Episode 96

Hotty Toddy in Oxford MississippiOxford Mississippi

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About Our Guest

Oxford Mississippi

In this episode of the Destination Marketing Podcast, Adam takes the show on the road again to Oxford, Tennessee. He is joined by Kinney Ferris and Nadia Thornton from Visit Oxford to discuss some of the awesome things that their destination has to offer. Listen and learn how the University of Mississippi offers unique opportunities to the destination, as well as some of the creative ways that the team at Visit Oxford has dealt with current global issues.

Episode Highlights

  • Name: Adam Stoker
  • Position: Co-founder and CEO of Relic
  • Favorite Destination: Fiji
  • Dream Destination: New Zealand
  • Name: Kinney Ferris
  • Position: Director, Visit Oxford
  • Favorite Destination: Charleston, South Carolina
  • Dream Destination: Ireland
  • Name: Nadia Thornton
  • Position: Sales & Marketing Manager at Visit Oxford
  • Favorite Destination: London
  • Dream Destination: Greece

“Hotty Toddy in Oxford, Mississippi” – Show Notes and Highlights


Show Highlights:

  • Oxford is a leisure destination, with a wonderful dining experience, laid-back small-town atmosphere, with sophisticated upscale amenities. 
  • Oxford is the home for the famous William Faulkner that’s part of what makes their history unique.
  • Oxford is a small community but a lot of opportunities.
  • Oxford has benefited as a college town because it united and collaborated with the college football experience which affected them positively as a destination. 
  • Constant communication with the university is important to stay on the same message. 
  • Home for the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization that studies the history of food. 
  • City Grocery, Bouré, Snackbar and Big Bad Breakfast are some of the best dining restaurants in Oxford. 
  • Oxford’s core visitors are newly graduates, retirees, people from the Southeast, South Korea and Sweden. 
  • During the COVID pandemic, Oxford city leaders became proactive as early as February. 
  • Oxford partnered with businesses Chick-fil-A and Cathead Vodka to help support the community during COVID. 
  • Did a social media campaign to raise awareness with the stakeholders. 
  • Asked industry partners to sign a safety oath to abide by the CDC and health guidelines to keep everyone safe and be able to stay open. 
  • Nadia’s advice to DMOs is relationship building and talking to partners in your town, or your destination and thinking outside of the box.


Resources Mentioned in the Podcast:

Episode Transcript

Nadia Thornton: [00:00:00] Be open to conversations and thinking outside of the box, and having conversations with other people that maybe you wouldn’t always have those conversations with, because I think there are plenty of people who are sitting at home, who have ideas and resources, and they want to help as well.


Adam Stoker: [00:00:20] Today’s episode is brought to you by Relic. As many of you know, I own an advertising agency called Relic, and we work specifically with tourism destinations. If there’s any of you that are struggling with what to do next, or you’ve tried agencies that don’t specialize in tourism, or if you’ve been using the local flavor for years and years and you’re just looking for something new, I would say give us a call. Give us the opportunity to take a look at your plan, see what you’re doing, use our tourism knowledge and industry specialty to examine everything from your brand to your tactical execution and make recommendations of how to help. We’ll do that assessment for free. We’ll give you those recommendations for free. And if you like what we say, maybe you can hire us to execute on those plans. So, kind of a risk-free opportunity to have us take a holistic look at everything you’re doing, provide some recommendations, and you can kind of see us in action.

If you’re interested in having us do something like that, please send me an email directly at adam@relicagency.com. I would love to set that up with my team.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of the Destination Marketing podcast. I’m your host, Adam Stoker. I’m excited to be with you today. As you know, I’ve been on the road the last couple of weeks, taking our show on the road, and we have been in the southeastern United States. We went through Tennessee last week, Alabama earlier this week, and now we find ourselves in Oxford, Mississippi. I’m really excited to have our guests on today. Oxford is one of my favorite places in the world, whether it’s their golf course out by the university that I’ve played many times, or the dining establishments that they have, or just the atmosphere of their square downtown, it is an amazing place. 

We have two people from Visit Oxford’s office with us today. We have Nadia Thornton, who is the sales and marketing manager, and then we have Kinney Ferris, the executive director. Welcome, you guys!


Nadia Thornton: [00:02:24] Hey Adam!


Kinney Ferris: [00:02:24] Hey Adam. Thanks for having us.


Adam Stoker: [00:02:25] Oh, thanks so much for joining us. I want to first have each of you say which one you are, because it’s audio-only so that people can kind of get used to your voice and put the voice with you. Do you want to introduce yourself and your role and how long you’ve been here?


Nadia Thornton: [00:02:43] Sure. I’m Nadia Thornton. I’m the Sales and Marketing Manager, and I have been here since the end of January, so right before COVID hit.


Adam Stoker: [00:02:52] Just in time!


Nadia Thornton: [00:02:52] Just in time, right.


Adam Stoker: [00:02:55] Awesome. Kinney, how about you?


Kinney Ferris: [00:02:58] Yes, I’m Kinney Ferris, and I’ve been with Visit Oxford since 2009, so a little over 10 years now.


Adam Stoker: [00:03:08] 10 years. 10 years is a long time. That’s great!


Kinney Ferris: [00:03:10] It is a long time! A decade. But I’ve only been the Director for a couple of months. Again—


Adam Stoker: [00:03:16] Just in time!


Kinney Ferris: [00:03:18] Just in time! So things have been exciting, to say the least.


Adam Stoker: [00:03:22] Well, we’re going to get into that. We’re going to talk all about not only Oxford as a destination but also what your experience has been like with COVID over the last several months. But before I do that, I want to ask you guys our icebreaker questions that we ask at the beginning of every show just to kind of get the juices flowing. Let’s start with you, Kinney. Tell me about your dream destination. If you could go anywhere in the world, where would that be?


Kinney Ferris: [00:03:44] Okay, well, so you mentioned golf. My husband is an avid golfer and I am not, but I really enjoy watching it. I grew up watching it and watching my grandparents play, so it kind of holds a special thing for me. He really wants to go to Ireland. I would love to go there as well, so that’s kind of … I obviously have some other items on my to-do list while he would probably be playing golf, but that’s kind of our bucket list, I guess.


Adam Stoker: [00:04:12] What a selfless dream.


Kinney Ferris: [00:04:13] Isn’t it though?


Adam Stoker: [00:04:14] Oh man, I hope he gets to hear this.


Kinney Ferris: [00:04:16] Yeah, I wouldn’t have any fun there as well, but yeah, so that’s kind of something we have been talking about, dreaming about for a little bit.


Adam Stoker: [00:04:23] Ireland.


Kinney Ferris: [00:04:23] Yeah.


Adam Stoker: [00:04:24] Ireland.


Kinney Ferris: [00:04:24] Yeah.


Adam Stoker: [00:04:24] So I’ve had a couple of people on the show that have gone to Ireland and actually done all the golf things that go along with that and they say it’s incredible.


Kinney Ferris: [00:04:33] Yeah. I would really enjoy it, just the history of it all, so yeah.


Adam Stoker: [00:04:37] Great. Great. Okay, Nadia, how about you?


Nadia Thornton: [00:04:41] I think I would say Greece. I haven’t been there, so I would love to go and just see … There’s so much. The food, the architecture, the beaches, all of it, so I’m going to say Greece.


Adam Stoker: [00:04:56] So Greece is a popular answer on the show here, and it’s because it’s such an amazing destination, right? What is it that … because there are thousands of places you could go, so what is it about Greece that to you said, “This has got to be on my list”?


Nadia Thornton: [00:05:10] I think it’s just, you always see these amazing pictures of the coast and the beautiful white buildings with the blue skies and the blue water. I’ve been to Italy, I’ve been to Spain, I’ve been to some really great places in Europe, but I haven’t made it to Greece yet, and I think that’s kind of it. The history behind it all … it’s been there for a long time, so I would love to go and explore it.


Adam Stoker: [00:05:40] Great. Great. Well, both of those are great answers and both over in Europe.


Kinney Ferris: [00:05:46] Uh-huh, yeah.


Adam Stoker: [00:05:46] Yeah.


Kinney Ferris: [00:05:47] Yeah, I know.


Adam Stoker: [00:05:48] Well, like minds, I guess.


Kinney Ferris: [00:05:50] I think so. That’s right.


Nadia Thornton: [00:05:50] Yeah.


Adam Stoker: [00:05:53] Okay, well those are really good answers like I said. Let’s go to your favorite trip you’ve ever been on. Kinney, so help me, if this is a golf answer, I think that’s just too selfless.


Kinney Ferris: [00:06:04] Okay, yeah, not a golf answer. This one is really tough, and I did try to think it through, and I don’t know. One place that we really enjoy going, that we’ve been to several times and will continue to go, is Charleston, South Carolina.


Adam Stoker: [00:06:20] Don’t get me started.


Kinney Ferris: [00:06:22] Well, I mean, there are some similarities to Oxford. Oxford has really great food, which we’ll get into later, and every time that we travel someplace, I say, “This was all right, but I could have had a better meal in Oxford,” which I don’t think a lot of people can say for their hometown, so I’m really prideful of that. But that’s one place that I can’t always get it as good at home, and I love food, so I love a lot of restaurants there. And again, the history. So I’m a sucker for tourism … that’s why I’m in the industry … and I love tours, and they do a great job there with [00:crosstalk 00:06:59]


Adam Stoker: [00:06:59] So did you do the horse-and-buggy tour?


Kinney Ferris: [00:07:03] Oh yeah, I’ve done that several times. I’ve done a lot of house tours. Really enjoy those.


Adam Stoker: [00:07:08] My wife and I went last year to Charleston, and we started the year before, we did Savannah and Hilton Head. Then the next year, we were like, “We want more,” so we came back to Charleston, and man, I love that area of the country.


Kinney Ferris: [00:07:22] I love it. Well, and it’s also a college town, so I think that might be part of why I enjoy it so much, but I do, I just love that area.


Adam Stoker: [00:07:29] Fried green tomatoes.


Kinney Ferris: [00:07:31] Oh, so good. They have some great mixologists and bars, too, so it’s just a fun place to go.


Adam Stoker: [00:07:40] Yeah. Great vacation.


Kinney Ferris: [00:07:41] Yeah.


Adam Stoker: [00:07:41] Okay. Nadia, how about you?


Nadia Thornton: [00:07:45] I guess I would say London is my favorite city. I got to live there for a summer in college, and so I would always put London up there. It’s a great big city, but it has so many different pockets and neighborhoods that you can kind of find your place. It’s something I think that everyone should … It was also the first time I really traveled by myself outside of Mississippi, so that probably—


Adam Stoker: [00:08:11] Boy, that’s quite the first trip!


Nadia Thornton: [00:08:11] Yeah. Yeah, it is. But I did speak, at least an English-speaking country.


Kinney Ferris: [00:08:16] That’s true.


Nadia Thornton: [00:08:17] It was a little safer for me. But it was a great experience, and I also got to live on Kensington High Street, right across from Kensington Palace, so it was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, too.


Adam Stoker: [00:08:31] Awesome. Awesome. I’ve heard a lot of people just love London. I’ve actually never been to Europe. I feel like I’ve been to a lot of places, but Europe is not one of them, and the way people talk about it, it’s … The passion that people have for the places they visit in Europe is kind of interesting. Have you ever been to Europe, Kinney?


Kinney Ferris: [00:08:49] I have not. I have not.


Adam Stoker: [00:08:50] Well, you and I separately need to figure out our schedules and get over to Europe.


Kinney Ferris: [00:09:00] I know. We do a lot of international sales to Europe, and all of our reps there, they’re ready to entertain me, so I don’t know how I haven’t been yet, but I’ll get there.


Nadia Thornton: [00:09:08] Yes.


Kinney Ferris: [00:09:09] Soon.


Nadia Thornton: [00:09:09] And I was actually just telling one of our co-workers yesterday that I grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, but I didn’t really enjoy the blues until I lived in London. There was a blues café bar there that we would go to all the time, and that’s kind of where I really got to appreciate it and kind of fell in love with it.


Adam Stoker: [00:09:30] Isn’t that funny?


Nadia Thornton: [00:09:30] Yeah. All the way from Mississippi to London. Yeah.


Adam Stoker: [00:09:34] Well, let’s talk about each of your backgrounds and how you got into tourism. I love hearing how people got into tourism because it’s always such a unique journey for everybody. I think I’ve had a handful of people that studied tourism and knew they were going into tourism, and the rest had this different path. So maybe Nadia, why don’t we stick with you and have you tell us your background and how you got into tourism.


Nadia Thornton: [00:09:58] Sure. I definitely did not. I studied international business in college and never really thought about tourism that much, so I went into sales and marketing, and there was an opportunity to work at a hotel on campus doing sales and marketing. So I took that opportunity and loved it, and moved over to the operation side and was there for 12 years, and then this opportunity came about. It was just really, I guess, time for a change, and I had worked with Kinney in this office over the years for so much, and it just seemed kind of like a natural fit, so I hopped over here and it’s been kind of a real easy transition, I think. There was a lot of crossovers, so I kind of just fell into it, I would say. And fell in love, too.


Adam Stoker: [00:10:50] Yeah. Awesome. And I bet being in the hotel industry for so long helped prepare you for this role.


Nadia Thornton: [00:10:55] For sure. It’s a different perspective. I had always seen it from that hotelier side, and so I think it’s good to … I can kind of bring that perspective to this, but also see the bigger picture of what this office does and what tourism is about, not just from the hotelier standpoint.


Adam Stoker: [00:11:15] Yeah. Okay. Kinney, how about you?


Kinney Ferris: [00:11:18] All right. I’m not sure that I really knew what a visitor center or a [00:inaudible 00:11:24] was as I was growing up and preparing for a career, so I definitely wouldn’t say that I went into college thinking that this would be my career path. I did major in hospitality management, though, so very close. Right out of school was an event planner, which I absolutely loved.


Adam Stoker: [00:11:47] Now, what type of event planner?


Kinney Ferris: [00:11:50] My first job was at a country club.


Adam Stoker: [00:11:52] Nice.


Kinney Ferris: [00:11:53] Yeah, so lots of weddings, lots of kids’ birthday parties, things like that, wine dinners, all of that came into play. Ladies’ bridge clubs … Very interesting. But I really did love it. I loved the relationships that I made with people, and especially at weddings. That’s kind of the big day in their life, and so I was part of it, so we were kind of connected forever after that. I really loved that part of it. The hours are tough, especially if you have anyone else that lives in the house with you that might not have those same hours, so it just wasn’t a good fit for the long-term.

Then a college friend of mine worked for the CVB … She actually still works for our convention center here, our conference center here. I was moving from Tupelo, my hometown, which is just 45 miles to the east—


Adam Stoker: [00:12:52] That’s my next stop, actually!


Kinney Ferris: [00:12:52] Yeah? Oh, perfect! Perfect! Yeah!


Adam Stoker: [00:12:53] Yeah, we’re recording with Tupelo this afternoon.


Kinney Ferris: [00:12:55] Birthplace of Elvis, and me.


Adam Stoker: [00:12:57] The two most important—


Kinney Ferris: [00:13:00] They leave me out when they say that. I’m not sure why yet, but … Yeah, so moved over to Oxford and was contacted by a friend from school about the job opening here, and have been here, like I said, for 10 years and kind of fell into different promotions, and here I am as director. I don’t know that I could do anything else besides destination marketing now.


Adam Stoker: [00:13:27] It’s funny how I hear the different paths everybody takes, but once people get here, so many of them say that; say, “I can’t imagine doing anything else.” We discovered tourism in 2012, and at the time, our agency wasn’t even … We didn’t even know about the tourism industry. And now, over the years, we have modified our entire business to focus on destination marketing because we feel the same way.


Kinney Ferris: [00:13:52] Yeah. I understand completely.


Adam Stoker: [00:13:54] So I would imagine the event planning job surprisingly helped you prepare a lot for what you do today in helping people have a wonderful trip.


Kinney Ferris: [00:14:04] That’s right.


Adam Stoker: [00:14:05] Oxford is a wonderful trip, so tell me a little bit about Oxford and when you’re helping people plan their trip to Oxford … not that you’re a travel agent, but people call and ask for information … how do you craft that into a great experience for the visitor?


Kinney Ferris: [00:14:20] Sure. Oxford has a lot to offer. Our kind of main focus is usually on a leisure visitor, which just fits our market the best. So a lot of what we are doing is trying to make sure that leisure visitors understand what they have that they can do here. I mentioned this before, we have a wonderful dining experience.


Adam Stoker: [00:14:47] I agree.


Kinney Ferris: [00:14:48] Okay, yeah! We have two James Beard award-winning chefs, we have a James Beard award-winning … We have two writers who have won James Beard awards, that live in this town. So for a town of about 23,000 residents, four James Beard winners are kind of a big deal.


Adam Stoker: [00:15:07] That’s pretty incredible. Yeah.


Kinney Ferris: [00:15:09] Especially in a little town, not on a major interstate, in Mississippi. So we understand where we are, and understand that we have challenges with people getting to us sometimes, but we think once they get here they definitely want to come back. So we market to the leisure visitor a lot and obviously push food, and then we also push the experience of kind of a laid-back small-town atmosphere, but with kind of upscale, sophisticated amenities. Being a college town, we’re kind of afforded some amenities that I feel like other towns around us might not have the opportunities to take advantage of, so we do have kind of an influx of 20,000 extra citizens when school is in session, and we have all their parents that come to visit. That pumps a lot of money into our town. It also costs us a lot of money for security and other things, but it definitely gives us opportunities to have really great amenities. One of those is William Faulkner’s home. He’s from here.


Adam Stoker: [00:16:20] Yeah, I wanted to talk about that. So we are sitting in William Faulkner’s home, right?


Kinney Ferris: [00:16:23] No. This building that we’re sitting in right now, that our visitor center is located in, is an old law firm. It’s a building that was constructed in the late 1800s and has been a law firm until we took over this area about five years ago. But the importance that it has to Faulkner is that his mentor, who really appreciated him for who he was when most people did not, his mentor was Phil Stone. He was an attorney here, and if you are in Oxford … When you come to Oxford, we’ll show you this, but it’s kind of a straight cut from our building to his home, really, if you wanted to kind of go the back ways route. I can kind of show you how that would work later. 

We have a Faulkner’s Alley on our square, and he was a bit of an introvert, so he would kind of go off the beaten path to come into town. So he would come here and talk with Mr. Stone, and also the manuscripts for Hollywood, for his novels that later became movies, those were all transcribed here by legal secretaries of Mr. Stone up in the front visitors center area. So you can come here and get a little Faulkner history while you’re also planning out your trip.


Adam Stoker: [00:17:49] Yeah, and that makes this visitor center pretty unique, right? Because you’re walking into a very historic building, and Nadia, you were … For those that may not know who William Faulkner is, and I know most people do … I, however, was one that did not … so for those that aren’t, can you just tell everybody kind of who William Faulkner is?


Nadia Thornton: [00:18:09] Sure. He is a Nobel prize-winning author. Like Kinney said, he was a bit of an introvert and was probably not appreciated by all, but he is very famous for a lot of his works. We, of course, had to read lots of Faulkner in high school. At one point, someone said, “You’re either a Faulkner or a Hemingway fan,” and I quickly realized I was a Hemingway fan. I couldn’t keep up with Faulkner, but certainly appreciate all that he did, and appreciate now the history that he created. You can go and, during non-COVID times, take a tour of his home and see the room where he wrote the outline for one of his books on the walls of the room, which is just crazy, but that was the kind of person he was.


Adam Stoker: [00:18:57] And you can still see that on the wall?


Nadia Thornton: [00:18:57] Yes.


Adam Stoker: [00:18:57] That’s awesome.


Nadia Thornton: [00:19:00] Yes. And the property, you can go still and walk the grounds at the property now, even though the house isn’t open for tours, and it’s a beautiful property. So it’s a nice piece of history that puts us on the map for something else. There’s a Faulkner conference every year where people come from all over the world and talk about Faulkner and the impact that he had, so we’re very grateful for that.


Adam Stoker: [00:19:26] So, I think that’s a great piece of history. It’s part of what makes Oxford unique. But I feel like when you look at Oxford in the state of Mississippi, it’s a very unique community. I’m going to irritate some Mississippi State fans, but you drive into Starkville and it doesn’t feel like you’re an hour-and-a-half from Oxford, it feels like you’re a state away from Oxford. It’s a very unique community within the state of Mississippi. What is it that makes Oxford so unique, beyond dining and William Faulkner?


Nadia Thornton: [00:20:03] Well, I think that … I’ve always said that Oxford is the only place in Mississippi that I would live because it is so special and unique. I think one other thing that helps us is we do have the University of Mississippi, and like Kinney said, that does bring us a lot of opportunities, a lot of diversity, a lot of educational opportunities that some other places don’t have. There’s a really great art scene here, whether that’s music or other types of art, that aren’t in a lot of places, so we get a lot of opportunity to see musicians or artists or sculptors who come through and … It’s just not something you see every day in other places.


Adam Stoker: [00:20:03] Yeah.


Nadia Thornton: [00:20:46] So I definitely think the university helps a lot, and then obviously the dining, the bar scene, the college kids. We’re also one of the top retiree towns, so you’ve got the college kids, and then I think those retirees who wanted to come back and experience or relive their youth a little bit through the eyes of others. That’s kind of what makes it special as well. It’s a small community, but we have a lot of opportunities.


Adam Stoker: [00:21:14] Yeah. I’ll tell you one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had, and that was The Grove on game day. You cannot tell me this is a city of 20,000 people on game day.


Nadia Thornton: [00:21:27] Definitely not on game day. It’s the holy grail of tailgating, I think it’s been called. Normally during Grove season, Trash Can Friday is a big thing, where they put out the red and blue trash cans and they start waiting to get their sport for their tailgate. I mean, you can probably see 50,000 people in that eight-acre park on campus, so it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.


Adam Stoker: [00:21:55] And Kinney, I’ve got to imagine the game-day experience here has so much to do with how many people are willing to visit Oxford. So tell me a little bit about that.


Kinney Ferris: [00:22:09] Yes. Interesting that you say that, because what we have noticed here over the last probably six years is that we have become a bit of a bucket list for a lot of groups, especially groups of men that travel. A lot of the things that we market to here seem to be female-focused, not because we prefer that gender to the other, it just is to kind of what we have —


Adam Stoker: [00:22:40] Well, traditionally that’s been the travel decision-maker, right?


Kinney Ferris: [00:22:42] Yeah, that’s kind of the way it works, but we have these groups of guys that come in that have no affiliation with Ole Miss or the University of Mississippi. They, a lot of times, have never been to Mississippi, and the kicker is they aren’t cheering for the other team, so they’re not our opponents’ fan base. So that leads us to ask, as destination marketers, a lot of questions of them. “How did you find out about us? Why did you pick this?” And every time, they always say … And this is countless groups. This isn’t just a few people who come in here and there. But they always say, “Well, we wanted to visit a college football experience in the SEC, so we picked Ole Miss.” So I know that other schools especially the same, I’m not being naïve to think that they don’t, but I do think that we see that a lot, and I think it’s because of what Ole Miss and Oxford have to offer to one another.


Adam Stoker: [00:23:40] Yeah.


Kinney Ferris: [00:23:40] And the town and gown relationship really is strong here. I feel like we complement each other. One wouldn’t be what it is without the other.


Adam Stoker: [00:23:52] And I’ve seen several destinations that are college towns, and it doesn’t feel as united as maybe … Ole Miss is so synonymous with Oxford, whereas in some other places, you might even find that the residents push against the university, right?


Kinney Ferris: [00:24:10] Sure.


Adam Stoker: [00:24:11] And this is what I feel like is a huge advantage of having an asset like a university. The community pride that comes along with having a university, and being a fan of that university, there’s got to be some real benefits to that, especially as it pertains to getting people to come back and spend money in the market over time.


Kinney Ferris: [00:24:31] Absolutely. I mentioned earlier the parents of the college students. The university is doing a really good job of … Of course, they market to the children of their legacies, the children of their alumni base, but they’ve done a wonderful job within the last several years of really getting out in front of new people that might not know about Ole Miss, or know about Mississippi altogether. So as we’re seeing these new students coming from different places … a lot of students from the Atlanta area, a lot of students from the Dallas-Fort Worth area … when we see this, then we see their parents come. As their parents come, then they go back and tell their friends, and it’s just a trickle effect, and so we have some ambassadors kind of all over the country for our destination because of the college. It’s a great relationship all around.


Adam Stoker: [00:25:31] It’s interesting to hear you talk about that dynamic, because I don’t think … I don’t think every college town understands how the way the university communicates and markets to the students affects the destination’s brand, right? For example, Hotty Toddy, right? That is a term that, to anyone else, doesn’t mean anything at all, and I’ve asked so many people here in Oxford what it means, and they’re like, “It’s just what we say.” So, Nadia, my question to you is, how have you been able to marry your efforts with the university’s efforts and actually work together with them to have them understand how they fit into the brand?


Nadia Thornton: [00:26:16] Sure. I mean, I think constant communication is part of it, and I think both of us understand the importance that the other holds. Ole Miss is where people attended college, but they live here in Oxford, and vice versa, so they get the diploma from Ole Miss, but they’ve got to come back to Oxford and see all that we have to offer as well. We do try to, from all aspects, be in communication with the university and their leadership, and stay on the same message because it always has an effect on the other. I think the leadership on both sides, from the city and from the university, does a great job with that, and understanding that there’s going to be challenges, and kind of working through those challenges and trying to capitalize on what we have in the momentum.


Adam Stoker: [00:27:08] Good.


Nadia Thornton: [00:27:09] Yeah.


Adam Stoker: [00:27:09] Good. So, let’s shift gears a little bit from the university. We have talked about that a lot. You talk about your dining scene, and you’ve got an incredible dining scene. Kinney, you mentioned the awards that have been won here, and how the saturation of award-winning chefs and writers here is different than almost any other market. Tell me about the restaurant scene here. Maybe highlight some of the restaurants that are most recognized, or that you get the most feedback from visitors on, and walk us through that because I think the dining scene here is top-notch.


Kinney Ferris: [00:27:43] Absolutely. I will be happy to do that. So, we talked about the James Beard award-winning chefs, and I did want to touch on one thing that I think is partly the reason why we might have so many James Beard award-winning chefs, and it does kind of go back to the university a little bit. We are home to the Southern Foodways Alliance, which is an organization that studies the history of food.


Adam Stoker: [00:27:43] Oh!


Kinney Ferris: [00:28:09] So they chronicle why southern food is what it is, and where those roots came from. So they do oral histories, written histories. All of this is out of the Center for Southern Studies at the university. And they have a symposium every year, and they have board members and members across the nation that come into Oxford and experience Oxford for all that it is. I really do think that we have gotten a lot of attention to our food scene because it is so great, but I do think that’s kind of helped breed new people. 

City Grocery is kind of one of our flagship restaurants, really, that kind of started the scene here. It’s a fine dining restaurant. It’s located right in the heart of the square. It’s owned by John Currence, who was our first James Beard award-winning chef. So definitely, they famous for shrimp and grits, so we always suggest that people go there. He spent a lot of time in New Orleans, so you’ll see kind of a little bit of that in everything that is happening, I feel like, across the board in his restaurants.

You mentioned Bouré before we started recording, that you ate there last night, and that’s another one of John Currence’s restaurants. You might have noticed the Cajun flare, sort of—


Adam Stoker: [00:28:09] Absolutely.


Kinney Ferris: [00:29:28] In their dishes. And Snackbar and Big Bad Breakfast are the other two.


Adam Stoker: [00:29:33] Oh, I haven’t been to either of those!


Kinney Ferris: [00:29:35] Mm, you’re missing out. Those are located just kind of north of the square, an easy walk from the square, or if you’re staying kind of at either of the downtown hotels. We get a lot of attention about that.

What college town would not have a great burger and barbecue joint, right? So, Handy Andy, that’s been around forever … Nadia grew up here. She probably has grown up eating that. It was one of my favorite places. It’s also great for the college budget. But always people ask, “Where do I get Mississippi barbecue?” when they’re here, so we always kind of tell people that.

And then, where you’re going to go to lunch in a little bit, Ajax Diner.


Adam Stoker: [00:30:18] Oh, my favorite.


Kinney Ferris: [00:30:18] It’s just our kind of ultimate meat and three, and if you’re listening and have no idea what a meat and three is, then you need to come to Mississippi, or really anywhere in the south, and we’ll show you.


Adam Stoker: [00:30:28] And Ajax, that’s the place that I can’t come to Oxford without going to Ajax anymore.


Kinney Ferris: [00:30:34] I understand.


Adam Stoker: [00:30:35] I’ve probably been there more than some of the restaurants in Utah.


Kinney Ferris: [00:30:39] I love it. I love it. Yeah, you can get the meat and three … vegetables and then obviously a meat … and then we joke the vegetables are basically how many starches can you get on a plate, but they’re all so good. And they also have a kind of traditional North Mississippi catfish, which is kind of a little different from other places. 


Adam Stoker: [00:31:03] Well, those are … sounds like a great product. So Nadia, my question to you then is how do you market dining? When dining is one of your major attractions, how do you market dining, and who do you market that to?


Nadia Thornton: [00:31:18] I think that when we’re marketing dining, a picture is worth a thousand words, so a lot of times we use that.


Adam Stoker: [00:31:25] Do you bring in professional food photographers, or do you require the restaurants to do that? Tell me logistically how that works.


Nadia Thornton: [00:31:33] A little bit of both. If they have hired someone to come in and take pictures and are willing to share, we always take that, but we also hire photographers to go in and take pictures, because sometimes when you can’t … When we’re dining, it’s hard to remember to take a picture, make it look as good as it is, but we do have some photographers that we work with come in and take some great photos that really show what you can’t taste. So we do a lot for those leisure travelers and really show them what they’re missing out on.


Adam Stoker: [00:32:06] How far have you found that people will go to dine? Or will they book an entire vacation around dining?


Nadia Thornton: [00:32:15] Yes. I mean, we have itineraries that are basically all the places you need to go and dine, breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks in between, and dessert on the end, so we definitely do that, too.


Adam Stoker: [00:32:27] Awesome. Awesome. Well, we’re going to have to say bye to Kinney. I know that she’s got a previous engagement that she’s got to run for. This is the danger of doing the podcast in person. But Kinney, thank you so much for your time today.


Kinney Ferris: [00:32:38] Absolutely, Adam! Thank you for your interest in Oxford, and for keeping on coming back. We’re glad to host you for a little bit longer today, and I appreciate it.


Adam Stoker: [00:32:50] Thanks a lot. All right, it’s all you, Nadia. It’s all on you now. So tell me about your visitor. You guys obviously have done work to figure out who that visitor is and what their interests are, so tell me who Oxford’s core visitor is.


Nadia Thornton: [00:33:06] Sure. It’s kind of a mixed bag. With the university, we do get a lot of people who have just graduated, who are coming back, who want to relive those four or five years that they spent here. Then we do get a lot of retirees who want to come back. So we generally find that most of our travelers and visitors are well educated, college-educated, have a little bit higher income, a little discretionary income to spend on all the great places here in Oxford. And of course, mainly from the Southeast, but we do get visitors from all over. We just fulfilled some tour requests, visitor guide requests from South Korea and Sweden.


Adam Stoker: [00:33:50] Wow!


Nadia Thornton: [00:33:50] So, kind of all over the place. But we do kind of have a very unique visitor profile, and they want to come and usually spend two to three nights here so they can enjoy all of the different dining options, and shopping, and tours, and all the history here.


Adam Stoker: [00:34:10] Great. Great. Okay, let’s talk about COVID. We’re going to have to do it. We have no choice. Everybody wants to stop talking about COVID, but it’s the gift that keeps on taking.


Nadia Thornton: [00:34:20] Yes, it does.


Adam Stoker: [00:34:22] So tell me what your experience has been with COVID, and how you guys have been proactive in combating the drop in tourism.


Nadia Thornton: [00:34:33] I think that it became real to us kind of February when the city came to us and said, “Every department has to create this pandemic plan, so if this happens, we need to be ready.” We of course did our due diligence, but kind of laughed about it almost a little bit because we never thought that it would be … You always hear about it. So, mid-March of course, we realized—


Adam Stoker: [00:35:01] Can I stop you real quick?


Nadia Thornton: [00:35:02] Yeah.


Adam Stoker: [00:35:02] I find it interesting that in February … Because most of the people I’ve talked to, it didn’t become real until March, including me. So in February, your city leaders were coming to you saying, “Hey, we have got to be ready for this”?


Nadia Thornton: [00:35:14] Yep.


Adam Stoker: [00:35:15] That’s pretty impressive.


Nadia Thornton: [00:35:16] It has been very impressive, from my perspective. I think that we have been very proactive on every front. So we got those plans in place, and then mid-March is when we got stay-at-home orders and started working from home, and learned what Zoom was. We signed up for an account. We actually, our city leaders enacted a mask mandate in April. We were kind of one of the first ones that did it, and from the visitors center perspective, we said, “What can we do to help the community?” One thing we knew was the mask mandate was coming, so we have a very beloved festival that happens the last weekend in April. It’s the Double Decker Arts Festival, and it’s a great weekend of arts, music, shopping, fun, food, all those great things, and we realized that was not going to happen.

So we had all these T-shirts … We had 7,000 T-shirts that we would normally sell. They obviously had the dates on them. We knew we wouldn’t be able to sell that many. No matter how much people wanted them, they weren’t going to do that, so we partnered actually with the local Chick-fil-A, who had some money set aside for COVID relief for the community, and we had those T-shirts made into face coverings.


Adam Stoker: [00:36:41] Oh!


Nadia Thornton: [00:36:42] And we set up drive-throughs at the local high school, and we gave out four per car, and we gave out all of the masks.


Adam Stoker: [00:36:51] No way.


Nadia Thornton: [00:36:52] So that was something kind of creative that we were able to help with.


Adam Stoker: [00:36:57] Did Chick-fil-A reach out to you guys, or were you reaching out to stakeholders? How did that work?


Nadia Thornton: [00:37:03] I think that … because Kinney kind of took the lead on that, but I believe that the local Chick-fil-A, he used to actually be on our tourism board—


Adam Stoker: [00:37:10] Oh, so he understands.


Nadia Thornton: [00:37:11] So we have a good relationship, and he said, “I have this money and I would like to do something for the community. Do you have any ideas?” And I think Kinney kind of sat up in the middle of the night at midnight and was like, “We can make face coverings.” So we took our materials, his money to pay for it. He came and picked up the 15 boxes of T-shirts, drove them to Memphis, where they were laser cut, and we handed them out two times at the local high school.


Adam Stoker: [00:37:40] Wow.


Nadia Thornton: [00:37:41] Yeah. And we also had, our city leadership reached out to Cathead Vodka. They quickly realized that they could help by, instead of distilling vodka, they could make hand sanitizer, so we also did that with the city and helped hand out hand sanitizer to the community in a time where you couldn’t get any hand sanitizer anywhere.


Adam Stoker: [00:38:02] Right. It was nowhere, yeah.


Nadia Thornton: [00:38:03] Yeah. So those were a couple of efforts that we helped with; giving out the hand sanitizer, and then the face masks, too.


Adam Stoker: [00:38:13] So when that mask mandate came out, what was that like, as far as from a tourism perspective? Because one of the things that are scary about a mask mandate is that your visitors didn’t see it in the news when the legislation came out. They had no idea there was a mask mandate. I mean, some of them I’m sure did, but you can’t expect a visitor to understand what’s happening locally, right? So how were you able to communicate that with visitors, and make sure that it wasn’t a poor customer experience?


Nadia Thornton: [00:38:42] Right. Well, with customer service, you can’t please everyone all the time.


Adam Stoker: [00:38:47] Right.


Nadia Thornton: [00:38:48] But we obviously reached out to our stakeholders and got their feedback, and found out that they did have people coming into town who said they had no idea, they didn’t have a mask. Some of them had some handy. They brought extra, and so they were giving them to patrons. But we did kind of do a social media campaign for a while that just was raising awareness. We created a landing page on our website, which is Visit Oxford Safely, that kind of gave a rundown of what was expected when you come to town; that you can still come here and enjoy all that Oxford has, but you need to know what to have when you come here, and one of those things is a face mask. So that really seemed to get the message out, and people started learning, so that was helpful.


Adam Stoker: [00:39:35] Yeah. Good. So, COVID is … It’s not over. We’re hoping this isn’t the new normal, and yet we have been in it for long enough that certain things are starting to feel normal, right? So, from a marketing perspective, do you feel like you guys are kind of setting into what your strategy is going to be moving forward?


Nadia Thornton: [00:39:57] Yeah, I think that we have all made the joke that things change by the hour, and they certainly do, but we have kind of looked at the research, we have listened to all of the webinars that we can, and looked at industry partners for their guidance as well, at what other places are doing, to kind of get our message across. Overall, Oxford if still a very safe place to visit, and like I said, we have been very proactive from the beginning. When other places weren’t even thinking of a mask mandate, we already had it in place. So definitely people in the community are used to wearing those masks, and shop owners and restaurant owners are quick to say, “I’m so sorry, you need to have a mask to come in,” and very diligent about it. So I think that is great. Right now, we’re just shifting our focus to let people know that they can come and have a great experience in Oxford safely.


Adam Stoker: [00:40:56] So still a message centered around safe. You can be safe here.


Nadia Thornton: [00:41:00] Yes. 


Adam Stoker: [00:41:01] Okay.


Nadia Thornton: [00:41:02] We just recently redid our Visit Oxford Safely page to create some kind of portals for Eat Oxford Safely, Shop Oxford Safely, Stay Oxford Safely, and created a partner pledge, which we aptly named the Oxford Oath—


Adam Stoker: [00:41:19] I like it.


Nadia Thornton: [00:41:19] Where we have asked our industry partners to sign this oath that they’re going to abide by the guidelines of the CDC, the Mississippi Department of Health, and the local ordinances to keep everyone safe and to really just stay open. And of course, we ask that visitors and patrons do the same. So that has gone over well, and we’re still kind of in the works of that as well.


Adam Stoker: [00:41:42] Awesome. Well, it’s a crazy time, but one thing that impresses me about what you guys have done is be so proactive.


Nadia Thornton: [00:41:49] Yeah. Absolutely. And we have also renewed partnerships with our … We have a great Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Foundation. We have worked hand in hand with them from the beginning. We share information on what’s open, the hours, if it’s curbside only, all those things. And also with our local arts council, the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council … we obviously can’t do a lot of events right now, so we started something in June called Tunes Around Town, which is a socially distant way of enjoying some music.


Adam Stoker: [00:42:26] Nice.


Nadia Thornton: [00:42:27] Where we set up artists, and it gives the musicians a great opportunity to actually perform live for people, which they haven’t done.


Adam Stoker: [00:42:33] Which they haven’t been able to do, yeah.


Nadia Thornton: [00:42:35] Yeah. And also give them a little bit of pocket change as well. We have had four or five locations around the downtown area where a musician sets up and plays for about two hours, and we encourage people to social distance and wear masks. It’s hopefully giving a boost to the local economy as well, restaurants and shops staying open a little bit later, so that helps, and we’re continuing that. And also just trying smaller events that we can plan safely going into the fall for some of these football weekends.


Adam Stoker: [00:43:08] Yeah. Well, we have talked about it a lot. We have gone through a lot. I’m going to ask you for two pieces of advice, okay?


Nadia Thornton: [00:43:15] Okay.


Adam Stoker: [00:43:16] This is for destinations listening that may be going through the same challenges you are. First, you guys have built an amazing brand here in Oxford. The way you utilize the university, your assets, it sounds like your relationship with political partners is really good, and the Chamber of Commerce, so a destination that wants to basically build what you guys have built, from a branding standpoint, were would you start?


Nadia Thornton: [00:43:45] Oh gosh. I grew up here. I’m very biased and think that Oxford is a little gemstone, and I do think we have a great product, but I go back to relationship building. That’s kind of the key point to everything. I guess that’s also my sales background, but building those relationships, and not just when you need something, but going that extra mile and checking on people, or asking how you can help and be of assistance all the time, so then when you call them they actually answer the phone and can help you.


Adam Stoker: [00:44:21] Yeah. Relationships are built before the crisis.


Nadia Thornton: [00:44:23] That’s right. Absolutely.


Adam Stoker: [00:44:25] And the second piece of advice … By the way, great advice.


Nadia Thornton: [00:44:28] Okay.


Adam Stoker: [00:44:29] The second piece of advice is, COVID, people who are struggling going through COVID. You guys have obviously been proactive. What advice would you give destinations trying to figure out what to do next?


Nadia Thornton: [00:44:42] I think it goes back to that first piece of advice of relationship building and talking to partners in your town or your destination. You don’t always have to recreate the wheel. Just having those conversations and saying, “What can we do? What do you have contacts with? Do you have any ideas?” Some of these ideas have come up just from those conversations, so I think that’s kind of the biggest thing, is be open to conversations and thinking outside of the box. Just because we normally have a festival in April of 55,000, that’s obviously not possible right now, so what can we do to help our local economy and businesses and still be safe? So thinking outside of the box, and having conversations with other people that maybe you wouldn’t always have those conversations with, because I think there are plenty of people who are sitting at home, who have ideas and resources, and they want to help as well.


Adam Stoker: [00:45:42] Is it safe to say, then, that most of the challenges we deal with could be solved through building better relationships?


Nadia Thornton: [00:45:48] I 100% believe that. I do.


Adam Stoker: [00:45:51] Well, I think it’s great advice, and the most important thing for people to remember is that the time to build those relationships is yesterday, but you can settle for today, right?


Nadia Thornton: [00:46:01] Absolutely. Absolutely.


Adam Stoker: [00:46:02] Well, this has been great. I really appreciate it, Nadia. We have gotten some great advice from you and from Kinney, and boy, am I excited to go eat some lunch.


Nadia Thornton: [00:46:10] I know. I hope you planned a nap after.


Adam Stoker: [00:46:12] Well, I’ll be driving, so it’s not a great combination.


Nadia Thornton: [00:46:14] Oh no! We’ll get you some coffee. We’ll get you an affogato or something for the road.


Adam Stoker: [00:46:20] Nice. Well, tell us where we can find more information about Oxford.


Nadia Thornton: [00:46:24] Sure. We’re very active on all of our social media channels, which is VisitOxfordMS on all handles, and then our website is visitoxfordms.com, and there’s lots of information there as well on what we have upcoming and what we can do to help, and what you can do to plan your next trip to Oxford. 


Adam Stoker: [00:46:46] Great. Great. Well, thank you so much, Nadia.


Nadia Thornton: [00:46:49] Thank you, Adam. Thanks for stopping in.


Adam Stoker: [00:46:51] And for those listening, this has been another episode of the Destination Marketing podcast on the road. If you would like the Destination Marketing podcast to come to your destination and feature your destination, send me an email, adam@relicagency.com. Other than that, thanks for listening, and have a great week.

Okay, guys, since we started the Destination Marketing podcast a little over a year ago, I’ve had several destinations reach out and say, “Hey, could you help me start a podcast?” At first, we were kind of like, “Well, no. That’s not really what we do,” but after enough requests, we said, “You know what? Let’s explore this.” We have created a turnkey program for destinations where we will produce, we will host, we will edit, and we will publish your podcast for your destination on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis. All you have to do is show up and answer some questions. 

We’re really excited about this program. We have got a few destinations that have been doing really, really well with their podcast, and if you’ve ever thought about creating a podcast for your destination but you don’t have all the equipment, or you don’t have the expertise or any of that type of stuff, let us take that off your hands. Let Relic handle your podcast creation and production, and all you have to do is show up and answer questions about all the amazing things there are to do within your destination. So let me know if you’re interested. Email me at adam@relicagency.com and we’ll get you set up on this podcast program.