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Alabama may not have the draw of a Las Vegas or an Orlando, but conventions and other types of association meetings are big business to a handful of Alabama destinations with the infrastructure to handle them. Those multiday meetings bring in millions of dollars to local economies each year.

Here’s a look at the five biggest Alabama conventions set for 2013 — ranked by total room nights — and how their destinations attracted them.

The Alabama convention expected to produce the largest number of total room nights by far this year — 14, 000 — is the National Forensic League conference set for Birmingham June 11-23. The Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau projects a $9.4 million economic impact from the conference, including its National Tournament, which will include speech and debate competitions for high school and middle school students. The highly respected honor society previously met in Birmingham in 2009, and the city is in the running for the league’s 2017 conference.

The combination of Birmingham’s hospitality, affordable lodging, the quality of its schools and Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, volunteer support — plus incentives from the city and others, including Starwood Hotels & Resorts and Alabama Power Co. — makes the city especially attractive, says Scott Wunn, executive director of the league.  “We are a loyal organization, and when a city offers us both quality and affordability we are likely to return to that city, because it’s a known quantity, and our ultimate goal is to provide the best experience for our participants, ” he says.

Birmingham is thrilled to have formed a partnership with the league and hopes to continue it. “On top of our other draws, having a number of strong schools with active forensic programs is a major factor, because there’s so much support for the National Forensic League here, ” says Barry Hoehn, director of sales for the city’s convention and visitors bureau.

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Repeat convention business isn’t unusual for Birmingham, which has the distinction of being both Alabama’s largest city and biggest convention destination. “On the national level, we’re still a second-tier city, but we do an excellent job going after business we’re suited for, ” including national, state and regional associations, religious and fraternal organizations, corporations and medical associations, Hoehn says.

He points to the availability of 320, 000 square feet of meeting space downtown and 15, 000 hotel rooms in the greater Birmingham area. Multiple entertainment districts and attractions, Birmingham’s growing reputation as a “food city, ” its easily accessible major airport and the city’s dedication to serving clients are all draws, Hoehn points out.

Perhaps the biggest repeat convention business success story for Birmingham is the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The group, set to meet in Birmingham July 4-8, has visited the city every year but one since 1989. This year, the meeting of 10, 000 Jehovah’s Witnesses from Alabama and Eastern Mississippi is expected to be Alabama’s second biggest convention, with 7, 500 total room nights and an estimated economic impact of $6.6 million. “The location and logistics of the city are so good for us. Birmingham has got great facilities, hotels and eateries, plus the city has been nice to work with. Those are some of the reasons we keep coming back, ” says Bob Rodgers, the group’s Scottsboro-based convention contractor negotiator.

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach garnered Alabama’s third biggest convention for 2013 — Student Life — which is returning for its eighth year to the area. The inter-denominational Christian youth summer camp is expected to draw 11, 000 students — 6, 648 room nights — between June 1-30.

The Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area’s central location continues to attract the group because it’s easily accessible to many states by car. “Everyone loves a beach location, and we like the small town, family-oriented feel of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, ” says Roger Davis, president of Student Life.

In recent years, the new conference center at the Wharf has allowed Student Life to bring in larger groups of students. With 18, 000 square feet of meeting space, the conference center has become a major plus for the area, says Beth Gendler, vice president of sales for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. Another plus is the community’s 16, 000 available hotel and condo units. And the Perdido Beach Resort serves as a self-contained convention hotel, with 350 rooms and about 40, 000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space.

With the Alabama Legislature’s recent approval for a new hotel and convention center to be built on 29 acres of state-owned Gulf frontage at Gulf Shores State Park, the area likely will become an even more desirable convention destination. The new venue will replace a state-owned lodge that was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. About $85.5 million of BP oil coastal reclamation funds will be used for the project.

After vying against highly attractive convention cities like New Orleans, Mobile was able to bring home the National Beta Club conference set for June 14-23. The meeting of elementary and secondary school student achievers, expected to draw 5, 000 attendees and generate 5, 675 room nights, will be Alabama’s fourth biggest convention this year.

Although the National Beta Club often meets in major cities, Mobile attracted the organization for multiple reasons, including its proximity to Gulf Shores, highly accommodating hotels, outstanding facilities, support available from Alabama Beta clubs, and the persistence of the convention bureau, says Glen Stribling, the honor club’s assistant executive director. “They were anxious to bring us to Mobile and made us feel we would be extremely welcome, ” Stribling says.

Mobile has more than 7, 000 rooms with 317, 000 square feet of meeting space at its convention center and 80, 000 more at the Civic Center. In addition, the Mobile Civic Center features 80, 000 square feet of space. Ecotourism, plentiful watersports and multiple entertainment districts also are attractions. Although Mobile isn’t a major convention destination, some organizations recognize that as an advantage, because the Mobile business community caters to them, says David Randel, president and chief executive officer of the Mobile Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau. “When the National Beta Club comes, they are going to see signs in the windows welcoming them, ” he says.

Close behind the National Beta Club conference in total room nights is Alabama’s fifth largest convention, the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) Summer Conference set for July 14-20 in Montgomery, expected to draw more than 2, 250 attendees, generating 5, 629 room nights — maybe more because referees and officials have been invited this year. High school sports competitions associated with the conference will up its value.

AHSAA, which is based in Montgomery, began meeting in the city in 1997, but after 10 years moved to Huntsville while Montgomery’s civic center was torn down and its convention center complex built. “We had a great experience in Huntsville, but Montgomery is where we are based, and it’s a more centrally located destination for our participants, who come in from all over the state, ” says Steve Savarese, executive director of AHSAA.

Montgomery’s new sport venues also make the city attractive, Saverese says. The Cramton Bowl Multiplex, located next to Cramton Bowl, is a 90, 000-square-foot indoor sports facility with a main floor seating capacity of 4, 000. Emory Folmar YMCA Soccer Complex offers eight lit soccer fields and two stadium fields.

The new Montgomery convention center, which opened in February, 2008, and the adjacent Renaissance Montgomery hotel offer meeting space large and small.

“We lost a lot of convention business while the convention center was being built, but now we have double the meeting space and are going strong, drawing convention business we couldn’t have accommodated before, ” says Keely Smith, director of sales for the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce Convention & Visitor Bureau.

Kathy Hagood is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Homewood.

Text By Kathy Hagood

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