Montgomery Business Journal

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Montgomery Chamber Keeps Tourism Right on Track

May 2014

By David Zaslawsky     

Photography by Robert Fouts

Those of us in Montgomery have always known what a gem our city is, but now it seems the entire nation thinks so as well. The Capital of Dreams was recently named the Best Historic City in the country in a USA Today 10Best Readers’ Choice travel award contest, beating out such competitors as Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston and New Orleans. This latest honor is just further proof that Montgomery is on the national radar as a must-see destination. While the city’s history, Southern charm, and unique venues have helped launch it into the spotlight, what continues to fuel its rapidly growing tourism industry is the partnership of the City of Montgomery, Montgomery County Commission and the Montgomery Chamber.Tourism or the local travel industry generates incredible revenue. From 2010 through 2013, there were nearly 5.3 million room nights citywide resulting in a $1.4 billion economic impact.

The Alabama Department of Tourism released a report in 2014 with some staggering numbers for tourism last year in Montgomery County: Spending rose 8 percent to $661 million; annual wages topped $240 million; and there were 10,500 jobs.

Those numbers – $900 million and 10,500 jobs – tell only the tip of the story. That is not the full economic impact, which easily tops $1 billion. Local tourism/travel industry has a Hyundai-esque impact.

“Tourism is an economic development project,” said Leslie Sanders, chairman of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

And the driving force behind the local travel industry is the Montgomery Chamber CVB, which has been racking up its own share of impressive numbers:

>  The number of Montgomery Chamber CVB-generated events/meetings has increased 51 percent (144 to 218) from 2010-2013.

>  The number of attendees from those 2010-2013 meetings/events has increased 66 percent (59,292 to 98,212).

>  The number of contracted room nights from the same period has increased 57 percent (59,300 to 92,857).

>  The economic impact has increased 56 percent ($16 million in 2010 to $25 million in 2013).

Those numbers will continue growing as the staff is working on 172 leads that would result in 92,000 room nights and an estimated economic impact of $24 million. Of course, the Montgomery Chamber CVB won’t turn all those leads into contracts, but will get its share.

“You have to understand that tourism attracts tax dollars and the more dollars that we get in our general fund, the more that we can spend,” said Montgomery County Commission Chairman Elton N. Dean Sr. The county received $1.6 million from lodging taxes in its 2013 fiscal year and through February of this year was up 21 percent over the previous year ($130,000 for the first five months of fiscal 2014).

In 2010, the City of Montgomery received $5.5 million from lodging taxes and projections for this year are $7.2 million, which does include a 2.5 percent lodging tax increase. “It’s a big number,” Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange said.

All of these numbers associated with the local tourism industry are big and Montgomery is enjoying increases in both hotel occupancy rates and room demand that the state’s other three metros can only dream about. Montgomery’s occupancy rate rose 4.4 percent in 2012 vs. 2011 while Mobile’s fell -0.7 percent; Huntsville fell -2.7 percent and Birmingham fell -3.6 percent.

The story was similar for 2013 vs. 2012 when Montgomery’s occupancy rate was up 4.9 percent while Birmingham fell -0.4 percent; Huntsville fell -5.8 percent, but Mobile was up 1.5 percent. For that same period, Montgomery’s room demand jumped 8.1 percent and the next closest was Mobile at 1.5 percent.

So how are things looking for the first two months of 2014 vs. 2013? Montgomery’s occupancy rate jumped 12.4 percent and room demand surged 14.6 percent. Birmingham’s occupancy rate was up 5.6 percent, but Mobile fell -2.6 percent and Huntsville fell -8.0 percent.

Dean said that the Montgomery Chamber CVB deserves nearly all the credit for the increases and Strange gives the staff “huge credit.” Meanwhile, Sanders said the staff does “an unbelievable job – they really do. I’m not just saying that for going out and not only seeking groups and event coordinators and planners to come here, but once they come here they make sure they’re taken care of.”

Hathcock said one of the reasons for Montgomery’s growing tourism numbers is a diverse market. “We’re not solely dependent on sports. We’re not solely dependent on government business; convention business; reunions; leisure tourism. We have a good mix of all of it.”

Getting those groups and events to Montgomery is the first step. It does help that the city and county invested millions in new and renovated sports facilities such as Cramton Bowl, Multiplex at Cramton Bowl and the Emory Folmar Soccer Complex, but if-you-build-it-they-wil-come works in movies and not in the travel industry world.

“Anybody can have the big box – the facilities if you will – but what makes a city unique and what makes people want to come back is the history of the city; what they have to offer a visitor,” Hathcock said. “That is everything from entertainment venues; it’s restaurants; nightlife; family friendly. Montgomery has done a great job of putting a package together where things are walkable in the downtown. There are plenty of things to do throughout the city. We’re not concentrated in one area. You have the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in East Montgomery near a lot of soccer fields. You have shopping venues in East Montgomery. You have good restaurants throughout the city at different levels. People want to have a unique experience. You have different things that are available for them.”

The Montgomery Chamber CVB informs visitors of those entertainment venues, restaurants, shopping and nightlife.

“They (CVB staff) are the GPS to get people here and then continue to be their guide,” Sanders said. “They go from GPS to Siri.”

Hathcock, who has been with the Chamber for 12-plus years, knows the players in the tourism market and the director of sales has been there eight-plus years. To bring groups/events to Montgomery, the staff attends 18 trade shows in a typical year. “Those are appointment-based shows,” Hathcock said. The Montgomery Chamber was host to 50-plus meeting planners and frequently hosts travel writers. In May, about 100 journalists with the National Food & Wine Travel Writers will visit Montgomery. The Chamber works closely with the Central Alabama Sports Commission to attract a wide range of sporting events to the city.

A Chamber salesperson dedicated to the sports segment is recruiting a horseshoe event – a blockbuster World Championship Tournament from the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association. The tournament would have about 2,000 participants during a two-week period in 2016. The tournament means about 4,500 room nights and a multi-million dollar economic impact. The Chamber CVB designed a detailed proposal that featured facilities, hotels and things to do.

“Things that are happening right now, we sold two years ago,” Hathcock said. “People don’t see the sales pattern.”

It was a couple of years ago that Montgomery landed a national fire chiefs’ conference and that resulted in the city getting the Firefighter Combat Challenge.

Staff is dedicated to market segments. There is the sports market. The director of sales handles the state associations and government markets. There is a salesperson devoted to education, corporate, regional and national associations. Another salesperson works the multicultural, religious, social, fraternal and motor coach segments.

“We don’t have that kind of expertise,” Dean said. “You are investing in experts that know how to do this and they get better and better every year.”

The county and the city help fund the Chamber through lodging taxes. “It’s a no-brainer investment,” said Sanders, who is vice president of Alabama Power Co.’s Southern Division. “The Convention & Visitor Bureau and their industry bring jobs to every sector. It’s a tipping point to the larger development – small, medium and large. When you improve the quality of life in any city, you grow jobs. It’s a formula that works.”

Just how important is local tourism? Consider that a business traveler spends on average $264 a day. Some groups spend a little more and some a little less. Consider that the city has about 7,600 rooms.

That’s not lost on the mayor when he visits groups. “One of my good lines is: ‘I see your smiling faces. I’m delighted to see it, but I see dollar signs.’ I go on to say: ‘You’re a really well-off group so I’m expecting you to beat the average.’ ”




  2012 vs. 2011      
  Montgomery 4.4%   0.5%
  Mobile -0.7%   -0.4%
  Huntsville -2.7%   -1.7%
  Birmingham -3.6%   -4.1%
  2013 vs. 2012      
  Montgomery 4.9%   8.1%
2010 51% 1,288,569 $340 million   Mobile 1.5%   1.5%
2011 52% 1,295,242 $342 million   Birmingham -0.4%   1.0%
2012 54% 1,302,196 $344 million   Huntsville -5.8%   -.05%
2013 57% 1,403,639 $371 million          
            2014 vs. 2013 (January-February) 
2010 144 59,292 59,300 $16 million   Birmingham 5.6%   6.8%
2011 163 76,005 61,731 $16 million   Mobile -2.1%   -1.1%
2012 213 101,416 96,581 $25 million   Huntsville -8.0%   4.0%
2013 218 98,212 92,857 $25 million          
Source: Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce and Smith Travel Research


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