Tourism Tuesdays October 24, 2017

Alabama tourism ‘Professional of the Year’ shines light on volunteers

Josh Jolly: It Ain’t Easy

Alabama musicians featured in Vanity Fair

2017 Alabama Welcome Center Retreat, Nov. 12-14

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website


Alabama tourism ‘Professional of the Year’ shines light on volunteers
From the article by Jennifer R. Statham on

Paula Steigerwald began her career as president and CEO of The Huntsville Botanical Garden in 2002 after a career in retail. She served as the vice president of stores for the now defunct Parisian department stores, an upscale retailer sold to Belk in 2006.

When Steigerwald first began her job at the garden, she said, she thought she had made a “big mistake” not having a horticulture background, but she quickly realized it was her service skills that were needed. She and the staff shifted their focus to the culture of the garden.

“From that Parisian culture we were always very humbled that folks chose to shop with us. They chose to shop with us when we knew there were really very few things that they couldn’t find someplace else, but they chose to shop with Parisian because of the experience. So, that was one of the things culturally that we have developed at the garden,” Steigerwald said. “When they’re shopping they are making a purchase. When they’re coming here they’re giving you something that we consider more valuable — their spare time, their leisure time, and their time with their families. We feel a lot more responsible for how they’re spending their leisure time and want to make sure they’re having the best possible experience.”

Focusing on the visitor’s experience has had a dramatic impact. Over the last 15 years memberships have increased from 5,200 to 8,600 households, and the staff and volunteers at the 112-acre garden have offered up many new permanent and seasonal experiences for guests. So much has been added over the years, including the Children’s Garden, then the Butterfly House, then a volunteer gifted the Bush Azalea Trail.

The latest, and arguably greatest, addition to the garden is the new $12 million, 30,000-square-foot visitors center, which opened in March 2017. The center, located at the Bob Wallace entrance, features a gift shop, artwork by local artists, a restaurant and rental venues. So far there have been 65 weddings at the new venue.

“If you want to talk about the impact of this building it has been a game changer. Actually one of our major donors said to me, ‘You know we have now seen this go from a ‘mom and pop’ to a major company.’ We are having growing pains, learning our lessons, feeling our way, but we are committed to the experience not only of our guests that are coming through to visit the garden but our guests who are using these venues as well,” Steigerwald said. “People have chosen to have their very special occasion here and we take that responsibility seriously and are humbled by it.”

The community’s garden
For years the garden has gathered many accolades including the 2006 Attraction of the Year, and for several years the Galaxy of Lights and the Scarecrow Trails have been recognized as the Event of the Year by the Southeast Tourism Society. This year, the Huntsville Botanical Garden was certified through the North American Plant Conservation Consortium to have the largest trillium collection in the country.

Additionally, at the 2017 Alabama Governor’s Conference on Tourism, Steigerwald was honored with the Professional of the Year Award by the Alabama Tourism Department.

“It was very nice and quite an honor to receive that kind of recognition. In my heart, though, I know it’s not just my award. It’s about the team, it’s about the garden. I just know that I’m the front person, so I get a lot of credit,” she said.

Steigerwald likes to keep the focus on the community and the people who she says are the true force behind the success of the garden. She is quick to recognize her chief operating officer, Kathy Gilder, who Steigerwald says is always encouraging her and urging her to follow her instincts. She is also quick to focus on the 100 staff members and the 2,700 volunteers who work at the garden. . The Huntsville Botanical Garden includes the use of volunteers in the model of everything they do, in every part of the garden. It is, after all, their garden, Steigerwald said.

“When folks say I’m in charge of the garden, I say ‘Yeah, with a little help from the 2,700 volunteers,” Steigerwald said. “They’re really in charge. This garden belongs to the community.”

The involvement of member households, volunteers and the numerous individual and corporate sponsors, Steigerwald says is due to the culture created by the leadership of Huntsville and North Alabama.

“In Huntsville there is an expectation to be involved and to make where you live a better place, and to the leadership in Huntsville and North Alabama you just have to give them a lot of credit for setting that as an expectation. We help pass that on, we speak to executives that are coming in, whether it’s economic development, or whether it’s folks scouting out for the quality of life, we speak very freely about ‘How are you going to be involved in the community?’ It may not be the garden but there is an expectation that you do something to improve the quality of life here,” Steigerwald said. “When people invest of themselves, they have some creative latitude, have some ownership then get out of the way and they make great things happen. That’s our community.”

Lessons from The Garden
Steigerwald borrows an old motto from Parisian and says “You’re someone special at the garden.” She says her job at CEO and President at The Huntsville Botanical Gardens helped her to realize the good foundation Parisian set for her. “I probably didn’t understand the value of, particularly the good management training that Parisian gave us. It was consistent with the family values that I had grown up with. To me it was just kind of a natural evolution, family values to a family-owned business to a community-owned garden,” she said. “Even my experience from a fashion background to a horticulture industry, again it goes back to service.”

The staff has taken a lot of lessons on service and experience-making from the volunteers who work on seasonal events, especially the Galaxy of Lights. The exhibit, which first opened in 1996, has become a must-see attraction which draws thousands of people to see it each year. In fact, it is now the garden’s largest fund-raiser which contributes around 20 percent of the operating revenue each year through admissions and sponsorships.

The first year the event pulled in around $11,000, and last year it made $600,000. The Galaxy of Lights adds something new almost each year which have included tents for hot chocolate and spirited coffee, nights for walking and driving through, as well as dog nights, a 5k and 3k, and this year will add a “Bike the Lights” night on Nov. 14.

Volunteers for the Galaxy of Lights work with sponsors to begin setting up the holiday-themed animated light exhibit beginning in September each year. The Galaxy opens to the public at the end of November with more than 200 displays making it an unforgettable holiday experience.

“I think it got my attention from a business standpoint first but then when you understand the individuals and their heart and their commitment it hits you differently. Now we keep the lights on for the volunteers as much as we do for the visitors,” Steigerwald said.

She said for her one of the greatest experience has been seeing the community invest in the garden and then getting to invest in the staff at the garden.

“From a responsibility standpoint investment in people and their training and growing staff is probably the greatest feeling of accomplishment. You can grow the garden and you can grow the budget and everything else but where you really get your ‘feel goods’ is when you see people develop to another level and you’re maximizing their potential,” Steigerwald said. “The garden is such a good place. It’s a little utopia and everyone doesn’t have that in their work environment and I know that. I am very blessed.”

For the complete article please see

Josh Jolly: It Ain’t Easy
From the article by Monica Collier on

It’s Josh Jolly’s first visit to the Shoals.

The 25-year-old Mississippi native stands in the lobby at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame surrounded by a mini local music delegation of Johnny Belew and George Lair and touring companions, Johnny Boswell, Melissa Townsend, Drew Townsend and Darren Milner from his home state.

Jolly stands quietly in the center of the room with his hand on his guitar case. He’s humble as his photo is taken many times. He graciously acquiesces to requests for different poses in various spots both inside and outside of the hall.

Although a lot of Jolly’s itinerary includes taking in the sights and sounds of the area’s rich musical history, ultimately, his is a working trip.

As the winner of Boswell Media’s 2017 Mississippi Songwriter of the Year contest, Jolly, who’s a Christian singer/songwriter, is in the Shoals to record his award-winning song, “It Ain’t Easy” at Wishbone Studios.

Johnny Boswell, president of the independent, Mississippi-based Boswell Media group, said the idea for its first Songwriter of the Year contest was hatched as he toured the Shoals for the first time.

“I’ve been in the radio business all my life,” Boswell said. “I’ve done a lot of work in Nashville, and I’ve been up and down the trace literally dozens of times, but I never had stopped here. I had always heard about Muscle Shoals and all the stuff that went on here. It was like a no-brainer — why had I never been here?”

Boswell said, like a lot of people, he saw the documentary “Muscle Shoals,” and that was the push he needed.

“I was planning a motorcycle trip with a buddy of mine,” Boswell continued. “I said, let’s go to Muscle Shoals.”

While planning his first trip to the Shoals from his home in nearby Mississippi in April 2016, Boswell called the Colbert County tourism office for tips and got Dennis Sherer on the phone.

“I told him I was in the radio business, and I knew about what was going on in Muscle Shoals and wanted to get the inside story,” he explained. “I asked him if there was someone who would serve as a tour guide.”

Sherer in turn suggested Boswell get with local music historian Johnny Belew.

“He told me I needed to call this guy, Johnny Belew, at Claunch Café,” Boswell said with a laugh. “I said, pardon me? What?”

“This is about the seventh or eighth trip he’s made here since then,” Belew added. “Here’s something he said to me that I want to make into a bumper sticker: ‘Muscle Shoals, where you can still get next to the music.’”

Boswell found the Shoals personable and inviting. When he met Belew, Boswell said he could tell they were connecting. The two of them brainstormed about how they could bring their two music worlds together.

“We had done the True Value Country Showdown for a number of years — it’s a talent contest,” Boswell said. “It was popular, but I felt like it had sort of run its course. A lightbulb went off — we could find the Mississippi Songwriter of the Year and Johnny Belew could lead us on that end with the VIP tour and a studio to have the song recorded.”

Jolly, who edged out 14 other finalists in the inaugural songwriter contest, had competed for many years in the media group’s annual Country Showdown.

“I usually placed, but I never won the showdown,” Jolly said. “I had always done my own stuff, but that contest was more about the singing. When I heard that this one was about writing, I knew I had to enter.”

Early in life, Jolly bonded with his grandfather Gary Jolly, who is a Nashville-based Christian songwriter, over music, but it wasn’t until adulthood that he followed in his footsteps.

“I started out writing country songs and singing,” Josh Jolly said. “I was lead singer for a traveling country band for about two years. My gospel songs have a country, blues sound. Most of them could be on country or gospel radio.”

Although he grew up in church, Jolly said until two years ago, he had never been saved.

When he was on the road playing country music, Jolly said he kept questioning his purpose in life. He had a wife and child at home and, although the band was making money, Jolly said he felt like it wasn’t going anywhere.

“I was actually playing in a bar on Halloween night,” he explained. “It was a Saturday night, but it was after midnight so it was technically Sunday morning. I was sitting there, we had played a set, but I was having a bad night. I just thought, why am I away from home?”

Jolly said that night, God spoke to him in that bar.

“That sounds kind of weird, but after that night I told the band I had to do something different,” he said. “I went home got back into church, got saved and started writing Christian music.”

Jolly’s contest entry, “It Ain’t Easy,” was the first gospel song he wrote after being saved.

“I chose it because my whole life changed,” he said. “The song starts off, ‘every day I feel the same old way.’ Before, I was letting my burdens take over. I felt like I couldn’t get out of that rut, but it’s because I wasn’t saved.”

The first verse of “It Ain’t Easy” is Jolly’s perspective as a sinner. In the second verse, he calls on the memory of his grandfather telling him to trust in the Lord.

“He told me to take my problems to the Lord,” he said. “That’s the second verse – me praying and talking to the Lord. In the third verse, it’s me after being saved looking forward to leaving this world behind and running free through Heaven’s pines.”

Jolly said “It Ain’t Easy,” which was released this past Friday, is the only song he’s written by himself. He’s recorded an album, “My Way Home,” which he plans to release before the end of the year, but worked with co-writer Brad Stewart on those songs.

Jolly sums up his whirlwind experience of recording in the Shoals by saying it felt like he was in his own hometown.

“The hospitality was great,” he said. “Seeing all the history there and recording there — following in the footsteps of all the ones who have been through there is hard to comprehend.”

For the complete article please see

Alabama musicians featured in Vanity Fair
Alabama singer Jason Isbell and the group St. Paul & The Broken Bones are both featured in the 2017 November issue of Vanity Fair magazine issue on page 76. The article is also available on-line with a subscription to the magazine.

2017 Alabama Welcome Center Retreat, Nov. 12-14
The Alabama Welcome Center Retreat gives the Alabama Tourism Industry the opportunity to showcase our communities with the devoted staff of the Alabama Welcome Centers. Each Center closes so that all employees participate in this educational retreat. The industry trade show gives us the opportunity to share with the staff members of each Center exactly what we have for them to share with their guests, the thousands of travelers stopping at Welcome Centers for travel advice! Hopefully, we will give them enough to entice their visitors to stop, see and stay a little longer with us!

The Registration Fee is $150 for all industry partners, with or without a table top. This fee includes a table top in the Tourism Partner’s Showcase and functions through Tuesday morning breakfast at the TownePlace Suites. Each additional partner pays $150 as well. This fee goes up to $175 on November 1. There will be NO refunds after November 1 as we will have given all guarantees to our sponsors and to the hotel by then.

For Details Contact: Patti A. Culp, Alabama Travel Council

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