Tourism Tuesdays November 13, 2018

State’s new mega-hotel ready to weather storms that may come

Alabama beaches, mountains are great holiday travel destinations

Southern Comfort: A Visit to Mobile

Spa at Grand National opening at the Auburn/Opelika Marriott Resort

Alabama restaurant honored among top 100 for most scenic views

Nick Sellers wins annual tourism economic development award

Foreign carmakers turn Alabama into an automotive force to be reckoned with

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website


State’s new mega-hotel ready to weather storms that may come
From the article by John Sharp on

A $140 million seaside hotel and conference center at Gulf State Park will open to plenty of pageantry and remarks about how it’s a “crown jewel” that will lure more tourists to the Alabama beaches.

But perhaps overshadowing the celebrations will be the fact that The Lodge at Gulf State Park, which includes a 350-room Hilton Hotel, is the first commercially built structure along the Gulf of Mexico to receive one of the highest designations for fortification against storms.

That fact comes at a coincidental time: The Lodge complex has been under construction for several years, but it’s opening ceremonies take place less than one month after powerful Hurricane Michael left a swath of the Florida Panhandle in ruins.

“The project has been in our queue for the past two years, but I think the storms of 2017 made the case for resilience, and the storms of 2018 was the exclamation point,” said Chuck Miccolis, vice president of commercial lines with the Tampa-based Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), referring to stricter construction standards for commercial and residential properties.

Those strict standards for The Lodge include: a roof that can handle the strongest of hurricane-force winds, an overall complex built well above flood levels to better protect it from storm surge, and an overall structure capable of withstanding winds of 160 mph.

“These storms, all it takes is just one to devastate an area,” said Miccolis, whose organization provides a “fortified” designation to commercial structures and whose South Carolina-based laboratory is the only worldwide test location of how a full-scale building can cope with environmental disasters.

“We saw it with Michael most recently, and it exposed some of the older construction and some of the older codes. These storms are just doing devastation to different areas and it’s important we don’t go back to construct it the way it was before,” he said.

‘Future construction’
The new Lodge complex is expected to be certified as “fortified bronze,” which means that its roof will be attached at a “higher standard than what you would find in a normal building code,” said Matt Leavell, director of design at the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development, which has overseen the project for the last five years.

The complex is already marketed as a “model of resilient, environmentally friendly coastal development,” and designers are confident it’s capable of avoiding the fate of the first lodge and hotel.

That original complex, opened in 1974, served as a hub for community activities and offered beachside accommodations long before gleaming high-rise condominiums began to populate Beach Boulevard in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

Hurricane Ivan, a Category 3 storm with 120 mph winds, destroyed much of it in September 2004. The complex stood in tatters, and the rubble from the old lodge was used as an artificial reef in 2007.

Proposals were floated as replacements, but funding restrictions kept a new complex from realization.

The new Lodge was among the first major construction projects announced in Alabama that would be financed by BP’s compensation for its 2010 Gulf oil spill.

The project’s use of certain BP restoration funds, authorized during Gov. Robert Bentley’s administration, became the subject of scrutiny and litigation. Environmental advocates such as the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network maintained that the dollars ought to be going to revive and enhance natural resources.

Throughout the legal process, resolved only last year, the objective of the new complex’s construction did not waver: Officials deemed it as an “international benchmark” for “economic and environmental sustainability” that would feature construction standards far above the norm.

Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper and a critic of how some BP money has been spent on projects like road construction, said she believes that The Lodge’s construction management team “has done everything right, as far as we understand.”

“This is what we want to see in future construction along the coast,” said Callaway. ”It costs more money, but if it can survive Category 4 winds, it will save us a lot of money.”

She also pointed out, however, that the project includes an “expensive hotel that not everyone in Alabama will be able to afford.”

‘Cost effective’
The IBHS standards for fortified commercial structures are in place only in Alabama, and Miccolis said there are other projects that could soon await designations, including small businesses.

Fortified standards have long existed for residential properties, and Alabama leads the way nationally. Of the 10,000 or so fortified structures designated in the U.S., approximately 7,000 are in Alabama.

Much of that program is overseen by Mobile-based Smart Homes America, a non-profit group that promotes stricter construction standards and improved building codes.

Alabama lawmakers, in 2014, approved new insurance premium discounts of as much as 50 percent to homeowners who build to the fortified standards.

The fortified standards come in three designations: Bronze, which focuses on a reinforced roof that is seen as a first line of defense against storms; silver, which includes roof reinforcements and adds enhanced window and door protections; and gold, which includes full-scale structural protections throughout, from top to bottom and side to side.

John Cleary, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Coastal and Environmental Engineering at the University of South Alabama (USA), said the primary damage that people see from hurricanes involves structures built before 2000, or before modern building codes were first established nationally.

Cleary said that engineers would prefer to see coastal construction advance to what he calls a “Code-Plus requirement,” which includes the elements that earn a fortified designation.

He said the costs can be an initial deterrent for homeowners, though he acknowledged that new homes built in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores must abide by stricter codes already adopted by each city.

Miccolis said the costs to fortify a commercial structure are easily justified.

“There is an old traditional thought that mitigation is expensive and doesn’t make sense when, actually, it’s cost effective and often pays for itself,” he said. “The projects we have worked on, the increased costs have been a small percentage … and are relatively small when compared to the millions of dollars going into it. You’re talking pennies to the dollar in comparison.”

Cleary, meanwhile, was part of a team that did an analysis in the Florida Panhandle following Michael, and has already released a report on some of his team’s findings.

“We did see some failures in modern structures … that was the largest storm to ever hit the Panhandle,” he said. “But, by far, the modern structures performed much better than the older structures.”

Miccolis said that fortified “gold” homes in Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe all survived major damage from Michael. Among them were homes built by Habitat for Humanity.

Images of the so-called “Sand Palace” in Mexico Beach generated national news as a structure that stood strong amid the wreckage of a city that took the brunt of Michael’s punch.

The three-story, four-bedroom, 4-1/2 bath vacation rental home was constructed in 2017, and was built to withstand winds of about 240 to 250 mph, according to media reports.

Florida has a statewide building code, while Alabama does not. In Florida, the state code requires houses to be built so they can withstand 120 mph winds.

At Gulf State Park, where The Lodge is located, the highest and best standards would be to withstand winds of a Category 5 storm, which would register above Michael’s 155 mph winds at Mexico Beach.

“The design wind speed for typical structures at this location is 160 miles per hour, based on the latest version of the building code,” said David Roueche, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at Auburn University. “But as we just saw a few weeks ago, these design wind speeds only reflect a low probability of exceedance, not that they will never be exceeded. There is evidence to suggest that portions of the Florida Panhandle experienced wind speeds from Hurricane Michael that exceeded the design wind speeds for the region.”

‘Do better’
Roueche said it’s important for these structures to be built with a 30-year plan in mind that considers more intense storms, and changing design standards to keep up with climate change and rising seas.

Leavell said The Lodge was built to account for rising seas, noting that it sits at a higher elevation than what federal standards prescribe.

Said Callaway: “You can look at weather patterns and storms we’ve had in the past and into the future, and whether you ascribe to climate change being real or not, being resilient to a Category 4 or 5 storm and 30-inch rains is a fact today.”

She added, “We need to be prepared. You just can’t use a 4-by-4 anymore and call it a piling. We have to do better. There is no excuse not to be.”

Cleary, at USA, said he believes The Lodge’s opening will underscore Callaway’s calls for more preparation.

“The resilience of a structure, to me, is among the most important aspects,” he said. “When a storm like (Michael) comes through, everyone should evacuate. The economic loss and the loss of your belongings is devastating and in many cases, it can be reduced.”

For the complete article please see

Alabama beaches, mountains are great holiday travel destinations
From the article on (WSFA-12)

The holiday travel season is upon us. From the beaches to the mountains, Alabama has a lot to offer.

Rick Harmon with the Alabama Tourism Department said a surprising number of people like to visit the beach in November and December.

“It’s not crowded, and you can get into all the restaurants you want,” Harmon said.

There have also been lots of recent changes at Gulf State Park. The new Lodge at Gulf State Park – a Hilton hotel – just opened. It replaces the one destroyed by Hurricane Ivan years ago.

It’s also a great time to visit the mountains in north Alabama. The leaves are changing, and there are lots of great places to hike like Cheaha and Joe Wheeler state parks, Harmon said.

For a look at the most popular destinations in Alabama, visit the official travel site of Alabama at

For the complete article please see

Southern Comfort: A Visit to Mobile
From the article by Nicole Pensiero on

I’ll be honest: I’ve never been to a Southern city I haven’t been charmed by. From New Orleans to Charleston; from Savannah to Charlotte, the cuisine and culture usually leave me eager to find another southern playground to explore.

A recent getaway to Mobile, Alabama, proved no exception. This port city of some 200,000 residents has plenty to offer anyone looking for great food, cultural activities, museums, and outdoor adventures. While it reminded me of New Orleans, Mobile has its own distinctive vibe.

It’s even the original home of Mardi Gras, with the Carnival celebration started there by Frenchman Nicholas Langlois in 1703 when Mobile was – get this – the capital of Louisiana. A French Catholic celebration more than 300 years ago, Mardi Gras in Mobile has evolved into a mainstream, multi-week celebration that’s a big part of the city’s culture. In fact, you can learn all about it at the Mobile Carnival Museum, with its elaborate array of historical artifacts and information. Several of the decorative “royal” capes on display were made by local resident/seamstress Patricia Richardson (who also makes costumes for rival city New Orleans’ Mardi Gras).

Our home base for the first three nights of our trip was the historic Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa. The original Battle House Hotel – built on the site of Andrew Jackson’s military headquarters during the War of 1812 – stood from the mid-1800s until it burned down in 1905. The current structure, opened three years later, was the city’s finest property for decades, hosting celebrities and politicos alike. But by the 1970s, its fortunes were changing, and it sat abandoned for more than 30 years, reopening in 2007 after a multi-million-dollar renovation. The Battle House’s central location made it an ideal jumping off point for our daily sightseeing, and we loved being greeted upon our return each late afternoon with a free signature cocktail in its breathtaking lobby.

Eager to see and do as much as possible during our three-day visit to Mobile – easily reached from Philadelphia by a direct flight to nearby Pensacola, FL – we focused mainly on cultural and culinary attractions.

One favorite activity – and something I’d recommend to any first-time visitor – was a 2.5 hour walking tour of downtown Mobile with Bienville Bites, a husband-and-wife owned company that offered an array of tasty samplings at many popular eateries. Stops along the way included the 100-year-old Three Georges Candy Shop, sandwich shop Panini Pete’s (which offers beignets to rival anything in New Orleans) and The Royal Scam, where we sampled a popular Southern snack: pimento cheese dip and crackers.

We savored other culinary treats during our stay, too. Dinner at Dauphin’s – one of the city’s most popular and elegant eateries – was impressive on several levels. Owned by former Miami Dolphin (and University of Alabama grad) Bob Baumhower, we were dazzled by the array of entree options, ranging from seafood to pasta, and especially enjoyed the amazing view of the city from 34 floors above. There’s even a reservation-only in-kitchen chef’s table overlooking Mobile Bay. And no visit to Mobile is complete without a meal at the famed Winzell’s Oyster House original 1938 location. The food (and in particular, oysters) is fantastic and the vibe totally fun. We also had a terrific brunch at The Ruby Slipper, a soul food-themed New Orleans chain that recently opened in Mobile.

Our October visit coincided with the popular (and free) Ten Sixty Five Music Festival. This event (which takes it name from two major Mobile crossroads: Interstates 10 and 65), was born fall 2015 in a whirlwind effort to save the city from an embarrassing black eye when its long-running BayFest music festival was abruptly ended. An alliance rapidly formed to come up with a substitute event with three weeks to go. Local sports legend (and 2007 Cy Young Award winner) Jake Peavy himself became heavily involved, lending resources and support through his nonprofit organization. The result is a laid-back, lighthearted event held at two outdoor stages in the center of town. We even enjoyed some terrific barbecue at Moe’s Original Bar B Que before checking out the music.

As our trip was winding down, we decided to travel to the other side of Mobile Bay for a one-night stay at the famed Grand Hotel, which has been luring vacationers since the 1840s. On our way there, we visited Bellingrath Gardens and Home in the small town of Theodore, AL.

The creation of the late Walter and Bessie Bellingrath, the sprawling estate’s history is fascinating. Walter Bellingrath was Mobile’s first Coca-Cola bottler and was advised by his doctor in 1917 to buy an abandoned fishing camp on the Fowl River so the overworked businessman could “learn how to play.” The property, dubbed “Belle Camp” was soon beautified with flowers planted by Bessie. In 1927, the couple hired a local architect to create a country estate – and the Gardens truly began blossoming, so to speak, into their current glory. In the spring of 1932, the childless couple ran an ad inviting area residents to come see their flowers – and more than 4,700 people showed up.

A gate house was installed two years later, and the Gardens were opened year-round. Today, visitors can stroll through the Gardens – which feature more than 2,000 rose plants and over 6,800 cascading chrysanthemums – as well as the couple’s 1935 home, still filled with its original furnishings. On par with Longwood Gardens, this is a lovely step-back-in-time outing. While we didn’t eat there, there’s a small luncheon cafe, as well as a gift shop, too. Pets are not permitted in the Gardens, but they are welcome to stay at an onsite Pet Motel while their humans enjoy some botanical sightseeing.

Our afternoon and evening at the Grand Hotel proved the perfect way to wind down our southern getaway: not only is the property gorgeous, its waterfront setting is ideal for everything from paddle boarding to sunset watching.

If this Northeasterner ever returns to the Mobile Bay area, I hope to time it with Mardi Gras so I can experience the “other” Fat Tuesday. I’d also like to check out the many outdoor activities offered at nearby Dauphin Island, known for its uncrowded, pristine beaches and acclaimed 137-acre Audubon Bird Sanctuary. I’m adding these two to my “next time” travel list.

For the complete article please see

Spa at Grand National opening at the Auburn/Opelika Marriott Resort
Originally created to attract golfers to Alabama, multiple spas were added along the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail to enhance the guests’ experiences. The sixth spa on the RTJ Spa Trail opens Nov. 20 inside the Auburn/Opelika Marriott Resort at Grand National.

“The Spa at Grand National will feature 20,000 square feet of wellness, relaxation and motivation,” said Jim Keller, general manager of the Auburn/Opelika Marriott Resort at Grand National. “With the bottom two floors dedicated to spa services and a state-of-the-art fitness facility on the top floor, our hotel guests and local residents will have an European-style spa experience with an Opelika address,” said Keller. “You will not find a finer spa in the area which will appeal to our guests and the community.” Membership and day pass options are available.

“From traditional warm stone massages to red carpet ready facials, the RTJ Spa Trail features six spas across Alabama offering innovative treatments in exquisite settings,” said Taylor Fields, Corporate Director of Spa for the RTJ Resort Collection. “The Spa Trail is ideal for individual golfers, couples traveling together or for groups of friends looking to relax and be pampered.” The spas are located in Marriott, Autograph, and Renaissance Hotels along the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail: Point Clear, Mobile, Montgomery, Hoover, Florence and Opelika.

Designed by Sims Patrick Studio, an Atlanta design firm, the Spa at Grand National features eight treatment rooms in a nature-inspired setting. Located adjacent to the RTJ Grand National golf courses, the Spa at Grand National also features private relaxation areas for men and women that include whirlpools, infrared saunas, showers, a hideaway lounge and more on the first floor. The second floor of the spa features manicure and pedicure stations, a full-service salon and an exquisite lounge that can be reserved for special occasions. Fitness is the focus on the third floor overlooking the resort grounds, with extensive cardio and resistance training equipment by Technogym. The Technogym technology offers the finest equipment with cloud-based wellness profiles. A private spin studio on the third floor features Fitness On Demand, so guests will have their own virtual personal trainer. For shopping, a luxurious and unique retail boutique is located on the ground floor of the spa.

The Spa at Grand National will offer a wide selection of signature massages featuring Himalayan salt stones, holistic facials and unique body treatments. The finest in treatments and product offerings will include products by Naturopathica, HydraFacial, PRIORI Skin Care, and many more.

Alabama restaurant honored among top 100 for most scenic views
From the article on

What Alabama restaurant provides the best view for its diners? looked at the most scenic eateries and landed on Dauphin’s in Mobile.

The online reservation provider’s “100 Most Scenic Restaurants in America for 2018” featured restaurants from 25 states, and Dauphin’s was the only Alabama restaurant to make the cut.

“We know a memorable meal is as much about the ambiance as it is about the food,” said Caroline Potter, OpenTable’s chief dining officer. “This year’s list represents an immense variety of restaurants that not only offer an exceptional meal, but also feature breathtaking views that enhance the experience for locals and travelers alike.”

California dominated the list with 28 restaurants among the honorees.

Florida came in second with 13 restaurants.

The results were compiled from more than 12 million verified OpenTable diner reviews for more than 28,000 restaurants in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The winning restaurants for which “scenic views” was selected as a special feature were scored and sorted based on the percentage of reviews.

For the complete article please see

Nick Sellers wins annual tourism economic development award
From the article by Sean Ross on

Nick Sellers of Alabama Power recently won the Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Association’s (ARHA) annual Stars of the Industry award for tourism-related economic development, according to an ARHA press release.

The presentation was made at the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Mountain Brook at the association’s annual awards dinner honoring outstanding contributions to the restaurant, lodging and tourism industries.

“The Stars awards dinner is our chance to recognize those who have demonstrated excellence and serve as an inspiration to others in the industry and our community. On behalf of ARHA, I am proud to present Mr. Sellers with this award for his contributions to tourism and the economic impact that it has on our state,” Mindy B. Hanan, president and CEO of ARHA, said.

This coveted annual award is peer-nominated and winners are selected by the ARHA’s board of directors. Sellers currently serves as the vice president of Alabama Power’s Mobile division, after recently being promoted from his position as Southern Power’s senior vice president for business origination.

Sellers served for many years as a member of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex’s (BJCC) board of directors and was chairman of the facilities committee, which raised the $300 million in funding necessary to build a brand new sports stadium in downtown Birmingham, including a complete renovation of the BJCC arena. This project is expected to positively impact the Magic City’s hospitality industry for decades to come by bringing a wide variety of sports and entertainment events to Alabama.

He also served for many years as a member of the board of directors for the Alabama Sports Foundation (ASF), working on events such as the Magic City Classic and the SEC Baseball Tournament, which were previously managed by ASF. When the ASF decided to focus on youth sports, he took the initiative to form a replacement organization called the Alabama Sports Council (ASC).

Now, the ASC actively recruits and manages a wide variety of amateur sports events to be hosted here in the Yellowhammer State. They currently host the Magic City Classic, SEC Baseball Tournament, Davis Cup and many other big-name amateur sporting events.

Sellers is a multi-time past member of Yellowhammer Multimedia’s Power and Influence List, having previously served as Alabama Power’s vice president of regulatory and corporate affairs and vice president of corporate relations.

For the complete article please see

Foreign Carmakers Turn Alabama Into An Automotive Force To Be Reckoned With
From the article by Dale Buss on

As a center of automotive-manufacturing expansion, few places are humming like Alabama. When school kids in Montgomery, Alabama, celebrated National Manufacturing Month in October by visiting local plants operated by Hyundai Motor Manufacturing and others, they took a field trip through what has become the car-making capital of the American South.

Consider Hyundai alone. The Korean manufacturer began building vehicles in Alabama in 2005 when Hyundai still wasn’t much of a factor in the U.S. auto market, and now has about 2,700 full-time and 500 part-time employees working at its Montgomery complex. And now it plans to invest $388 million to expand and upgrade its engine-manufacturing operations there and create 50 more jobs.

Over the last 20 years, Alabama’s auto sector has risen from a smudge to the fifth-largest state for auto manufacturing, now employing more than 40,000 residents, and it’s expected to continue to rise. Hyundai has led a bevy of foreign automakers in betting big on the state, a list that also includes Honda and Mercedes-Benz, and will also include the construction of a new plant by Toyota and Mazda.

And it isn’t just the big boys of automotive assembly that are choosing Alabama; there’s a burgeoning supplier community there, too. And there are lesser-known vehicle brands such as Autocar, a maker of heavy trucks with a facility in Indiana that decided to put up a new assembly line in Birmingham, Alabama.

“They’re a very vehicle-friendly state,” Andrew Taitz, chairman of the GVW Group, owner of the Autocar brand, told me. “There’s a lot of auto production in the state, and therefore a lot of support infrastructure. And the state has been very supportive, helping us to set up a million-square-foot facility in record time.”

Alabama kicked off its automotive frenzy in 1993 by luring Mercedes-Benz with more than $250 million in incentives. Since then, Alabama’s coffers have been open for several other big automotive projects, including more than $700 million in tax abatements, promised infrastructure improvements and site work for the Toyota-Mazda plant. North Carolina reportedly offered more than double that, but Alabama’s history and established record of success for auto manufacturers helped lure the Japanese partners to it despite more lucrative incentives elsewhere.

And while arguably non-union Alabama labor has been priced less expensively than unionized wages in the industrial Midwest and mid-South where most auto manufacturing is still done in this country, the state also has responded with a massive training infrastructure that ensures Alabama can supply the continued boom in demand for workers who can handle semi-skilled factory jobs.

For the complete article please see

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website
2019 is right around the corner. As you gear up for the new year, remember to add events to your partner page. Creating events in advance ensures they will be approved and published with time for users to see them. Don’t have all your event details planned yet? Not a problem. You can always edit events to change or include more information.

Head over to and add your events today.


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