2020 Governor’s Conference

The 2020 Governor’s Conference on Tourism was held November 30-December 2, 2020 at IP Casino Resort & Spa in Biloxi, Mississippi.

To purchase and view videos from the event, click here.


Robert St. John Robert St. John Dad, Husband, Chef, Restaurateur, Author, Enthusiastic Traveler, & World-Class Eater

Robert St. John

Robert St. John has spent almost four decades in the restaurant business. Thirty-two of those years
have been as the owner of the Purple Parrot, Crescent City Grill, Mahogany Bar, Branch, Tabella,
Ed’s Burger Joint, The Midtowner, and Midtown Donut in Hattiesburg, MS. St. John is a restaurateur,
chef, columnist, and author. For over 20 years he has written a weekly syndicated newspaper column.

St. John has been named the state’s top chef three consecutive years and was honored as Mississippi Restaurateur of the Year.
He is the author of eleven books, including four collaborations with watercolorist Wyatt Waters. Their book,
An Italian Palate, was written in Europe while St. John, his wife, and his two children traveled through 72 cities,
in 17 countries, on two continents for six months. His 11th book, A Mississippi Palate, another collaboration with
Waters was released in 2018. St. John is also the creator, producer, and co-host of the Public Broadcasting series Palate to
Palette with Robert St. John and Wyatt Waters which will soon film its fifth season.

In 2009, St. John founded Extra Table, a statewide non-profit organization that ships over 20 tons of healthy food to over
50 Mississippi soup kitchens and mission pantries every month. St. John is a founding member of the national board of
the Independent Restaurant Coalition, and currently serves on the boards of the Mississippi Alzheimer’s Association, Special
Olympics of Mississippi, The Mississippi Book Festival, the Hattiesburg-Forrest County Public Library, and is the founder of
Hattiesburg Hundred, an organization that assists sworn law enforcement and first responder’s families in their times of need.
He is also the founder of the Midtown Merchants Association in Hattiesburg.

He and his wife Jill have two children.


Opening Session/Keynote:

Topic: TBA


Amir Eylon Amir Eylon President & CEO Longwoods International

Amir Eylon

A thirty-year veteran of the Travel & Tourism industry, Amir leads the entire team responsible for the development and execution of all facets of the organization from program development to customer acquisition and retention.

He joined Longwoods in 2015 from his previous role as Vice President, Partner Engagement with Brand USA, the public-private partnership serving as the destination marketing organization dedicated to increasing international visitation to the US. He led the team responsible for helping to increase Brand USA’s partnership base and ensuring that participants received excellent service throughout Brand USA’s deployment of joint marketing programs. During his tenure, Brand USA grew its base to 475 partners, comprised of destination marketing organizations, convention and visitor bureaus, attractions, travel brands, airlines, and tour operators.

Prior to joining Brand USA, Amir served as Director of the Ohio Office of Tourism. Under his leadership, the state’s marketing programs realized a tremendous return on investment and contributed to the growth of the state’s $40 billion tourism economy. The programs he developed leveraged industry and nontraditional partnerships that generated $14 in new state and local taxes for every $1 invested and included active participation by thousands of Ohio’s tourism-related businesses. He has also served as Executive Vice President of the Ohio Hotel & Lodging Association, Assistant Director of the Ohio Tourism Division, and Sales & Marketing Manager with the Steuben County Conference and Visitors Bureau.

He has been recognized with a number of Industry honors including: Top 25 Extraordinary Minds in Sales & Marketing award (2014) by the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI); The Ohio Tourism Industry’s Highest Honor, The Paul Sherlock Award; and The State of Ohio Distinguished Service Medal.

Amir holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from the University of Dayton.

Tori Emerson Barnes Tori Emerson Barnes Executive Vice President, Public Affairs & Policy - U.S. Travel Association

Tori Emerson Barnes

Tori Barnes serves as Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and Policy at the U.S. Travel Association, where she leads the government relations, policy development, communications, marketing and research teams. She was appointed to this role in March 2019 after serving as the association’s Senior Vice President of Government Relations.

Elevating the importance of the travel industry in the trade, commerce and security arenas—including upgrading America’s air travel infrastructure, improving connectivity and growing the future of mobility along with promoting common-sense policies that effectively balance security and travel facilitation—are primary objectives of Barnes and the organization.

Prior to joining U.S. Travel in November 2017, Barnes was an integral member of General Motors’ federal affairs team for more than fourteen years, playing a crucial role in strengthening GM’s presence on Capitol Hill, leading the company’s tax policy and trade strategies and managing political operations. She most recently served as Executive Director of Federal Affairs, and managed a diverse portfolio that included tax, trade, fuel economy, transportation, pension issues and political operations. Previously, she served as a Congressional Liaison for the Republican National Committee and as Director of Fundraising and Events for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s National Capital Chapter.

Barnes is on the board of the Congressional Women’s Softball Game and coaches the Members of Congress team, which plays an annual game against women in the press to raise money for the Young Survival Coalition, an organization that works with young women facing breast cancer.

Barnes graduated from George Mason University, and attended Miami University of Ohio.

Jennifer Foster Jennifer Foster STR Business Development Executive

Jennifer Foster

Jennifer Foster is a Business Development Executive for the Destinations team at STR. She joined STR in 2015 and is responsible for building and maintaining positive relationships with destination clients located in the Southeast, Midwest and East Coast regions of the U.S, as well as Mexico and the Caribbean. She is often featured as a guest speaker at hotel industry meetings and conventions. Prior to joining STR, Jennifer served as the Regional Sales Manager for Mayflower Tours and Vacation Express, where she worked on worldwide tour packages for groups and travel agencies. A graduate of Vanderbilt University with a bachelor’s degree in European Studies, Jennifer resides in Nashville, TN with her husband Dave.

STR provides clients from multiple market sectors with premium, global data benchmarking, analytics and marketplace insights. STR was acquired in October 2019 by CoStar Group, Inc. (NASDAQ: CSGP), the leading provider of commercial real estate information, analytics and online marketplaces.

Milton Segarra Milton Segarra CEO, Coastal Mississippi

Milton Segarra

Milton Segarra, CDME is CEO of Coastal Mississippi, the official regional tourism entity representing Mississippi’s three coastal counties. With over 30 years in tourism, corporate America and government experience, Segarra is charged with leading the regional tourism organization, promoting South Mississippi as a tourism and convention destination worldwide.

In addition to directing the efforts of the Coastal Mississippi team and implementing policies set by the organization’s Board of Commissioners, Segarra works to maintain strong relationships with stakeholders, elected officials, and the 12 Coastal communities. He served on the Destinations International Board of Directors for three years and is now a trustee on the Destinations International Foundation Board of Trustees, which directs the affairs of the Foundation and determines policies. He is also a Director-at-Large on the United States Travel Association Board of Directors and the Mississippi Tourism Association. Segarra is a Certified Destination Management Executive, CDME.

Prior to his appointment as CEO of Coastal Mississippi, formerly known as Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, Segarra was President and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico, the non-profit organization that markets Puerto Rico as a premier meeting and convention destination.  Segarra’s time spent working for governmental organizations also includes the position of Executive Director of The Puerto Rico Tourism Company, as well as Secretary of Commerce and Economic Development. He also has extensive experience in sales, marketing, and revenue management during his tenure as Director or Vice President at Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, Sands Hotels & Casinos, and Hilton Hotels and Resorts.

An accomplished industry leader with extensive experience in the public and private sector, Segarra’s understanding of the tourism, meetings and conventions market, coupled with his advocacy approach, industry relationships and business acumen, contribute to his reputation and proven track record as a forward-thinking leader.

Craig Ray Craig Ray Director, Visit Mississippi

Craig Ray

Craig Ray is the Director of Visit Mississippi, the Tourism office of the Mississippi Development Authority. In this role, he promotes Mississippi as a travel destination and film location by highlighting the state’s culture, heritage, history, natural resources and recreational opportunities through a multi-faceted marketing effort. Ray oversees a diverse number of programs and initiatives, such as International, Outdoor Recreation & Sports , MS Blues & Country Music Trails, the Mississippi Film Office and the State’s 13 Welcome Centers.

Ray returned to the Mississippi Development Authority in 2016 after serving as a Principal in The Talon Group, LLC, a government relations firm providing advice, advocacy and access to federal and state government agencies. Prior to joining The Talon Group, Ray served as President of DCRAY Consulting and as Executive Producer of a number of statewide and national events, including Mississippi Night at the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles and the Mississippi GRAMMY Celebration. Ray has also served in senior-level positions at the White House for two U.S. Presidents and for two Mississippi Governors.

Ray previously served as the Director of the Tourism Division at the Mississippi Development Authority from 2004 – 2009. During his tenure he played a key role in developing the branding campaign for “Mississippi – The Birthplace of America’s Music,” as well as launching the groundbreaking Mississippi Blues Trail. Today, the Mississippi Blues Trail has more than 200 markers throughout Mississippi and the world.

A Mississippi native, Ray graduated from the University of Mississippi with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. He has one daughter, Emma Claire.

Rickey Thigpen Rickey Thigpen Executive Director, Visit Jackson

Rickey Thigpen

Kinney Ferris Kinney Ferris Executive Director, Visit Oxford

Kinney Ferris

Kinney Ferris is the Executive Director of Visit Oxford and has been with the organization since 2009. After graduating from Ole Miss in 2004 with a degree in hospitality management, she worked in the events industry in her hometown of Tupelo, MS. Continuing her love of hospitality, Ferris began her career in Oxford as the Office Manager for the Oxford Convention & Visitors Bureau. After a reorganization and split from the Conference Center in 2014, Ferris was promoted to Assistant Director of the newly branded Visit Oxford. She was again promoted to Deputy Director in 2017 where she helped lead the organization with an emphasis on managing public relations and coordinating sales efforts. Ferris was named the Executive Director in November 2019 and has been focused on an outcome-drive approach to marketing Oxford as a premier destination in the Southeast. While her tenure of being Executive Director is not extensive, she has earned her stripes in managing a destination marketing organization in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.

Laura Beth Strickland Laura Beth Strickland Executive Director, Visit Vicksburg

Laura Beth Strickland

Laura Beth Strickland joined the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau (VCVB) in November 2009. A Vicksburg native and proud Mississippian, her experience and passion for growing our tourism industry is not only a professional goal, but also a personal goal. Her role as executive director is tasked with marketing Vicksburg as a top tourism destination as well as educating the public on the importance and local impact of tourism. Her extensive experience in implementing marketing and communications strategies has helped elevate Vicksburg’s tourism success.

Laura Beth graduated from the University of Mississippi in 2008 with a Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree in Journalism and English with an emphasis in Public Relations, Mass Media, and News Reporting. She has served on the boards for the Mississippi Tourism Association, Mississippi Delta Tourism Association, Public Relations Association of Mississippi (PRAM), Vicksburg Rotary Club, Vicksburg Convention Center, and Junior Auxiliary of Vicksburg. Laura Beth also has served on committees for the Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg YMCA Capital Campaign, Vicksburg Fourth of July, and Vicksburg Main Street Promotions. Laura Beth also serves as the Mississippi Chair for the Southeast Tourism Society Congressional Summit. She is active on the Vicksburg-Warren School District Career Advisory Council and the Vicksburg Catholic School Marketing Committee.

Laura Beth has been named as one of the Top 20 Under 40 by the Vicksburg Post in 2011 and the Top 50 under 40 by the Mississippi Business Journal in 2017. She was also honored as the Mississippi Tourism Association Member of the Year in 2016. She is certified as a Social Media Strategist and as a Festival and Events Planner. She has also received her accreditation as a tourism marketing professional (TMP) by the Southeast Tourism Society.

Laura Beth is a native of Vicksburg and a 2004 graduate of St. Aloysius High School where she played basketball and softball. She is married to Michael, who farms in Vicksburg, at Eagle Lake, in Flora, and in Yazoo City. They are parents to two children, May (3) and Michael (2). They are members of First Baptist Church of Vicksburg. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, reading, and spending time with her family.

Christy Burns Christy Burns Executive Director, Visit Corinth

Christy Burns

Representative Becky Currie Representative Becky Currie House Tourism Chairwoman

Representative Becky Currie

Senator Lydia Chassaniol Senator Lydia Chassaniol Senate Tourism Chairwoman

Senator Lydia Chassaniol

Chip Reno Chip Reno MTA Lobbyist, The Talon Group

Chip Reno


Coastal Mississippi would like to welcome you to Biloxi, MS for the 2020 Governor’s Conference on Tourism, November 30-December 2. The Coastal Mississippi Promise: When you visit The Secret Coast, you will be met with warm welcomes and 62 miles of shoreline dotted by unique coastal communities. Here, you can expect excitement and relaxation in equal measure, with plenty of room to roam. Click here to see everything Coastal Mississippi has to offer.



Winner of the elite AAA Four Diamond award, The IP Casino Resort Spa, is the Gulf Coast’s premier entertainment resort destination. Towering 32 stories over the scenic Back Bay of Biloxi, the IP is home to more than 1,000 elegantly appointed hotel rooms and suites with full amenities. Our Biloxi Casino Resort features a vast array of live entertainment options, great restaurants, and a first-class spa to indulge your senses. We also offer specialized golf packages to the Coast’s premier golf courses. We invite you to come stay with us. We’ll make your next visit to the Coast a trip you won’t forget.







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