise week, the Bradley Research Group surveyed out-of-town attendees to help measure the event’s impact on both the local and state economy. Cruisin’ the Coast has the study completed every five years.
At about $33 million, the event’s economic impact on the Coast’s three counties was up 27% since the last study in 2016. That’s more than doubled since the $15 million impact measured in 2004.
Last year, the tax revenue generated by the event totaled more than $2.4 million statewide. About $1.2 million of that is sales tax collection in the Gulf Coast.
Cruisin’ the Coast began in 1996 with just a few hundred cars. Casino and business leaders were looking for a way to extend the tourism season past the summer peak.
It worked – probably better than any of the originators ever anticipated.
This year, Jay Leno – the former talk show host and classic car lover – is doing a stand-up at the Beau Rivage during the car week. The Beau is also hosting two Beach Boys concerts to cater to Cruisin’ visitors.
“Crusin’ the Coast is similar to a busy peak week in the summer,” said Collin Caranna, marketing director for Shaggy’s Restaurants. “The anticipation is here even before the uptick of visitors begins.”
Shaggy’s – which has waterfront restaurants in Gulfport, Biloxi, and Pass Christian – extends its hours to accommodate for the surge in visitors. For a week, their parking lots are packed with vintage cars.
Despite high gas prices and inflation, director of tourism bureau Coastal Mississippi Judy Young said the local tourism industry is expecting another banner year for Cruisin’ the Coast.
“Everyone seems to be really excited,” Young said. “Who doesn’t want to participate in the No. 1 car show in the country?”
The event itself also introduces new people to the Coast as a destination – an impact that’s hard to measure with exact figures.
“It really is an economic engine,” said Young. “And it’s the front door to economic development because tourism is marketing the region 356 days a year.”
About a third of the non-local attendees surveyed last year were from other parts of Mississippi followed by about a quarter from Louisiana. The next highest concentrations were from Alabama, Texas, and Florida.
The research survey also asked attendees about their satisfaction with the coast’s hospitality. It earned high marks with more than 90% saying they were either “likely” or “very likely” to return and to recommend the event to someone else.
Gulfport resident Lisa Evans said traffic might be a bear during the car celebration, but she is still a big fan. She has chatted up car enthusiasts showing off their ‘57 Chevy Bel Airs or antique vehicles from the 30s to learn more about the thousands of dollars – and hours – folks have put into their automobiles.
She usually sets a blanket out on the beach in Gulfport and lazily watches all the classic cars go by. Evans recently wrote a book: “100 Things to Do in Coastal Mississippi Before You Die.” Cruisin’ the Coast, of course, made the list.
It’s become the quintessential Gulf Coast Mississippi event.
“The economic impacts alone to the coast are mind blowing,” Evans said. “But when I’m trying to sell people on visiting, I start with the cool cars.”