Attracting conference organizers to Alabama is a constant courtship by Convention and Visitors’ groups across the state, which tout attractions and calculate benefits to add to the allure of the city. With big bureaus like Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile and Montgomery, the challenge is for a city to find its way to the planner’s shortlist, and then these regions of Alabama showcase their unique appeal to close the deals.
In Mobile, the enticement of a coastal venue makes the city an easy sell once planners are privy to its myriad attractions and the efforts the CVB staff make to accommodate needs, says Amy Angermeier, vice president of sales, Mobile Convention and Visitors Bureau, part of the city’s Visit Mobile.
“We offer unique incentives in bidding on business in order to compete with other cities,” Angermeier says. “We want meeting planners and decision-makers to understand that Visit Mobile is an extension of them…. We are here to save them time and save them money.”
To highlight Mobile’s desirability, the CVB offers incentives — travel help for planners, perhaps a donation to a charity that a visiting group supports or VIP tickets to attractions.
Sites like USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park are available for planners to tour, as well as outings on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.
Visit Mobile also offers monetary incentives based on specific room nights booked and exhibit space, and the organization throws the weight of its marketing support behind conferences with social media support and website links.
To make an event memorable, the city can call on its Azalea Trail Maids or the Battleship’s Ship Mate Crew to welcome and guide guests.
While the conventional path is a reception at the hotel, some groups prefer unique settings for luncheons and outings, such as the battleship, the golf course, GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico and The Steeple on St. Francis, a century-old church refurbished as an entertainment venue.
“Depending on the time of year, we always let them know the convention center is on the water, and it’s beautiful to hold a meeting overlooking the bay,” Angermeier says. Conference planners can rent a boat to offer attendees a break from meetings.
Like other CVBs, Visit Mobile holds sales blitzes throughout the country with Professional Convention Management Association and Meeting Professionals International, organizations active with meeting planners.
“I love to be able to show our city to organizations that haven’t been to Mobile,” Angermeier says. “Once we get them here, they love it.”
Keely Smith, director of sales at the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce Convention and Visitor Bureau, says incentives vary depending on the size of a group, among other factors.
“If a group has 1,000 total room nights, we would look at ways we could help pay for some of their costs at the convention center or full-service hotels,” Smith says.
Smith and members of her team gather meeting specs, get options from hotels and share that plus more about Montgomery with meeting planners.
“We’ve had three different sets of planners in the last week, and they all talked about how compact our convention center district is,” Smith says. “They can park their cars at any of our full-service hotels, and they have access to our entertainment center, full of restaurants, nightlife, bars and attractions, all within a mile to two miles of the convention center.”
The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in April 2018, is becoming an increasingly popular attraction for the capital city.
“You can walk through eight acres of beautiful landscape to experience a memorial to those who lost their lives,” Smith says.
“We also have excellent special event venues and offsite activities for welcome receptions or closing banquets,” Smith says. “Steps away from the convention center, you can walk over to warehouses that have been … converted into cool and unique meeting space.”
Alley Station, in the heart of Montgomery, has ballroom space to accommodate 300, a rooftop venue to accommodate 200 and revamped warehouse space to accommodate 330. The rooftop terrace epitomizes the CVB’s catch phrase of “Capital Cool” with open-air space bringing a modern feel. Central, 129 Coosa, a renovated 1895 grocery warehouse, overlooks the Alley entertainment district, offering reception and meeting space.
“We have half a dozen options to accommodate groups from 30 to 350, all right in the entertainment district,” Smith says. “Another plus is the Convention Center is attached to the Renaissance Hotel and Spa with 346 rooms. Visitors don’t have to leave to go to general sessions, workshops and breakout sessions.”
“Our visitors enjoy the history related to Montgomery being the capital during the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement,” Smith says. “We have the Alabama Department of Archives and History, a comprehensive museum that takes people from the early days of Alabama, all the way to current time.”
Smith says the cuisine is one of the city’s important attractions.
“We have diverse cuisine, and when we bring planners in, one thing they comment about is how much they eat and how great the food is,” Smith says.
Meeting planners visit every month, she says. “Once we get them in and show them around, the chances of booking them go from 80 to 90 percent. They love how quaint it is and how new it all is. Everything that has happened has been in the last 10 years.”
“We are slowly changing the perception of Montgomery and Alabama, and we love to bring people to show them we are a forward-thinking city with incredible chefs and meeting options,” Smith says. “We are a really dynamic city on the move.”
Michael Gunn, senior vice president of sales for the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, is equally passionate about what Birmingham has to offer. The Magic City’s CVB is an economic development arm of Birmingham, and Gunn considers his mission to go forth and find organizations to bring back home.
When event planners express interest, the CVB brings them in to tour attractions and experience restaurants.
“We want to know what the customer is looking for,” Gunn says. “If they are looking for more of a resort atmosphere, they might find a property like Ross Bridge Resort more appealing than being downtown at the Sheraton. If they want an area with lots of shopping, they might be more interested in the Hyatt at the Galleria. If they are having a large expo, we would send them to the BJCC.”
Gunn likes to show off Birmingham’s unique attractions, including Barber Motorsports and Museum, the Civil Rights Institute, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Vulcan Park, Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark and more.
“We just had a group here, CMP Conclave, and about 200 of that group were meeting planners for other organizations,” Gunn says. “We took them to an opening reception at Sloss Furnaces, where they had an opportunity to find out about the history. At the end of the conference, we visited the Civil Rights Institute and gave them another perspective. Some wanted to visit Barber’s Museum. Some went to the Birmingham Museum of Art and some of the other attractions. That’s like making 200 sales calls at once. Opportunities don’t come along too often, so we try to lay out the red carpet. It’s a real coup to be able to do that.”
Gunn has lived in the Birmingham area for 20 years and loves giving people a new perspective on a city they might have had preconceived ideas about.
“Some people have the Civil Rights history of the city as the impression locked in their minds,” he says. “And they think it’s a flat little country town. When they get here and see the hills and the metropolitan area and understand how different it is, they realize it’s a totally different city than they had envisioned.”
Gunn is particularly proud of the food scene and award-winning chefs Frank Stitt, Chris Hastings and others who make Birmingham a favorite among foodies.
Gunn likes to point out unique appeals like the largest Wedgwood collection in the world at the Birmingham Museum of Art, the sports medicine scene that brings famous athletes to the city for treatment and the convenience to airports and interstates.
And for millennials, the city offers breweries, clubs and more. “This is a happening place for them,” says Gunn.
Visit Huntsville and you can dine under a Saturn V moon rocket at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center to be sure. But the city has much more to offer than just its space history, says Jamie Koshofer, vice president of conventions at the Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“People are surprised at what we have to offer here in North Alabama,” Koshofer says. “We’re a big tech city. Cummings Research Park is the second largest research park in the country. We have a beautiful, walkable downtown area, a great brewery scene, a museum and restaurants, bars and shops in the downtown area.”
Koshofer says a group of 6,500 can take over the whole city, giving convention-goers their own community.
The city is also adding to its inventory. Downtown will include 106 Jefferson Hotel, a Curio Collection by Hilton, offering easy access to Huntsville highlights such as The Garage at Clinton Row retail center, The Avenue shops, Big Spring Park, CityCentre at Big Spring, Von Braun Civic Center and the Huntsville Museum of Art.
The Von Braun center is currently renovating and expanding, adding a music hall and additional meeting space, including a new 35,000-square-foot ballroom and 14,000 feet of breakout meeting space.
“We have a renaissance happening in the downtown area with restaurants, shops and bars coming to the area,” he says. “If you don’t want to stay downtown, we have two great hotels right next to the space and rocket center.
The Westin at Bridge Street Town Centre, an upscale shopping center at Cummings Research Park, includes an outdoor shopping and entertainment area. Abundant off-site locations include Camps No. 805, a former school that houses two craft breweries, shops and restaurants.
Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment Center is an art studio complex, one of the largest privately owned arts facilities in the U.S., including working studios, performance venues and more than 200 artists.
“The great thing about the convention center is there’s no tax or gratuities,” Koshofer says. “That’s an incentive for groups to come and save potentially 30 percent. We participate in a lot of different trade shows around the country — corporate trade shows, government trade shows — we’re competing with every big city in the Southeast and want to be sure we are represented. We go out and tell our story about how great Huntsville is.”
Cara Clark and Mike Kittrell are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Birmingham and he in Mobile.