Visitor's center part of parish bid for tourists

DEIDRE CRUSE, Governmental Reporter
EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS...The Iberville Parish Visitor's Center on Bayou Grosse Tete near I-10 has drawn in nearly 600 tourists since its March 15 opening. It is one of several new efforts to draw tourists into the parish.

The new Iberville Parish Visitor's Center at Grosse Tete is only one of the parish's efforts to draw more tourists in to enjoy the local offerings, but so far business there has been impressive, said consultant Courtney Zito-Elliott.

“It's exceeded our expectations,” she said.

In the center's first three weeks of operation, a total of 554 tourists have stopped at the center located on Bayou Grosse Tete just of I-10, according to Kathy Sparks, the center's director. The visitors have included international guests from Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom, as well as those from neighboring states and south Louisiana.

“People are positively blown away when they come in,” Sparks said, adding, “The people in this area are so proud of it.”

Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. tapped Zito-Elliott, the daughter of the late Parish Councilman C. Michael “Mike” Zito of Plaquemine, to head up the parish's tourism efforts. She has 10 years in the travel industry, including working as the marketing director for the Louisiana Office of Tourism.

The Iberville Parish Master Plan developed several years ago by Moore Planning Group recommended enhancing the parish “gateways” and particular noted opportunities for a draw into the parish near the Atchafalaya Basin, Zito-Elliott said.

She has met with municipal officials and other “constituent groups,” such as those at the Iberville Museum and Nottoway Plantation, to begin writing a master plan for tourism.

She said it would include ways to market the parish and continuing to develop it as a “product”

“It's not just about creating events,” Zito-Elliott said, “but about promoting the unique attributes – waterways, birding, cultural sites and history.”

She said the parish laid the foundation for the effort in the staffing of the visitor's center, which is charged with the duty of enticing visitors to see the parish's other offerings.

“Tourism is an industry,” she said. “We have to understand the market. That's what I think we're really doing. The visitor's center is allowing us to know our visitor better and meet those needs. It will only make the program stronger.”

“We are finding out about opportunities every day,” the consultant said, noting that parish tourism representatives were scheduled to meet with a contingent from Travel Journal at Nottoway last week.

One of Iberville's biggest advantages is being part of the Atchafalaya National Heritage area, comprising nine parishes in the basin area designated by Congress for a program operated by the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, Zito-Elliott said.

“It's not only a tourism effort, but also preserves the cultures and ways of the people who live in the area...” she said, noting it includes federal funding. “We're working with the director of that program to take full advantage.”

Additionally, the parish has launched a new website – – with links to other state, regional and national sites.

Zito-Elliott said an ad agency, The Graham Group, helped with the website, and she hired photographer Tim Mueller, an “outsider” who saw things from a different perspective, to shoot black and white and color photos of the parish's architecture and other sites.

Iberville also has become part of Louisiana's “culinary trails” program that allows tourists to find the state's excellent local food at the website

Iberville Parish, she said, has unique offerings, everything from boiled crawfish or shrimp at a picnic table at the Seafood Connection or a south Louisiana plate lunch at Guidry's in Plaquemine to the more creative cuisine at Roberto's on the Eastside and Nottoway.

The parish also has received an $8,000 state Office of Tourism grant to expand print advertising, particularly in regional publications, Zito-Elliott said, and she is in the process of applying for another $20,000 through the same program and is working with the Louisiana Travel Promotion Association on joint advertising with them.

Advertisements for Iberville are planned in magazines ranging from Southern Living to Birders Watch, as well as in state publications such as Country Roads and Louisiana Life, and women's magazines such as Family Circle, she said.

“We want to target women because they plan travel, more so than men,” the consultant said.

In the short run, Zito-Elliott said, she is working with the state Department of Transportation and Development in an effort to improve signage on I-10 to call more attention tot he visitor's center at Grosse Tete. So far, there is only a small “tourist information” sign affixed to the exit ramp sign.

She said she is hoping to secure federal funds for Phase II of development at the center – adding a bulkhead so people can use the waterway to get to there, particularly from a free public boat launch nearby.

The state Department of Natural Resources, which helped fund the center through its Atchafalaya Basin Program, loved the idea, she said.

'PEOPLE ARE BLOWN AWAY' with the Iberville Parish Visitor's Center at Grosse Tete, says Kathy Sparks, its director. She said the reaction has been good from tourists from as far away as Germany and the United Kingdom and as nearby as St. Francisville.