Take a Look: MGM Tourism
Last year was bleak for global travel and hospitality markets, and the capital city’s tourism industry definitely felt COVID-19’s sting. But the Chamber’s team dedicated to drawing and serving conventions, groups and individual visitors turned 2020’s lemon into lemonade, helping industry partners pivot and survive, identifying previously untapped opportunities and crafting a plan for the future that takes maximum advantage of Montgomery’s multiple unique characteristics and its powerful story. As indicators point to a robust recovery for tourism, these efforts should pay off big for local businesses dependent on the industry as well as the city’s overall economy.
The list of the capital city’s appealing attributes is a long one. From world-changing history to world class arts and culture, Montgomery has been drawing tourists in droves in recent years, hitting milestone after milestone. In 2019, tourism in the capital city was very big business, as these pre-pandemic stats show.
Talking about the city’s 2019 tourism boom:
- Tourist expenditures in Montgomery broke $1 billion for the first time ever.
- Montgomery sold 21,000 more hotel rooms in 2019 over 2018, which was a record-breaking year with more than 100,000 rooms being sold.
- Room revenue collections were up 6.5 percent.
- The Destination MGM Sales team booked 216 events and meetings or conferences, representing a 16.8-percent increase over the previous year. These groups represent a 3.3-percent increase in room nights booked by the team.
- Visitors spent $1.6 million in Montgomery on any given night. Because of this, residents saved more than $550
COVID-19 threw a tough curve ball at Montgomery’s hotels, restaurants, attractions and tour operators. But they acted fast and made the modifications necessary to stay in business and protect their staff, customers and guests.
Talking about keeping visitors safe and surviving to re-open:
- Perry Grice, Area Director of Sales and Marketing, Renaissance Hotel & Spa at the Convention Center: We’ve partnered with the Chamber to host two Open Houses to show the community as well as meeting and event planners how to hold safe meetings. This includes a variety of rooms set with social distancing, plus how to package and serve food safely. PCH Hotels took a great deal of time and energy to get input from our food and beverage directors and then create these guidelines and operating procedures. We’ve also been very visible with our cleaning practices, our signage and access to hand sanitizer.
- Donna M. Beisel, Assistant Director, Rosa Parks Museum: We’ve been offering virtual tours to visitors who can’t or don’t feel comfortable visiting in-person. Of course, we’ve been requiring masks for entry into the museum and for the duration of a visit. We do offer sanitizer in the gift shop and at the information desks. Staff goes behind each group that comes through and sanitizes seats, door handles, touch screens, etc.
- Stephen Hayes, Director of Communications, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts: The MMFA was closed to the public for nearly six months. During those closed months, museum educators pivoted to digital, coming up with all new programming, like our studio projects that can be completed at home and our collection-based digital puzzles, while our curatorial team took the time to rethink our exhibition schedule and to imagine new ways people could interact with our collection from afar. We’ve since launched an outdoor walking exhibition and our first virtual experience, which features works in our recently reinstalled Blount Collection galleries. We also implemented new enhanced cleaning procedures—no small task in a building filled with delicate works of art—health screenings for employees, mask requirements for staff and visitors, limits to the number of visitors who can be inside our building at one and changes to the traffic patterns inside.
- Todd Schmidt, Executive Director & Rick Dildine, Artistic Director, Alabama Shakespeare Festival:
- Todd: The pandemic forced ASF to close its doors in March 2020. Without ticket revenues, our budget was cut by more than half, which meant layoffs and furloughs for many of our talented staff and artists. Despite that devastation, we were able to create some remarkable programming, from free online workshops for kids (and parents) stuck at home to virtual events and productions and outdoor installations where people could safely keep connecting with plays, artists and playwrights. We established a COVID Compliance Team and developed protocols for everyday work based on CDC guidance and industry best practices.
- Rick: Digitally, we commissioned 22 Southern playwrights to create 22 monologues on the theme of “home” for our “22 Homes” project, featuring performances by actors whose contracts with ASF were abruptly cut short by the pandemic. Paired with additional performances from our acting alumni, we have a large offering of content available online.
- Joe Browning, General Manager, Embassy Suites by Hilton: Hilton has partnered with RB, makers of Lysol® & Dettol®*, to help deliver an even cleaner stay for our guests with the creation of the Hilton CleanStay program. Atrium Hospitality, which owns and operates the Embassy Suites Downtown Montgomery, also has its own program called Cleanliness Assured. Building on the already high standards set forth by Hilton, our hotels are disinfecting surfaces with confidence, using EPA-approved hospital-grade disinfectants supplied by Ecolab, a global leader in infection prevention solutions. High touch points like door handles, light switches, thermostats, TV remotes, hangers and hair dryers are getting extra attention. We’re keeping pace in real time with physical distancing requirements and safe food handling guidelines. We’re optimizing our more than 15,000 square feet of event space using the latest technologies. Our professional meeting planners have been providing.
- Stuart Lackey, Owner, Sip-n-Cycle Pedal Cruise: As Alabama’s only cycleboat, we offer mixer and private BYOB party cruises on the Alabama River that load and unload at Riverfront Park. Our tour boats have 12 pedal stations seated around a central bar and room for up to 20 passengers, a captain and first mate. Our mixer cruises have been only going out with a maximum of 15 passengers, and the private cruises have all been one group that are around each other all the time. The captain and crew members wear masks. We have always wiped down and flipped the boats between each cruise.
MBJ asked Dawn Hathcock, Vice President of Destination MGM, to share her insider’s take on the tourism situation.
What were the COVID impacts on tourism? The hospitality industry was one of the most (if not the most) impacted industries as a result of the pandemic. In 2019, tourist expenditures topped $1.1 billion in Montgomery County for the first time ever. We were on track to exceed that number in 2020 until the pandemic shut everything down. Lodgings tax collections from the city and county were down -32.51 percent. Hotel occupancy and demand were down -25 percent from 2019 to 2020. Restaurants and attractions have suffered tremendous losses from revenue to employees. The Montgomery hospitality industry and the Montgomery Chamber’s destination marketing team joined together to promote and market restaurant take-out and delivery services, virtual tours of attractions and the safety measures put into place by all. A safety pledge was adopted to ensure guests and employees felt safe.
What are your thoughts on post-COVID tourism in Montgomery? I feel like travel will come back, I’m just not sure how quickly. There are so many unknowns with COVID-19, so we have to take it one day at a time. There is a pent-up demand, and people want to get out and do things again, but, they want to feel safe too. We also feel there will be a hybrid of in-person and virtual meetings in the conference and\ convention world for a while, and that’s OK. We are optimistic about the future and see the interest in Montgomery as a very positive sign of things to come. We have a number of hotels either under construction or in planning stages, as well as the Whitewater Center that will be a game-changer. There was a buzz about Montgomery before the pandemic, and we feel that excitement coming back. We will be ready to welcome visitors, extend our Southern hospitality and tell our story to them when they come.
The Rosa Parks Museum was just one of Montgomery’s many attractions to take a hard hit during the pandemic. Even after the shutdown was lifted, numbers stayed low, as Donna M. Beisel, Assistant Director of the Rosa Parks Museum, explained in early March 2021. “Since reopening to the public on June 1, 2020, attendance has obviously decreased tremendously. In calendar year 2020, we had more than 72,000 fewer visitors than we had in 2019,” Beisel said. But, like so many other businesses, the museum pivoted to solve the problem. “Because we haven’t had as many in-person guests, we’ve really tried to amplify our social media and online presence. We are now offering virtual tours, which is not something we were doing prior to COVID,” she said.
As the clouds of COVID-19 lift, many in the tourism industry anticipate travel demand roaring back, and Montgomery is ready to pick up where it left off in 2019 with renewed momentum, adding new attractions, hotels and restaurants. And thanks to the strategic planning done by the Chamber’s destination marketing team, the city is paving an intentional path back to tourism prosperity and positioning the city to take an even larger share of visitors than ever before by luring those interested in exploring and experiencing the outdoors as well as those looking to “travel with purpose.”
Talking about new projects and the optimism they’re built on:
- Jud Blount, Vintage Hospitality Group. Inc.: The City Fed Development in downtown Montgomery is anticipated to open in the third quarter of 2021. Within the complex will be Ravello, a fine dining Italian restaurant, featuring an open kitchen, multiple mezzanines and a private cellar for events. City Fed consists of three buildings, which will also house a banquet hall, courtyard and multiple meeting spaces. Our business is slowly growing out of COVID, and I believe tourism to Montgomery will be back soon. As more people are vaccinated and the more consumer confidence comes back, people will travel!
- John Tampa, President, Ascent Hospitality Management Co., LLC: Our Autograph hotel, called Trilogy, opens in early spring 2022 in downtown. It will have 116 rooms, a full seating restaurant, a rooftop bar and restaurant with great city and river views, and on the first floor, a full Starbucks coffee that should open this month. I think it is a phenomenal project, and the history of the building and the location are amazing. I’m hoping it brings together past and present and shows a glimpse of Montgomery’s future too. If you look at Montgomery, it is a resilient city that will always find its way back, and not only are we are moving forward with Trilogy, we also have an additional 290 rooms under permit in two other properties and hope to begin construction on those by the end of this year or in spring 2022.
Talking about going after new kinds of visitors:
- Will O’Connor, River Region Trails, Inc.: We’re developing a network of bicycle and pedestrian greenways, parks and outdoor resources in the River Region and are currently in the midst of master planning a trail network for the City of Montgomery as well as the development of Cypress Nature Park, a proposed natural and educational park in Montgomery. Montgomery has vast potential for outdoor and natural tourism that we haven’t even started to realize. We sit on the banks of a large, beautiful river that could have a thriving paddling community. We have fantastic opportunities for birding, fishing and other natural experiences, and our location on the interstate allows a traveler to make Montgomery a part of a broader trip to experience Alabama and the Southeast.
- Leslie Sanders, Vice President, Southern Division, Alabama Power and Chair of the Montgomery County Community Cooperative District that manages the Montgomery Whitewater Project: The cities and communities coming out of COVID as winners are those who, like our area, have used this lull to think about who they are and what they want to be in the tourism market. Montgomery is attractive for so many reasons. We’ve got EJI and history from A-Z here. But it’s more than that. It’s our people and\ their hospitality. It’s our artistic offerings, from ASF to other cultural treasures. When you blend all that, you’ve got a winning recipe. We used COVID to spice up that recipe, strategically going after the above and new markets, like the outdoor traveler. We have great outdoor opportunities that appeal to all age groups. We’re moving ahead with projects like the Cypress Nature Trail and then the Whitewater project, which includes not just water activities, but ziplines and ropes courses. The City has just gotten a grant to finish bike trails.
The Chamber’s destination marketing team is jump-starting MGM’s tourism recovery with a new campaign.
Montgomery’s always been on a journey, pushing ahead to a brighter future. There’ve been roadblocks, wrong turns and full stops. But in recent years, the city has quickened its pace in its pursuit of a better Montgomery for all and made more determined efforts to share what we’ve learned on our travels with other travelers.
It’s worked. Our powerful story resonates. Just look at the tourism milestones hit in 2019 on page 52.
Now, in the wake of a pandemic-caused yearlong pause in tourism, the Chamber’s destination marketing team has accelerated its efforts to invite the world to, “come to Montgomery. The journey starts here.” The new campaign, aptly named The Journey Starts Here, is attracting visitors and then rolling out the welcome mat, assuring they get the most out of their MGM experience in several key ways: