Tourism Tuesdays March 7, 2017

Details of 3-year bicentennial celebration announced

The New York Times features Mobile Mardi Gras

Los Angeles Times highlights St. Paul & the Broken Bones

Travel + Leisure:  U.S. tourists could soon need visas to visit Europe

Skift: Political threats force U.S. tourism boards to examine their roles

The Greenville News profiles Birmingham’s Food Media South

AMLA launches Alabama’s first GeoTour

Ascent acquires Huntsville Marriott, will invest in $10 million remodel

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website


Details of 3-year bicentennial celebration announced
Gov. Robert Bentley announced Friday that a Capitol Bicentennial Park will be constructed as part of the state’s three-year bicentennial birthday commemoration.

The area facing the Capitol, between the Attorney General’s and the Lurleen Wallace office buildings, will become the park and will feature bas-relief sculptures telling the history of Alabama.

“As we approach Alabama’s 200th birthday it is time to look back over our state’s rich history and see how each event has molded our future. This Bicentennial Capitol Park will serve as a unique history book commemorating our state’s history,” Governor Bentley said. “The celebrations planned over the next three years will educate, celebrate and honor those who have fought so hard to improve the legacy of our great state.”

The park will create a walking space to welcome visitors to the Capitol and provide an educational Alabama History Walk.

It was also announced that the state’s official bicentennial celebration will be launched May 5 in Mobile.

The launch ceremony at 5:30 p.m. in Cooper Riverside Park will be followed by a downtown celebration that includes open admission to many of the city’s historic sites. The events, which are all open to the public, will conclude with fireworks.

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said there were two reasons Mobile is a perfect city to begin the celebration of Alabama’s history.

“Mobile is Alabama’s oldest city. It was founded in 1702 so we have more than 100 years on the rest of the state,” Stimpson said.  “We’ve got the history, but we also have an amazing here-and-now. You all will know that Mardi Gras took over Mobile this week. That’s just one reason we’re called Mobile: The City Born to Celebrate!”

Some of the other programs and initiatives include:

•           “Making Alabama: A Bicentennial Traveling Exhibit”
Beginning in 2018, this exhibit, based on the Museum of Alabama at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, will travel to all 67 counties in partnership with the Alabama Humanities Foundation.

•           Bicentennial PastPort Project
A print and digital “passport to the past” will showcase destinations throughout the state that can be visited by school children, families or history buffs to see and learn about Alabama history. Sites include museums, historic houses, and state parks.

•           The Federal Civil Rights Trail
Alabama’s history has created some of the world’s most important civil rights sites in the state.   Alabama Tourism will expand the Alabama Civil Rights Trail into the U.S. Civil Rights Trail to cross promote our major landmarks with others in Atlanta, Memphis, Washington, Little Rock, Jackson and other cities.

•           Alabama Legacy Moments
Thirty-to-90 second video segments on Alabama history, people, and places will be run in partnership with Alabama Public Television.

•           Constitution Hall Village
Huntsville’s Constitutional Hall Village, built on the spot where the 1819 constitutional convention made Alabama a state, will receive a restoration.

•           Birmingham initiatives
The city of Birmingham is in discussion with the Bicentennial Committee concerning several proposals to celebrate the bicentennial.

•           Fort Toulouse
The historic Fort Toulouse, a renowned Native American and French colonial site will also receive renovation, restoration and increased programming.

•           Alabama Art Exhibition Series and Coffee-table Book
There will be exhibits at each of Alabama’s major art and history museums featuring Alabama artists and collections and a coffee-table book created from these exhibitions, conducted in partnership with the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

•           Alabama Bicentennial Schools
A three-pronged effort will target improved teaching, increased educational resources, and support for school-based bicentennial projects, conducted in partnership with the Alabama State Department of Education and the Alabama Department of Archives and History.   It includes professional development for teachers statewide, curriculum made available for civics, social studies, geography, and history through the Alabama Learning Exchange and bicentennial school resources and projects, including Bicentennial in a Box kits.

For more information on the Alabama Bicentennial please see

The New York Times features Mobile Mardi Gras
From the article “Mardi Gras Isn’t Just in New Orleans” by Damon Winter and Meghan Peterson in The New York Times:

When people think of Mardi Gras, they think of New Orleans. But long before there even was a New Orleans, another Southern city — Mobile, Ala. — was celebrating Mardi Gras in the run-up to Ash Wednesday.

Mobile dates its Mardi Gras to 1703, a decade and a half before New Orleans was founded. Its Carnival, the oldest in America, stretches for months, beginning in November with debutante balls and other events.

Ladies of the royal court of the Mobile Carnival Association waited in a viewing tent before the King’s Parade. The Mobile Mardi Gras Parading Association says the Mobile area has 72 participating organizations, called mystic societies, celebrating this year.

The groups are still largely segregated by race and class.

With no governing body, each organization sets up its own parade, applies for permits, and builds or rents its floats. The Mobile Carnival Association was formed in 1872 to foster economic success in the city and help organize activities for Carnival. It lobbied a few years later to declare Fat Tuesday a legal holiday in Mobile.

The first mystic societies formed in the 1830s, but it took until 1894 for the African-American community to get its own group. The Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association, formerly called the Colored Carnival Association, held its first parade in 1940, more than two decades before the end of segregation. A former president, Eric Finley, says the group was started by African-American businessmen to provide cultural and educational activities for black residents and show them what they could achieve through education. Its parade route winds through the predominantly black Fisher neighborhood of Mobile.

Many of the mystic societies hold annual formal balls. Some of the balls are private, only for members and their families; others sell tickets to guests. Membership rules vary. Members need to be born into some societies; other groups invite residents to join, and still others accept anyone who pays the dues.

The king of the Order of Doves, Ross Huffstutler, received help from Maxine Day James as he and the queen — his wife, Hannah Huffstutler — waited to pay their respects to the royal couple of the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association at their coronation ceremony.

“Each society has some royalty, either a king or queen or a leading lady, often chosen for the time, talent and resources given to the society by their family over the years,” says Judi Gulledge, executive director of the Mobile Carnival Association. “It is a reward for longevity.”Only two mystic societies, the Mobile Carnival Association and the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association, have public coronations.

Queen Victoria Maureen Ball, seated next to Father Time, awaits the start of the Mystics of Time parade. Each year, Father Time is selected from the Mystics of Time members based on his service to the organization, and the queen is usually an unmarried relative of Father Time.

A secret society, the Mistresses of Joe Cain, gave out roses during the Joe Cain Procession in Mobile. Joe Cain, a Confederate soldier, is credited with reviving Mardi Gras after the Civil War, and the Joe Cain Procession is held each year on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday.

From the back of a pickup truck along the Joe Cain Procession route, a family waits to see the royal motorcade of the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association.

One member of the Mystics of Time, who declined to give his name to maintain the group’s cloak of secrecy, said that despite invitations to join several societies, his choice came down to his childhood memories of the parades.

Having moved to Mobile when he was 9, he vividly remembers the 100-foot fire-breathing dragons at the Mystics of Time parade, and what a large impact that had on him.

Parade marshals and members gathered for the midnight toast at the Mystics of Time ball. Wearing masks allows the society members to celebrate with abandon; many mystic societies still protect the identities of their members.

A janitor swept confetti, coins and rubber balls off the floor as the dancing got underway after the tableau, or presentation of the members, at the Mystics of Time ball.

Royal courts from other area organizations were on hand at the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association’s royal coronation ceremony at the Mobile Convention Center.

A marshal and his escort walked off the stage after being presented during the tableau at the Mystics of Time ball. The presentations are an extravagant event, with each member standing in the spotlight, receiving applause. The ball is held in a convention center auditorium with levels of attendance: Only certain people get a floor pass, but many guests watch from an upper level of stadium seating.

An Order of Myths member, dressed as Folly on the lead float, entered the secret society’s clubhouse at the end of the parade. The organization was founded in the fall of 1867, and its parade this year highlighted its founding 150 years ago. It is the oldest parading society in Mobile.

A fire twirler, Reagan Lee, marched through Mobile in the Order of Doves parade.

Vanessa Shoots, a lawyer and historian who attended this year’s Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association ball, recalled struggling to find a good viewing spot while attending a parade a while back with her daughter. A white woman wearing a Confederate flag took Ms. Shoots’s daughter — her “little black baby” — and brought her up to the front so she could see.

“That taught me that not every person who wears a Confederate flag knows how deeply it offends me,” Ms. Shoots said.

For the complete article please see

Los Angeles Times highlights St. Paul & the Broken Bones
From the article “St. Paul & the Broken Bones ignite soul sparks at Elton John’s Oscar bash” by Randy Lewis in the Los Angeles Times:

Arguably the most riveting musical performance on Academy Awards night didn’t emanate from the Kodak Theatre stage during the ceremony itself, but from Alabama’s neo-soul band St. Paul & the Broken Bones. The act capped Elton John’s annual Oscar-viewing party and fundraiser for his AIDS foundation.

Just as music mogul Clive Davis typically uses his pre-Grammy Awards bash to spotlight new talent, John also is a musical tastemaker who likes to bring young acts to the public’s attention.

When I heard this band’s first album, I immediately called [group leader] Paul Janeway and spoke to him,” John, 69, told the crowd that had just helped him raise $7 million for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. His 25th annual Oscar night benefit generated money from sales of tickets for the dinner and concert, texted donations throughout the evening and a live auction after the televised award ceremony ended.

The audience that occupied tents set up in West Hollywood Park for the event included several celebrities who made pitches from the stage during commercial breaks in the Oscar telecast urging those on hand to donate. Among them: actress Sharon Stone, actor Jeffrey Tambor and his fellow cast members from Amazon’s “Transparent,” actress Laverne Cox and John himself.

Other music and entertainment world attendees included John’s longtime musical collaborator, lyricist Bernie Taupin, Quincy Jones, Smokey Robinson, Russell Simmons, Caitlynn Jenner, Beck, Chris Cornell, Lea Michelle, Leona Lewis and Katharine McPhee.

“This is one of my favorite bands,” the veteran English rocker said before turning the stage over to St. Paul & the Broken Bones, whose latest album, “Sea of Noise,” was recorded at the celebrated FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala.

The storied studio is where countless classic soul, R&B and rock recordings have been made since the 1960s. The likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Staple Singers, the Allman Brothers Band, the Rolling Stones, John and Paul Simon have recorded in the space.

If lead singer Paul Janeway doesn’t fit the visual image of the classic soul man — he’s white, stocky and sports nerdy half-frame horn-rimmed glasses — he more than filled the role vocally with as elastic voice that has a piercing falsetto. Think part Al Green, part Van Morrison.

The event’s host joined the group for a searing duet with Janeway on “I’ll Be Your Woman” from “Sea of Noise,” a torchy vow of romantic commitment given extra musical heft from the band’s three-man horn section, which supplements the core guitar-bass-drums-organ quartet.

The group opened with the new album’s first track, the mantra-like “Crumbling Light Posts, Pt. 1.” Janeway worked the stage in the tradition of Redding and James Brown, first throwing off the cape he wore at the beginning, then pacing restlessly while guiding the tight band to ever higher emotional heights.

That also took him into the realm of another white soul singer, Morrison, whom he paid homage with Morrison’s R&B workout “I’ve Been Working,” and its insistent repeated refrain of “woman, woman, woman, woman.”

At the end of the 45-minute set, Janeway not only dropped to his knees, but rolled under the stage as band members looked around to see where their front man had disappeared to.

For the complete article please see

Travel + Leisure: U.S. tourists could soon need visas to visit Europe
From the article by Jess McHugh in Travel+Leisure:

The European Parliament voted Thursday to end the visa waiver program with the U.S., citing the U.S. lack of reciprocity, Reuters reported.

U.S. nationals have long been able to travel throughout Europe  without needing a visa for stays less than 90 days. The U.S., along with Australia and Canada, however, continued to require visas for five EU member states: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, and Romania. The State Department cited security concerns for these countries, saying they did not meet the requirements for the U.S. visa waiver program.

The vote from the European Parliament is widely seen as a retaliatory move against the U.S., as Australia and Canada agreed to a 2014 EU request to lift visa requirements for at least some of these countries. Under EU law, action must be taken two years after a visa reciprocity request, triggering the vote this week.

A whopping 12.6 million U.S. citizens traveled to Europe in 2016, according to data from the U.S. National Travel and Tourism office. Some European lawmakers fear that reinstating visa requirements will slow the flow of visitors to the EU and cost the bloc millions in revenue.

“The effect of terrorism in Europe in recent years emphasized how fragile our appeal is as a destination in long-haul markets,” István Ujhelyi, member of European Parliament and chair of the tourism task force, told the Telegraph. “This is not a time to put unnecessary obstacles in the way of one of the sectors most capable of generating employment,” he said.

The vote puts pressure on the European Commission, the 28-country bloc’s executive branch, to further push reciprocity or to reinstate visa requirements on the U.S. If the Commission decides to reinstate visas, U.S. citizens will need to apply for a visa in advance and be approved in order to legally enter the European Union.

For the complete article please see

Skift: Political threats force U.S. Tourism Boards to examine their roles
From the article by Dan Peltier on the travel industry website Skift:

Tourism boards have taken on more functions in recent decades but promoting economic development has been a consistent theme for the sector since its beginnings. Convincing lawmakers that locals benefit from tourism marketing has become increasingly important for ensuring tourism boards’ survival. – Dan Peltier

Tourism marketing funding in at least seven U.S. states is in jeopardy of getting reduced or cut altogether as destination marketing organizations face calls from state legislators and constituents to become more transparent with spending.

Visit Florida’s debacle with Miami rapper Pitbull’s $1 million contract with the state has rustled feathers throughout the destination marketing sector, led to the departure of three C-suite executives (including ex-CEO Will Seccombe who Skift spoke with earlier this month), and resulted in members of the Florida House of Representatives moving to eliminate the organization’s funding.

But Visit Florida — one of the top-funded tourism boards in the U.S. — is only the latest example of a state tourism organization fighting for its existence.

Florida, Connecticut, and Massachusetts face tourism marketing budget cuts and Hawaii’s state legislature proposed a bill last month to make the Hawaii Tourism Authority more transparent with how it spends public funding to promote the state. Colorado and Pennsylvania have seen steep tourism budget cuts while Washington State is weighing whether to bring back tourism promotion.

Colorado, for example, saw visitation drop 30 percent after it eliminated funding for tourism promotion in the 1990s but has since reinstated its tourism budget. Pennsylvania’s state tourism marketing budget decreased more than 77 percent between 2009 and 2015, dropping from $32.5 million to $7.3 million.

With all the political discourse and debate over tourism marketing budgets one must wonder — what is the role of a destination marketing organization in promoting tourism?

Skift spoke to tourism boards across the U.S., including two in Florida, to get their perspectives on why their existence is necessary and how they’re working to convince local legislators and taxpayers that the work they do directly benefits residents in destinations they represent.

We used Visit Florida as the backdrop to our conversations as the organization’s fight represents others playing out in state houses and city halls in the U.S. and abroad.

The Role of Destination Marketing Organizations
Detroit, Michigan established a convention and visitors bureau in the 1890s to help promote itself as a convention city and meeting point — one of the earliest examples of a tourism marketing organization.

Milton Carmichael, a reporter for the Detroit Journal, wrote in 1896, “During the past few years Detroit has built up a name as a convention city, delegates coming from hundreds of miles, manufacturers holding their yearly consultations around our hotels, and all without any effort on the part of the citizens, or any special attention paid to them after they got here. They have simply come to Detroit because they wanted to….Can Detroit by making an effort, this year secure the holding of 200 or 300 of these national conventions during the year of ’97. It will mean the bringing here of thousands and thousands of men from every city in the union…and they will expend millions of dollars with the merchants and the people of the ‘City of the Straits.’”

Getting local businesses aligned around tourism is one of the most important jobs of a tourism board, “In that article, he not only pointed out the obvious value of this business to Detroit but argued that local businesses should band together to organize a formal and organized promotion of Detroit as a desirable convention destination to get more of this business,” wrote Professor Robert C. Ford of the University of Central Florida in a 2007 research paper.

Beginning in the 1980s, tourism boards played a role in trying to revitalize areas of downtown that had deteriorated from decades of urban flight. “A convention center could anchor urban renewal of a city as it would attract hotels, restaurants, and other support industry development to replace a decaying area,” Ford wrote. “Further, it could provide employment in well-paid construction jobs and provide an ongoing source of employment in the completed facilities.”

Tourism boards produce varying results in helping locals reap the rewards of travelers passing through their towns.

While running marketing campaigns across various platforms is a significant part of a tourism board’s functions, marketing campaigns are far from the only responsibilities of these organizations. “Marketing pushes a person from hoping to go to actually coming,” said Patty Jimenez, a spokesperson for Visit Jacksonville in Florida.

Economic Development
Many tourism boards claim their main purpose is to support and promote economic development in communities and that tourism marketing dollars are direct investments in local economies.

That’s also the view of Jorge Pesquera, CEO of  Discover the Palm Beaches, the tourism board for the Palm Beaches, Florida. “At the end of the day what we do here is economic vitality which results in job retention and job expansion,” said Pesquera. “This Visit Florida battle is a bit of an affront to destination marketing considering there are university courses on destination marketing.”

Charging hotel bed taxes, for example, is a popular way for cities to collect funds from tourists to pay for economic development projects they otherwise couldn’t afford. Many tourism boards are funded either in large part or exclusively by these bed taxes.

And promoting cities, regions and states as places to live is equally important as marketing them as vacation destinations, according to  Source Cincinnati, an organization funded by 13 business and civic organizations including the Cincinnati CVB which was created to garner earned media for Cincinnati, Ohio.

Securing placements in local and national publications is indeed a priority for tourism boards. As Pesquera put it, “when destinations are out of site they are out of mind.”

Source Cincinnati’s mission is to portray a bigger picture of the city and is different than the city CVB’s marketing efforts in that it’s focused on telling stories that build the region’s reputation as an attractive place for business, talent and visitors, said Susan Lomax, a spokesperson for the organization.

Lomax said the organization’s efforts in promoting economic development led the city to make Source Cincinnati a permanent arm of the convention and visitor’s bureau in 2016 when its temporary, three-year contract was due to expire. “The stories we’re trying to tell include Cincinnati’s new startup ecosystem, it’s neighborhood revitalization, new lifestyle offerings, business development – and how all of the parts are coming together to create new momentum and vibrancy.”

In Florida, however, a few state representatives feel their districts haven’t benefited from Visit Florida’s work and that certain parts of the state see more returns than others from tourism investment. “Incentives are unfair to millions of Floridians who will never see the benefits of a single dollar from incentives,” said Representative Paul Renner, speaking February 8 at a subcommittee hearing on the bill to eliminate Visit Florida’s funding on. “I believe this bill will get us back on economic prosperity.”

Playing Politics
Tourism boards can’t promote their destinations or economic development without securing funding through the blessing of local politicians, said John Percy, CEO of Niagara USA, the tourism board promoting travel to the Niagara Falls, New York region.

Having someone on staff with political experience has been vital to the organization’s future, said Percy. “It used to be that we spent 20 to 40 percent of our time with elected leaders,” he said.

Talking to politicians is part of daily work lives at Niagara USA, said Percy. “Now you’re looking at 50 to 70 percent of our time spent with elected leaders or in the political realm on a local, state and national level,” he said.

Percy said educating local politicians about the benefits of tourism is only half the battle — listening to what’s going on in their worlds is also key. “Because a lot of time the only funding increasing in communities are the tourism funds,” said Percy. “That pot of money looks very attractive to municipalities when other funding is dropping but tourism funding is increasing.”

Niagara USA, when proposing budgets to politicians, has found that using percentages to explain their work in tandem with dollars has been helpful. “It changes their whole perception because sometimes there’s a wild perception out there that too much is spent on salaries in our organization because we are quasi-public,” said Percy.

“We are a private organization but you are always quasi-public because our tax dollars run through municipalities,” he said.

The region is also in a unique bi-national situation where many travelers, when planning a trip to Niagara Falls, usually picture the falls but don’t consider there are two sides in two different countries with distinct identities.

What is a tourism board’s role in this situation? Promoting differences in nearby cities and attractions remains a challenge and strength of the organization as Niagara Falls, Canada struggles with its tourism funding.  “We have to wipe away those geopolitical boundaries and work outside of those,” said Percy. “We have to work inside those within our communities but on the consumer site they don’t care about the geopolitical boundaries and we have to give the consumer what they want.”

Visit Jacksonville, like many tourism boards, negotiates its contract with local authorities and is currently in the process for this year. “This year our tourism development council is actually thinking about separating our bid into three different components,” said Jimenez.

“That means that we would have three different contracts — one to manage visitor centers, one to manage convention sales and one to manage marketing. We’ve been one entity for 20 years but imagine what three could do?” she said.

Visit Florida’s Case: An Outlet to the World
Country, regional or state tourism boards generally act as larger-scale mouthpieces for their smaller cities and destinations.

In Florida, smaller or lesser known destination marketing organizations such as Visit Jacksonville said they couldn’t compete with more popular destinations if Visit Florida disappeared.

“Because of Visit Florida, we’re not competitors with other destinations in Florida,” said Jimenez for Visit Jacksonville. “I know all the PR reps at Visit Florida and we work together to tell people to visit Miami but then go here. We work together as destination marketing organizations to make sure it’s a regional experience as opposed to just one destination.”

Regional, national or international trade shows are often too expensive for smaller tourism boards, independent hotels or tour operators to attend without support from a larger marketing arm. Both Pesquera and Jimenez said their organizations can attend reputable trade shows because of Visit Florida.

A national tourism marketing organization such as Brand USA is also a plus for smaller destinations, though Jimenez said Visit Jacksonville works with Brand USA more for advertising than marketing. “We go to shows with Brand USA that are bigger and more international because our budget has limitations,” said Jimenez. “Of course, we work closely with Visit Florida because it’s easier to access within our own state. But if you have somebody who can amplify your message, why not use it?”

Tourism Boards’ Future in the Trump Era
Tourism boards have always faced funding battles and have had to justify their existence even if their numbers add up and they help generate the amount of tourist taxes they commit to.

But the ascendance of President Trump, the Tea Party and other nationalist movements across the U.S. and Europe has certainly emboldened some communities to rethink how they’re spending public money and whether they should reallocate tourism marketing funds elsewhere.

When asked what he thinks his marketing budget will look like this year in light of Trump and national politics, Percy said Niagara USA is “really in a wait and see mode.”

Other states such as California have plenty of tourism marketing funds to work with and aren’t overly concerned about the coffers running dry.

But if Visit Florida’s funding is eliminated, for example, that sends a powerful message to other cities and states from the U.S.’ most popular tourist destination about how to consider tourism marketing funds and the role of tourism boards.

“If Visit Florida is cut, we could go from our record of 7.3 million visitors this year in the Palm Beaches to possibly 4.2 million, spending could decrease a couple billion dollars in Palm Beach County and roughly 30,000 jobs could be lost,” said Pesquera.

Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said during public testimony for the bill to defund Visit Florida last month that, “This is not a zero-sum game. Pennsylvania cut their tourism marketing budget by $20 million and lost $600 million in tax revenue. Colorado lost more than $135 million in revenue when they cut their tourism marketing. If you pass this bill you will become an income tax state or [have to] cut other services.”

Posting record visitation and/or visitor spending is one of the highest accomplishments a tourism board can achieve each year. At the same time, when millions of more people visit Florida each year, for example, many politicians wonder why tourism marketing is necessary if the state is already popular.

Tourism boards have taken on more functions in recent decades but promoting economic development has been a consistent theme for the sector since its beginnings.

Convincing lawmakers that locals benefit from tourism marketing has become increasingly important for ensuring tourism boards’ survival.

For the complete article please see

The Greenville News profiles Birmingham’s Food Media South
(Editor’s Note: The third annual Food Media South symposium was held in Birmingham on Feb. 25 at Workplay.  Food Media South is organized by the Southern Foodways Alliance and attracts food writers, storytellers, videographers, bloggers and other media professionals from across the South.  The Alabama Tourism Department and the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau are regular sponsors of the event.)

From the article by Lillia Callum-Penso in The Greenville News:

I have a lot to think about. And I think that was, and is, partly the point of Food Media South.

This was the third year for the symposium, which is organized by the Southern Foodways Alliance, and the theme was immigration. The majority of the presentations centered on the role, past present and future of immigrants in the South, and the impact on our food culture.

When presenter, Eric Velasco, a freelance writer, discussed the roots of the Greek community in Birmingham, it reminded me a lot of Greenville’s Greek community, one rooted in the fabric of the city and in the flavor as well.

In Birmingham, like in Greenville, many of the diners and meat and threes were traditionally run by Greek families. Today, Tim Hontzas is carrying on the traditions at his restaurant, Johnny’s Restaurant, but with a modern Southern spin. Think Kefalotyri grit cakes, sweet potato skordalia, chicken pot pie and keftedes with house cultured tzatziki sauce.

Hontzas’ food is rooted in tradition but forward looking. The chef was this year named a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef South.

Chris Ying, of Lucky Peach and Osayi Endolyn, of Gravy, discussed the importance, and the best approach to covering immigrant stories today. Who should cover what and how do you tell the stories in a complete and informative way? Ying pointed out that we often refer to a collective “ethnic restaurants,” which takes away from the individuals running the restaurants. I’m sure I’ve done this and so I had to pause.

“There are human stories that get lost in the sameness of the menus,” Ying said.

Von Diaz of StoryCorps and Southern Foodways Alliance, and Debbie Elliott of NPR took that discussion further by addressing the new considerations under a new administration. Both have covered immigrants at length and shared some very important perspectives. For instance, should you use someone’s full name, or name them at all given the current climate of immigration reform.

“Now, we’re talking about real danger,” Diaz said.

I think the thing that really stuck out to me from the conference was the idea that food can really be used as a vehicle to tell important stories, just as well, if not better, than other avenues. Food is rooted in politics, in social issues, in economics and in culture, but at its core, it is also so universal. It is a thing that we all share. What we eat might be different, but that we eat is the same.

And thus can’t food be a window through which to explore topics of relevance within a community? I think it can, after all, some of the best conversations I’ve had have been around a table and over a shared meal.

I loved how Steven Alvarez, of St. John’s University put it. The professor gained fame last year with news of his class on taco literacy went viral. But the class, Alvarez explained, was about much more. You can’t talk about tacos, he said, without also talking Mexican culture, language and immigration, and so the class was really an exploration of much more.
I especially loved the way Alvarez talked about sharing food.

“The social experience of sharing foodways,” he said. “Also shares our humanity.”

On Sunday morning, my husband and I jogged to Kelly Ingram Park, which is known as a center for Civil Rights history in Birmingham. The park is flanked by the Civil Rights Institute on one side and by the 16th Street Baptist Church, a pinnacle piece of Civil Rights, on the other, and on a beautiful and sunny morning, it gave me chills.

I walked away from Birmingham with a lot, but mostly the idea of humanity, and the idea that telling the human stories behind the food we eat is important and necessary.

For the complete article please see

AMLA Launches Alabama’s First GeoTour
The Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association (AMLA) held a press conference on Wednesday to launch Alabama’s first official GeoTour. Created by AMLA, Dash of the Unexpected GeoTour features thirty-one geocaches hidden throughout North Alabama in an effort to attract the millions of worldwide geocachers to the region.

Designed to attract both experienced and new geocachers, Dash of the Unexpected GeoTour features 31 attractions, historic sites and unique, locally owned places in the northern Alabama region. Locations include Houston Jail, Horton Mill Bridge, Miracle Pottery, Carnegie Library, Princess Theatre, Coon Dog Cemetery, Joe Wheeler State Park, LaGrange Cemetery and Goat Island Brewing.  Of the 31 locations, 13 are existing caches and 18 are new caches.

Dash of the Unexpected GeoTour has its own page on, which lists the participating geocaches. Geocachers use a GPS device or the Geocaching app on their smartphone to navigate to a set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find a hidden geocache container. Each cache will contain a point value that participants will record in a passport (downloadable on Participants must sign the physical cache log for each geocache find and record the find on to be eligible. The first 300 cachers who achieve 60 total points are eligible to receive Dash of the Unexpected GeoTour Geocoin, trackable on The first 100 cachers who achieve 75 total points will receive the coin and a special Dash of the Unexpected t-shirt.

“The Dash of the Unexpected GeoTour invites geocachers, whether experienced or new to the activity, to explore some of North Alabama’s unique destinations,” said AMLA President/CEO Tami Reist. “Geocaching is a fun and inexpensive way to learn about what an area has to offer. Each of the locations on the GeoTour has a compelling story to tell and when these adventure seekers visit, I believe they will be pleasantly surprised and fascinated with what they learn.”

Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game played throughout the world using GPS-enabled devices. The purpose is to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, from a specific set of GPS coordinates. Once found, participants must sign the logbook provided on site and record the find on If participants take something, they must leave something of equal or greater value for other participants. According to, the official global GPS cache hunt site, there are over 2.9 million active geocaches in over 180 countries and over three million active geocachers worldwide.

For more information on the Dash of the Unexpected GeoTour, call AMLA at 800.648.5381.

Ascent acquires Huntsville Marriott, will invest in $10 million remodel
From the article by Lucy Berry on

A hotel near the U.S. Space and Rocket Center will soon get a big makeover.

The Huntsville Marriott on 5 Tranquility Base was recently acquired by Ascent Hospitality of Buford, Ga., the company announced last week. Ascent said it will spend $10 million remodeling the property’s guest and meeting rooms, public spaces, and pool and lobby areas.

“We are thrilled to acquire the Huntsville Marriott at the Space and Rocket Center and add it to our growing portfolio of high-caliber hotels,” Ascent Hospitality President John Tampa said in a statement. “The Marriott brand is an excellent addition and we expect it to resonate with both business and leisure travelers.”

Ascent did not disclose terms of the deal. Huntsville Marriott General Manager Nancy Sessler said renovations at the hotel should begin in September 2017.

The project is currently in the design and planning stages.

“The renovation will allow the hotel to enhance the guest experience and satisfaction as well as meet changing guest preferences,” she said. “In turn, this will allow the hotel to gain market share and improve profitability.”

The Huntsville Marriott has 13 meeting rooms spanning nearly 16,000 square feet, event space for up to 1,500 people, fitness and business centers, and indoor and outdoor swimming pools. A complimentary airport shuttle, free Wi-Fi, and two on-site restaurants are also available.

Ascent owns more than 30 select-service, extended-stay and full-service hotels across the U.S., including properties in Montgomery, Dothan, Birmingham, Atmore, Enterprise, Saraland, Hope Hull and Oxford.

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