Tourism Tuesdays September 12, 2017

Hurricane Irma brings economic boom to Alabama

Alabama Tourism Department staff worked tirelessly to aid evacuees

Florence dedicates $2 million toward conference center

Air China travelers read about Alabama

Alabama Tourism Department Workshop rescheduled

Bicentennial community workshop rescheduled in Opelika

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website


Hurricane Irma brings economic boom to Alabama

From the article by John Sharp on

Christian Hoyos and Kevin Denyer spent the past two days walking around downtown Mobile looking for museums to visit, restaurants to eat at and a place to grab a beer.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Hoyos, 25, a first-time visitor to Alabama. “I thought we’d be in the middle of nowhere. But this is great. Everyone’s been friendly.”

The two friends arrived in Mobile Saturday after initially evacuating their Miami home for Tallahassee, Fla. After learning that Hurricane Irma was headed northward, they ventured to the Port City where family and friends were staying at a downtown hotel.

An estimated 250,000 evacuees arrived into Alabama from Florida as Hurricane Irma bore down on the Sunshine State. Most of the state’s 75,000 hotel rooms accommodated Florida evacuees during the weekend. State officials expected a good amount would remain for several more days.

And while the hurricane’s path brought heavy rains and winds to most of the state on Monday, the storm packed hotels and busy restaurants and provided an unexpected economic windfall to the hospitality sector.

‘Sold out’

In coastal Alabama, where hurricanes often lead to evacuations, the influx of visitors brought almost 95 percent occupancy rates at hotels in Baldwin and Mobile counties.

“It was four to five nights of everyone being busy and sold out,” said Kent Blackinton, president of the Mobile Area Lodging Association and general manager of the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel and Battle House Hotel. “It was a nice piece of business that we had to scramble to get done.

Lee Sentell, the state’s tourism director, said most of the hotels that were filled in Alabama often cater to business travelers during September. But most those visitors had to alter schedules due to dire weather forecasts, he added.

Late last week, hotels were almost fully booked from coastal Alabama north toward Clanton. Hotels in Birmingham were also filling up, thanks to a double-whammy of having evacuees coming to the Magic City along with football teams from Florida and elsewhere playing relocated games at Legion Field.

Sara Hamlin, vice-president of tourism with the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, said 90-95 percent of their hotel rooms were booked on Saturday and Sunday, a rarity in September.

Hamlin said the unexpected business rivaled some of Birmingham’s peak tourism weekends, such as the National Speech and Debate Association’s tournament in June or race events held at the Talladega Superspeedway.

“We had our main office open on Saturday and Sunday and quite a few people in town stopped in not only looking for things to do in the area but also looking for places to dine and were interested in grocery stores and pharmacists,” said Hamlin.

She said it could be a few weeks before an economic impact figure is determined.

In southeastern cities like Auburn and Dothan, hotels remained filled through Sunday night even though Irma’s tract as a tropical storm shifted into their direction.

The Auburn-Opelika area has 2,600 hotel rooms, all of which were filled during the weekend.

“It’s still busy here,” said John Wild, president of the Auburn-Opelika Tourism Bureau.

Wild said he wouldn’t find out the exact occupancy numbers until later in the week.

“The largest occupancy we had all of last year was Hurricane Matthew,” said Wild, referring to the storm that battered the Atlantic Coast last September. “It will be interesting to see (how the Hurricane Irma evacuation will compare). It was hard to find rooms … it also just seems like this was longer. Matthew was a one to two-day event.”

Dothan, on Sunday, had less than 10 rooms available in a city that also saw some of Hurricane Irma’s effects.

“There was some movement of people checking out (Monday),” said Robert Hillman, director of sales with Visit Dothan.

In Gulf Shores, one of Alabama’s biggest tourism cities, restaurants were packed late Sunday with evacuees from Florida.

It was an atypical scene for the coastal Alabama city which often sees a temporary lull in visitors between Labor Day weekend and the National Shrimp Festival held in mid-October.

“The roadways are fuller than normal,” said Grant Brown, the city’s spokesman. “It felt closer to a summer day than to a fall day.”

Restaurants and stores elsewhere in Baldwin County experienced heavy business as most of the hotels near I-10 were booked. In Robertsdale, 425 evacuees sheltered from Friday through Monday inside the Baldwin County Coliseum in Robertsdale.

‘We get it’

In downtown Mobile, restaurants like Heroes Sports Bar & Grille were busy throughout a weekend that was expected – before the storm – to draw crowds because of the monthly Art Walk and because the University of South Alabama played host Friday to nationally-ranked Oklahoma State University at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

“We definitely experienced an uptick,” said David Rasp, the owner of Heroes. “You could see it visually throughout downtown.”

Rasp said one of the visual aspects of the visitor influx was the number of people walking dogs throughout downtown Mobile.

Said David Clark, the CEO of Visit Mobile: “The hoteliers were flexible in allowing pets and welcoming Floridians. Mobilians get what a day in the life of a hurricane is. This is an advantage Mobile has. We get it.”

Shelley and Kraig Eichelberger, evacuees from North Port, Fla., stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn from Saturday through Monday, and said the hotel “bent over backwards” to make sure they could stay all three nights.

The couple was going to stay put inside their home south of Sarasota until weather forecasts for Irma shifted toward the west coast of Florida. They made last-minute plans and fled northwest toward Mobile.

“We couldn’t find a room,” said Shelley Eichelberger, a Pacific Northwest transplant to Florida. “Everything was booked everywhere.”

It was the couple’s first time to Alabama.

“The restaurants, hotels, entertainment, every place we went … the people have just bent over backwards for us,” she said, as her family relaxed in Bienville Square before preparing to leave late Monday to return to Florida.

The couple was anticipating heavy traffic on the interstates toward South Florida. By Monday afternoon, heavy congestion had started building along westbound Interstate 10 through Mobile.

But while relaxing in the historic Mobile downtown park, the couple took time to reflect on the hospitality they encountered following their frantic exit from Florida.

“It’s just beautiful here,” Eichelberger said.

For the complete article please see

Alabama Tourism Department staff worked tirelessly to aid evacuees

Alabama Tourism Department (ATD) staff including the Welcome Centers’ staff worked at a fever pitch to compile lodging availability for Hurricane Irma evacuees. 


An online Google document was created listing B&B, hotels/motels/extended stay, vacation rentals and Alabama State Parks including campgrounds in Tourism’s database. The google document was chosen because a team of people can edit it simultaneously. It updates in real time, can be “viewed” by others and has a link that can be shared. 


Alabama state agencies, such as the Alabama Emergency Management Agency and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, used the listing. The Alabama Lodging link was placed on Tourism’s website under Emergency Travel Assistance. The Alabama Lodging post on Tourism’s Facebook page/Alabama Travel was seen by 425,000 people and shared 5,600 times.


The staff of Alabama’s Welcome Centers made majority of the calls to the lodging partners. Some Welcome Centers were completely overwhelmed with evacuees. Houston Welcome Center had more than 100 people who spent the night, or several nights, in their parking area.


“Welcome center employees are trained hospitality professionals. The recent hurricane events proved that when there is a crisis our employees first thought is how we can accommodate our guests,” said Trisa Collier, ATD Welcome Center Administrator.


“They spent days and countless hours calling hotels, campgrounds, B&Bs to ensure that anyone who needed a place to rest their head would have one. I am so very proud of their efforts. They are the real rock stars of Tourism.” 


Although Hurricane Irma has passed, ATD’s work to help evacuees has not.  Jo Jo Terry, ATD’s Digital Marketing Strategist, started working this week with ALEA on creating an online mapping system of available lodging within Alabama for future emergencies. ATD staff will be meeting internally as well as having discussions with other state agencies to create an even more efficient strategy to help evacuees find available lodging.


The Tourism Department also thanked all its tourism/hospitality partners for their help and support during Hurricane Irma.

Florence dedicates $2 million toward conference center

From the article by Bernie Delinski on

The City Council unanimously agreed Tuesday to dedicate $2 million of Public Park Authority funds toward renovations to the conference center.

The vote came one week after the authority released the $2 million, which previously had been set aside to help build an attraction in Veterans Memorial Park.

Councilman David Bradley, whose district includes the park and conference center, said the vote does not end hopes for renovating the park. Last week, the city held a public meeting to gain ideas for park usage.

“I want to continue pressing forward with the funding of Veterans Park,” Bradley said.

He said the conference center also is a major city asset.

“It is a reason a lot of people come here,” Bradley said. “The hotels fill up whenever there is a big event at the conference center.”

The transfer of funds was requested by David Bronner, chief executive officer of the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

As part of an economic development agreement between RSA and local governments in Colbert and Lauderdale counties, a 2-cents per gallon fuel tax was added in each county to pay for $10.8 million in bonds to help build the Marriott and two Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail courses. The $2 million was accrued from the fuel tax.

Florence, with the approval of RSA and the park authority, was to build an attraction in Veterans Park to help draw guests to the Marriott and the golf courses. After almost 13 years, there had been no agreement on what to build.

In July, the Florence council voted down building a tennis complex in the park. After that, Bronner requested the money in a letter to the authority.

During the work session preceding Tuesday’s council meeting, Larry Bowser, general manager of Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa, which is adjacent to the conference center, said they have invested a great deal into the conference center.

Bowser said that included $1 million toward improvements such as soundproofing in 2004 and a $1 million roofing project last year. They also recently completed a $300,000 lighting project.

He said officials are putting together a “wish list” of projects for the conference center. Bowser mentioned modern kitchen and audio-visual equipment and aesthetic improvements among possibilities.

For the complete article please see

Air China travelers read about Alabama

By Beijiao Shanyao

Wings of China, the inflight magazine for Air China features Muscle Shoals and Huntsville in tis September issue.  The two Alabama destinations are part of a three-state travel story called “Finding the soul of music in the south of U.S.”   Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and FAME studios were the central attractions for the Alabama music section.  Sam Phillips, W.C. Handy and Percy Sledge were also highlighted as part of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame as was the fact that visitors can make a souvenir recordings at the Hall of Fame’s studio for only $10.


Also, included in the article was a photograph of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and reference to Huntsville having important space research centers.  Other locations in the story included New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville.


The 16-page feature will be available to travelers on both international and domestic Air China flights and was the result of a FAM trip by Chinese journalists to Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee earlier in the year.  Springna Zhao, Alabama Tourism Department’s China Coordinator helped escort the reporters through Alabama with the help of local CVB and attractions and Catherin Li, Travel South USA’s China Initiatives Coordinator. 


Grey Brennan, Deputy Director for Alabama Tourism Department, says Chinese visitors are important to Alabama’s economy. “The Chinese visitor spends almost five times the average of our typical tourist. This coupled with the increasing number of Chinese traveling makes this an important market for Alabama,” Brennan said. According to research by the firm Tourism Economics, Alabama ranked an impressive fifth of the 12 Travel South member states with 21,300 annual Chinese visitors.


Alabama participates in the Travel South USA global partner program in China and Brand USA’s China website and marketing programs.  Air China is owned by the Chinese central government and is one of the major airlines of the People’s Republic of China. In 2015, the airline carried 90 million domestic and international passengers.


Alabama Tourism Department Workshop rescheduled

The Alabama Tourism Department’s tourism workshop has been rescheduled for Oct. 12, in Montgomery.  This workshop is designed for new tourism industry members, event organizers and anyone else interested in enhancing tourism in their area. Many of ATD’s staff members will be in attendance at this workshop and you will have an opportunity for one-on-one time with each of them. On Thurs., Oct. 12th, the workshop will be at the Alabama Center for Commerce Building, 401 Adams Avenue, 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.  There is no registration fee. For additional information, please contact Rosemary Judkins at 334-242-4493 or via email at Rosemary.Judkins@Tourism.Alabama.Gov

Bicentennial community workshop rescheduled in Opelika

The Alabama Bicentennial Commission community workshop, previously scheduled for Sept. 15 in Opelika, has been rescheduled for Oct. 20.


The workshop will be from 10 a.m. to noon at the Lewis Cooper Jr. Library on 200 S. 6th St.


It has been developed by the Alabama Bicentennial Committee to share information, resources, and funding opportunities regarding Alabama’s three-year bicentennial commemoration. The event is free and open to the public but registration is required at


From family reunions to school service projects, from museum exhibitions to common reading programs and from recipe collections to oral-history interviews, there will be many ways that individuals, groups and communities can involve themselves in the state’s milestone birthday.


The Alabama Bicentennial Commission works to support, create and execute programs that commemorate the past 200 years of Alabama places, people and stories.


From 2017 to the end of 2019, the commission will engage residents and visitors in educational programs, community activities and statewide initiatives that teach, inspire and entertain.

For more information, visit or contact Sam Blakely at , 334-242-5864.

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website

Want your event in the 2018 Vacation Guide? All events must be on the partner site by the end of the month. Don’t delay! Go to today and submit your events.


Ready to fill the 2018 calendar? Go to and get started.




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