Alabama Tourism Department recognizes industry leaders

(Auburn, Ala.) The Alabama Tourism Department recognized its 2022 award winners during the 2022 Alabama Governor’s Conference on Tourism, held on location at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center. Winners include Darley Newman with “Travels with Darley” for Tourism Advocate Year – Media, Orion Amphitheatre and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio as Tourism Partnership of the Year award, and Eva Golson, recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award. Thirteen awards were presented in total.

Other award winners include Jubilee Festival of the Arts, Event of the Year; Senator Clay Scofield, Government Tourism Advocate of the Year; Andrew Felts, Rising Star; Rhonda Davis, Tourism Employee of the Year; Lake Martin Tourism Association, Tourism Organization of the Year: Danielle Gibson, Tourism Executive of the Year; Rick Harmon, Alabama Tourism Department Employee of the Year; Lanett Welcome, Welcome Center of the Year; John Wild, Alabama Tourism Hall of Fame; and Carol McElheney, Governor’s Award.

“We have incredibly strong tourism industry professionals in Alabama, and those recognized this year are no exception,” said Lee Sentell, director Alabama Tourism Department. “Their unwavering leadership and dedication continues to elevate Alabama as one of the go-to destinations in America. We are proud to recognize the people and organizations that contribute to the success of tourism in the state.”

Noticeably present at the awards banquet was Grammy Award-winner Ben Lovett, founding member of the band Mumford and Sons. Lovett was the inspiration and guiding force in creating and designing the Orion Amphitheater. His vision to celebrate the rich music heritage of North Alabama led to the Orion’s construction in the Huntsville area.

Below are the brief biographies of each winner. Photos can be found at the following link:

Eva Golson, CEO of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, is the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Eva Golson has served as the director of the Mobile Film Office since its creation in 2001 as the first local film office in the state of Alabama. Golson first began her work to establish Mobile as a leading site for the film industry in 1976. She championed incentive plans to attract film production, opening the door for Mobile to be centerpiece for hundreds of films and television productions. She has been a life-long member of the Public Relations Council of Alabama’s Mobile Chapter and the Southern Public Relations Federation. PRCA honored her service and leadership by naming her the state’s 1980 Practitioner of the Year. Golson has been honored by two sitting governors and was inducted into the Alabama Tourism Hall of Fame. She also served in leadership roles of the Southeast Tourism Society, Alabama Travel Council, Mobile Press Club and was instrumental in starting the Mobile Pops Symphony.

Darley Newman, Emmy Award-winning PBS host of “Travels with Darley,” is recognized as the Tourism Advocate Media of the Year Award.

Recognized in Forbes Magazine for her PBS travel empire, Darley Newman is an entrepreneur, TV host, writer, producer and Emmy Award-winner.  Through her production companies, Newman has channeled her passions for travel and storytelling into successful multi-platform series and distinctive media brands. She is the creator, producer and host of Emmy Award-winning “Equitrekking” and “Travels with Darley” on PBS, Amazon Prime, Ovation TV and networks in over 85 nations.

Newman has received the North American Travel Journalist Award, the Inspiring Woman Award from Women in Philanthropy and Leadership, two Telly Awards and was inducted into the Taste Awards Hall of Fame. She’s launched and built successful businesses to spur and measure tourism and economic development including “Darley Vacations” in partnership with a Virtuoso travel agency and written an award-winning travel book.

In 2023, Newman will celebrate the 10th anniversary season of “Travels with Darley” and a new series, “Look Up,” that centers on architecture and history.

Jubilee Festival of the Arts is Event of the Year.

For more than 33 years, the Jubilee Festival of Arts has showcased hundreds of local and regional artists to residents and tourists in the charming setting of Daphne, Alabama. With each year, the event has grown and responded to the changing landscape, prevailing through hurricanes and the pandemic. Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce has championed the local community and empowered artisans and vendors alike to maintain their craft and livelihood over three decades. It is a family-friendly event, ideal for patrons of all ages. The 34th annual Jubilee Festival of Arts will take place Oct. 15 and 16 in Olde Towne Daphne. This new location will support more than 130 local and regional artists, local food makers in the Jubilee Market, entertainers and a Kids Art area.

Alabama State Senator Clay Scofield is the winner of the Government Advocate Award of the Year. 

Originally from Cullman, Alabama, Senator Clay Scofield was first elected to the Senate on Nov. 2, 2010. Senator Scofield was elected by his colleagues in November 2020 to serve as the Majority Leader for the Senate Republican Caucus. Senator Scofield received his Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, Business and Economics

from Auburn University, and he is a third-generation farmer. In June 2021, Senator Scofield was elected chair of The Alabama Digital Expansion Authority, which is responsible for advising, reviewing and approving a statewide broadband connectivity plan as outlined in the Connect Alabama Act of 2021. A member of the Church of Christ, Senator Scofield’s interests include hunting and other outdoor activities. He resides in Arab with his family.

This is the second year is a row that Senator Scofield has been recognized for creating a constitutional amendment that benefits the Alabama State Park system.


Andrew Felts, Public Relations Manager at Visit Mobile, is the Rising Star of the Year.

Andrew Felts is the Communications and Public Relations Manager at Visit Mobile where he strives to build excitement for his destination among journalists and the public alike.

Felts relocated to the city to attend the University of Mobile where he earned his Bachelor of Science in Communications with a concentration in public relations. Growing from the rich foundations at the university, Felts, developed a love for the community at large – cementing his desire to stay in Mobile and make it home. Felts joined the Visit Mobile team in January 2021.

He remains very active in the Mobile community and serves as Vice President of Programming for Young Professionals of Mobile. He is also pursuing his tourism marketing professional certification through Southeast Tourism Society Marketing College.

 Rhonda Davis, USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, is the Tourism Employee of the Year. 

Rhonda Davis works as the Director of Sales and Marketing at Battleship Memorial Park, a position she has held since 2015. And yes, her office is aboard the battleship. Davis has an extensive background in public relations, special events, non- profit management and historic preservation. She holds a BA degree from the University of South Alabama in Communication Arts and is certified by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a National Main Street Manager. Davis is a member of the board of directors for the Alabama Travel Council, Alabama Historical Association and serves on the advisory board for the University of South Alabama Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management. She is past president of the Alabama

Trust for Historic Preservation and is a sustaining member of the Junior League of Mobile. Davis credits her parents for her love of Alabama. As a child, her family explored every corner of the state, visiting historic sites, attractions and parks.

Danielle Gibson is executive director of Visit Decatur the Tourism Executive of the Year.

Over the last four years, Danielle Gibson has been President/CEO of Decatur Morgan County Tourism. Before her current role, Gibson worked in the insurance industry until pivoting to more community- focused positions. She acted as President of the Hartselle Area Chamber of Commerce and was on the Board of Directors for Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association.

Gibson is a Decatur Morgan County Excellence in Leadership graduate and a Rotarian. She currently serves as the Incoming Chairwoman of the Board of Directors for the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association, the River Clay Fine Arts Festival Board of Directors, and Celebrating Early Old Town with Art Board of Directors. Gibson is graduate of The University of North Alabama where she earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree and has called Decatur home over the last 15 years with her husband, Jesse, and two children, Noah and Cohen.

Lake Martin Tourism Association is the Tourism Organization of the Year. 

The Lake Martin Tourism Association works to promote and showcase Alabama’s Freshwater Coast. Touted as “Alabama’s biggest playground,” tourists can expect an unrivaled lake experience of 900 miles of shoreline and 40,000 acres of stunning views, nestled against thick wooded forest, and historic downtown Alexander City. The charm and accessibility of Lake Martin has earned it a reputation as being one of the finest lake destinations of the South, offering unique fishing opportunities as well as soft adventure in the surrounding parks, marinas, points and islands.

Lake Martin Tourism Association was founded by 12 board members in 2019. In three years, despite the pandemic, The Lake Martin Tourism Association has increased visitation and lodging collections and established new assets, like the Lake Martin Hiking Challenge, showcasing the abundant natural resources of the area. These efforts have helped position Lake Martin as a year-round destination where tranquility and relaxation are always on the menu.

Rick Harmon is the Alabama Tourism Department Employee of the Year.

Rick Harmon spent more than 30 years in journalism before joining the Alabama Tourism Department in 2015 as Publications Director. Harmon is a graduate of Auburn University, where he was editor of the campus newspaper, The Auburn Plainsman. Following his collegiate years, Harmon worked for several Alabama publications before landing at the Montgomery Advertiser, where he spent a majority of his career. After beginning as a court reporter, he be- came a columnist, features editor, government and business editor and then news editor.

Harmon has led a long and distinguished career and is the recipient of the National Association of Black Journalists award for best enterprise or investigative series. He has been recognized numerous times by Alabama Associated Press Media Editors Awards and by the Alabama Press Association. Lee Sentell said he also based the Hank Williams Trail on a different series Harmon wrote at the Advertiser. As features editor, he was presented the Alabama Tourism Department’s Tourism Advocate Media Award. Since joining ATD, Harmon has edited most of the department’s publications, including the Alabama Vacation Guide, and is working on a book on the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

 The Lanett Welcome Center is the Welcome Center of the Year. 

After two years and a lot of planning, Governor Kay Ivey cut the ribbon on the new Lanett Welcome Center on Jan. 14, 2022. The state-of-the-art center is 16,000 sq. foot and is Alabama’s new front door for those traveling in from Georgia on Interstate 85. The bricks, sidewalks and sod show much more than a welcome center; it is a sign of major economic progress in Alabama. The new standard set by the Lanett Welcome Center will be the template for what’s to come across the state.

The Orion Amphitheatre and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio are the recipients of the Tourism Partnership of the Year Award.

The Orion Amphitheatre in Huntsville is the first venue venture for Ben Lovett, of Mumford and Sons fame. His vision was to not only create a state-of-the-art performance space, but to also nurture the Huntsville community and build on North Alabama’s renowned musical legacy. The 8,000-seat venue opened in May 2022 and has since announced national headlining acts along with community events. With its proximity to the iconic Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Huntsville enjoys its status as part of the Americana Music Triangle, known for its cultural achievement as the birthplace of one of our country’s greatest exports, music – particularly blues, soul and rock’n’roll. Lovett, a huge fan of Muscle Shoals music, anticipated that the amphitheater will also be used to highlight the musical talent and history of the Shoals.

Just 80 miles away from Huntsville’s Orion is the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio at 3614 Jackson Highway – an address synonymous with music royalty. It was founded in 1969 by four members of FAME’s Rhythm Section. Those legendary studio musicians became known as “The Swampers” and played with musical titans including Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Bob Seger, and so many more. The restored studio is a music mecca, drawing visitors from around the world. Music history buffs say they want to see and feel why Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones referred to Muscle Shoals as “Rock and Roll Heaven.” The 2013 documentary, “Muscle Shoals,” revived interest in the studio for music enthusiasts and the music industry. In 2017, the studio was fully restored to its 1970’s look, thanks to a grant from Beats Electronics.

John Wild is the 2022 Alabama Tourism Hall of Fame inductee.

John Wild worked in the hospitality and tourism industry for 40 years and recently retired from his role as president of Auburn-Opelika Tourism (AOT) after 19 years of leading the organization. Under Wild’s leadership, AOT saw enormous growth in visitation and economic impact. Before joining AOT, Wild managed the Auburn University Hotel & Dixon Conference Center. He has been involved in the community and has served on the boards of many local and industry organizations including the Auburn Rotary Club, United Way of Lee County, and the Alabama Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus. Wild is an avid photographer and enjoys photographing many local events and taking sports photos for the Auburn Villager. Hiking in the mountains or on trails out West with his camera is a favorite hobby and a skill he plans to continue developing in retirement.

Carol McElheney is the Governor’s Award winner.

Carol McElheney is Regional Vice President of Operations with Hudson, the largest travel retailer in the world and leads Hudson teams in the Atlanta, Birmingham, Greenville, Jackson, Mobile, Myrtle Beach and Raleigh airports.

McElheney has been with Hudson for 10 years and continues to thrive in her role. Her previous experiences also include 20 years in the Food & Beverage industry.

She is a change-agent and the recipient of several awards in recognition for business development and innovation. McElheney has demonstrated her proven abilities to craft and facilitate creative business solutions, resulting in major improvements in operating plans and new revenue gains. She is passionate about serving and helping people and proudly commits to ensuring her team members are trained, mentored and championed for personal and professional growth opportunities.

McElheney has a fervent passion for the South, especially the great state of Alabama. In her spare time, her personal interests include mentoring young people and reading – mostly business and industry literature.

She credits her two adult children, Tru and Chaunice, as her constant source of inspiration.


Contact: Andi Martin, Public Relations Manager

Alabama Tourism Department, 334-242-4537