Annual tourism summit addresses experiential vacations and quality of life improvements
Gulf Shores & Orange Beach
GULF SHORES AND ORANGE BEACH, ALA. – Experiences, shoulder season growth and quality of life enhancements were the key themes flowing through Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism’s (GSOBT) annual Tourism Summit Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, at Erie Meyer Civic Center in Gulf Shores. Presentations from GSOBT representatives, local leaders, key GSOBT vendors and industry partners voiced the need for transformative destination experiences.
Herb Malone, president and CEO for GSOBT, started the morning with preliminary 2017 numbers.
“Final numbers will be out in March, but the estimated taxable lodging revenue for 2017 is $490 million, a 4.48 percent increase, and the estimated taxable retail sales revenue is $865 million, a 1.53 percent increase over 2016,” said Malone.
Malone expressed that June and July represented 42 percent of all lodging revenue for 2017 and explained how the destination is experiencing a new paradigm shift with a second-tier shoulder season – May and August – producing 19 percent of lodging revenue.
As the shoulder seasons outside of summer continue to grow, sports and meetings play into bringing new business and guests to the destination. The GSOBT sales team promotes all properties in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and works with meeting planners to find a space that best fits their needs, plus providing team-building and off-site ideas for attendees to have a well-rounded experience. Additionally, new Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission efforts include “coastal champions” – a video series to feature local industry partners who move the needle for sports tourism.
Destination Analysts, GSOBT’s market research partner, noted the excitement for beach destinations among travelers. They distributed an online survey to two audiences – leisure travelers in key regional markets and a GSOBT consumer email list – and discovered strong indicators for future travel to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
“We’ve never seen a destination perform so well,” said Kimberly Vince-Cruz with Destination Analysts. “Natural beauty and local cuisine especially come through in our research. These attributes are very important when choosing a destination.”
Next, local leaders tackled a top-of-mind topic – transportation and quality of life improvements.
Cindy Hall with the Foley Beach Express shared about new projects, including bridge re-striping and “pay by plate.” The bridge re-striping project at The Wharf is designed to create a new reversible center lane for maximizing traffic flow and serving as an emergency evacuation lane. “Pay by plate” will serve as an easier payment method with no stopping to help with the traffic flow. Those who enroll via FreedomPass.com or on the upcoming Alabama Freedom Pass app will be charged to the credit card on file. Customers not registered will receive an invoice in the mail corresponding with their license plate.
City of Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft stated that approximately 12,000 residents live in the city, while 1.37 million cars traveled through in July 2017 alone, increasing the need for quality of life improvements for residents and guests. He discussed many current and ongoing projects, such as adaptive traffic signals, access management, as well as pedestrian and bike-friendly updates to beach boulevard and Highway 59. Upcoming projects in Gulf Shores include bike-sharing, new arterial roadways funded by the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) and improved local connectors, which will be mainly grant-funded. Mayor Craft also stressed that soon no more construction projects will take place during the day.
“Beach boulevard improvements are focused on pedestrian safety with sidewalks on each side and designated safe bike lanes,” he said. “Native landscaping and vegetative areas will be designed to collect water for drainage. The construction on Highway 182 [beach boulevard] will be complete by the end of May.”
City of Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon echoed Mayor Craft with an increased need for infrastructure and transportation updates in the destination. Beginning this year, ALDOT will widen Canal Road with expected completion in 2020. Two new bridges are also in store for Orange Beach, including a lodging tax-funded highly-anticipated Wolf Bay bridge, which will take approximately four years to build and will effectively annex 8,000 to 10,000 acres in the Barber Marina area. Other projects include building a new high school and completing phase two of the Perdido Beach Boulevard median project.
“On the Wolf Bay bridge myth – this will get done come hell or high water,” said Kennon. “This will give us another north-south connector, moving traffic much easier, and it will also serve as an evacuation route.”
Continuing the summit’s focus on tourism, GSOBT’s website and advertising vendor, Miles Partnership, dove into its Google destination content program that will improve how the market appears in Google from search and travel guides to maps and YouTube. Vito Zuppardo with Miles expressed how the company strives to improve the quality and accuracy of information about the destination to maximize exposure to potential beach guests as they plan their vacations.
Next, OnceThere, a booking service to be housed within GSOBT’s website and welcome centers, will provide a more streamlined way for vacationers to browse and book local attractions, tours and experiences with real-time payment processing and reservations.
Wrapping up an experience-driven summit, GSOBT presented a panel of staff members and local industry partners who took part in Experience Lab, an immersive and engaging conference in Columbus, Ohio.
“The Experience Lab program we are bringing to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach will happen in two phases,” explained Joanie Flynn, vice president of marketing for the tourism bureau. “Phase one involves an assessment of our attractions, activities and experiences, which should be complete by the end of the summer. In phase two, local tourism businesses can apply to participate in a six-month program to help them develop unforgettable experiences for visitors, with the goal of those launching by summer 2019.”
Flynn added that the phase two classes will be offered year-to-year to engage more local tourism industry partners and allow continuous creation of unique experiences and offerings.
Gerald Tipton, general manager at Lucy Buffett’s LuLu’s beautifully articulated the heart of destination experiences in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach: “hands-on memories that visitors take away live on.”
About Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism:
Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism serves as the official destination marketing organization for the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach in addition to the unincorporated area of Fort Morgan. To learn more about t the whole different state of discovery on Alabama’s 32 miles of white-sand beaches, visit either GulfShores.comor OrangeBeach.com. This convention and visitors bureau is an accredited Destination Marketing Organization (2012-2016).