Tourism Industry Overview
by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay
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After a tumultuous two years, Montgomery’s tourism and hospitality industry is ready for visitors and residents alike to enjoy all it has to offer while its activity underpins the area’s economy.
The South is the epicenter of hospitality, and Montgomery, in the heart of the region, is ground zero for some seriously warm welcomes. But hospitality is more than a friendly vibe; it’s also an industry, and when you operate off that definition, again Montgomery rises to the top.
Combine the hospitality industry with its complementary and companion industry, tourism, and you’ve got a juggernaut of businesses big and small—from meeting spaces, hotels and attractions to mom-and- pop eateries, tour guides and Airbnb owners—all moving in tandem to effectively host conventions, reunions, sports tournaments, individual corporate travelers and families on vacation.
“The tourism and hospitality industry is the heartbeat of a city. Of course, the most obvious positive is the financial impact. Tourism and events are multipliers that generate more spending throughout the city,” said Mindy Hanan, President of the Alabama Restaurant & Hospitality Association. “This in turn creates employment plus income and tax dollars for not only our industry, but city government and other businesses.”
Right now, the hospitality and tourism industry directly employs approximately 10,000 people in the community, and indirectly, approximately 35,000 jobs. In the first quarter alone, the city took in more than $2.8 million in lodgings taxes, a 60 percent increase over first quarter 2021. Visitors add to the city’s coffers with sales and gas taxes too. Every dollar is a big deal and affects everyone in Montgomery, according to Ron Simmons, Chief Officer Destination and Community Development with Experience Montgomery, the Chamber’s tourism arm. “When leisure travelers, convention delegates and sporting groups visit Montgomery, they spend an average of $530 per day per travel party in our city generating more than $1.9 million in revenue through lodging, gas and sales taxes every day. As a result, the average household saves more than $400 per year,” he said.
Yet, the industry’s impact makes a mark on more than jobs and tax revenues alone, as Ashley Jernigan, Experience Montgomery Hospitality and Tourism Consultant explained. “Our data allows us to see a direct correlation of visitors in town for a major event or to experience our attractions with a surge in spending across the city,” she said. “For example, youth sports has had a major economic impact in East Montgomery. We can see how tournaments in town results in an increase in spending in EastChase and other East Montgomery shopping and dining establishments. It is our goal, as the Chamber, to ensure not only that they are staying after the game to dine and shop, but to also visit an attraction. If we get them to stay just one more night, that means even more businesses will reap a financial gain.”
Jernigan stressed how visitors packing our shops, museums and restaurants increases bottom lines but also boots and reinvigorates residents’ impressions of their hometown. “We want to make sure visitors come to Montgomery and enjoy their experience. However, we realize now, more than ever, the residents of Montgomery need to have that same experience,” she said. “We have implemented a new brand called Experience Montgomery, and this brand is for everyone. We want residents to experience the city in ways they may not have before and be proud to talk to their family and friends about why they should come to Montgomery and experience it too.”
It’s clear the tourism and hospitality industry provides benefits that go well beyond delighting visitors; it’s a vital piece of the local economy with positive ripple effects that radiate throughout the Montgomery community. So, it’s good news to see stats showing that despite multiple issues—including some stemming from the pandemic—the industry is surviving and on the verge of thriving, as it was in 2019 (a banner year), once again.
The numbers don’t lie. Existing hotels are filling up, and multiple new properties are being built, with one, the swank Autograph Hotel downtown, scheduled to start taking reservations in 2023. In 2021, travel-related expenditures grew 30 percent, and Montgomery sold more than 1 million room nights. Short-term rental offerings in the city are also on the rise, many enjoying more than 70-percent occupancy year-round. The average trip length has gone up slightly since 2019: from 2.6 to 2.7 days. And the info rolling in for 2022 is already trending above 2021.
A wealth of national media attention, much of it focused on why Montgomery is a “must-visit” city, should ensure this year continues on its upward trajectory. To elevate the experience for this influx of visitors, Experience Montgomery opened a new visitor center, easily visible and accessible on Dexter Avenue in the heart of downtown and aligned with the new Experience Montgomery brand.
While this all paints a pretty picture, there are some bumps in the road to full recovery. “Like many businesses, the hospitality industry has been plagued with a shortage of workers and other COVID-related issues,” said Hanan. “Group travel is very important to Montgomery and hopefully, this year brings that back to normal levels as well.”
Even amid staffing shortages, area restaurants are bringing folks to their tables. Or to their four wheels—the food truck scene is picking up speed again. Jud Blount, Owner of Vintage Hospitality Group, noted that fine dining is making a comeback as well. He should know; VHG is the team behind upscale stalwart Vintage Year (and cozy, chic coffee shop/lunch spot Vintage Café) and will welcome diners to its highly anticipated new eatery Ravello soon. With a focus on coastal Italian cuisine and space galore, all housed inside VHG’s ambitious and thoughtful reinvention of downtown’s old City Federal Bank building, it’s already wowing tourists and residents.
And Hanan points to the city’s key spot in Alabama’s overall image and offerings for tourists. “The city offers many nice hotel options across the city, and the city is an excellent, centralized location for organizations to host events such as conventions and trade shows. Montgomery is known for its historical and cultural landmarks and has done a phenomenal job of honoring and capitalizing on this history,” she said. “Many travelers pass through Montgomery, and attractions like Montgomery Whitewater will definitely help bring new life to an area that is literally the gateway to our city for visitors headed south. Montgomery just has so much to offer; the possibilities are endless.”
“The tourism and hospitality industry is the heartbeat of a city. Of course, the most obvious positive is the financial impact. Tourism and events are multipliers that generate more spending throughout the city."- Mindy Hanan, President of the Alabama Restaurant & Hospitality Association
AS OWNER OF VINTAGE HOSPITALITY GROUP (WHICH OWNS VINTAGE YEAR, VINTAGE CAFÉ, RAVELLO AND RED BLUFF BAR AT THE SILOS), JUD BLOUNT has an insider’s view of the interplay between the two segments of the tourism and hospitality industry and shares his thoughts on where the industry stands and where it’s headed.
What impact does the tourism and hospitality industry have on the city? Tourism is one of the largest drivers for the hospitality industry, so the two aspects work hand and hand. The more tourism, the greater the benefit for the hospitality industry, and as a hospitality business, we have the responsibility to give the best experiences possible and help generate positive visits that encourage additional tourism.
What’s the current state of our tourism and hospitality industry? We are seeing it come back stronger each month. Our neighborhood restaurants Vintage Café and Vintage Year have seen a consistent growth in visits from tourists exploring the city.
What’s on the horizon for the industry? Elevated dining, I believe, is the next chapter for Montgomery. At one time, the city had multiple historic fine-dining restaurants and is on the path, with new downtown developments, to bring back fine dining.
How are labor shortages affecting the restaurant industry and what is the solution? The restaurant and hospitality industry has been affected by the labor shortage with some having to close due to the lack of employees. We are blessed to be fully staffed and hiring for our future growth. I don’t know the answers as far as a solution, but believe it is time for our country to get back to work.
Approximately what percentage of VHG restaurants’ diners are tourists? Vintage Year and Vintage Café, both located in Old Cloverdale, used to have a 75/25 split with locals being the majority. But over the last few years, and in particular the last few months, those numbers are getting closer to a 60/40 and even a 50/50 split.
What would enhance Montgomery’s culinary scene? More local restaurants! Perhaps additional breweries and distilleries as well. We need additional diverse options throughout the city.
Why include short-term rentals as part of the Grove Court project that VHG is working on? We are still planning on some Airbnb units for the Grove Court property. This is an underserved area in the city located just blocks from the EJI Memorial. There is a high demand for Airbnbs right now, and we anticipate that growth to remain steady with the growth in tourism.
TOP QUESTION: Why are restaurants key elements of tourism? Everyone must eat. People want good food when they travel. Dining is truly one of the most important parts of traveling, as it gives you insight into the history and cultural foundation of a community. Options are crucial for longer visits. We need a diverse food scene, from classic Southern to fine dining, and people want to support local restaurants. It benefits the locals to have options too. Restaurants bring communities together. They are where we celebrate special occasions and spend quality time together, so whether you are a tourist or a local, restaurants are an important part of your daily life and your travels.
More to Love - Vintage Hospitality Group owner Jud Blount believes Montgomery needs more diverse options for dining and drinking, so his company is doing its part, opening Ravello restaurant downtown and Red Bluff Bar at the Silos in Montgomery’s waterside Riverfront Park in mid-May.
CRAIG HILLYARD, GENERAL MANAGER OF THE RENAISSANCE MONTGOMERY HOTEL & SPA AT THE CONVENTION CENTER, explains how his property weathered the pandemic storm and provides some valuable hotel intel.
What impact does the tourism and hospitality industry have on the city? Tourism is a huge economic driver for the area. It produces a lot of taxes, both sales taxes and bed taxes from hotels.
What’s the current state of the local tourism and hospitality industry? Strong. The EJI Memorial has had the most significant impact on tourism I’ve seen in the eight years I’ve been here. And we are continuing to add attractions and amenities that will bring more tourism, like Whitewater. Which is key. I hope we keep reinvesting the money tourism brings into the efforts that bring even more tourism to the market. And we are capitalizing on our appeal, the amazing history that happened only here, with the big events being centered on Civil Rights. There continues to be huge interest in that around the country and world, and it is just smart that we are promoting that. Our predictions for what’s next: We had two stellar years in our industry in 2018 and 2019, and I think we have a five-year recovery to get back there. Our hotel may be back by 2023, but it will probably be 2024.
Have labor shortages been a challenge for your property? Yes. It’s probably the No. 1 issue that the hospitality industry is facing, and not just here, but nationwide. It’s prompted us to bring in labor from other countries and use a significant amount of outsourced labor, which is another challenge due to the lack of skilled workers in the outsource segment. I’m not sure where we’d be right now if we had not pursued the idea of using international labor. It hasn’t solved all our labor shortage issues, but it is keeping this property moving forward in a positive direction. Looking ahead, even as we move out of the pandemic [which caused the low applicant flow leading to the shortage], using labor from outside our market might be the new normal. But I hope it is not; it is cost prohibitive. Those workers demand a higher hourly rate because we work through brokers, who have to make their money as well, so there is a mark-up of sorts. We want to go back to using regional resources and local workforce, but I’m not sure that will happen quickly.
What are your thoughts on solutions to these issues? As we continuing to develop initiatives to make Montgomery more of a destination city, like the attractions I talk about above, these efforts will also bring more folks here to live and increase our workforce pool. But we also must continue to improve our public education here. And that’s not imperative for our industry alone; that’s for all industry.
How did your property handle the pandemic? We moved through several different stages in the pandemic, doing everything we needed to do to keep workers and guests safe. In the darkest days, we had all individual portions of food for receptions and such, and that was very cost prohibitive, but we’ve been able to move away from that now. We do still ask our associates to wear masks while in the building, and that’s not due to any government mandate; that is what we choose to do because it is what our customers have told us they want. And that’s really where we are now. We will do whatever the customer wants. For groups, that’s our first question. What do you want us to do in terms of COVID? How many people do you want at a banquet table? If they want four at a 10-top, that’s fine. It’s crucial that we meet their needs. We are a group convention hotel, so we’ve got to think beyond the individual traveler. We are still implementing all the heightened sanitation measures too. We went from empty spaces to this week, we are nearly sold out every night. We are looking more like pre-pandemic times with exception of masks and sanitizer everywhere.
But all of these measures will likely phase out at some point. It will be interesting to see how housekeeping plays out long term. Due to both the labor shortage and pandemic concerns, now to this day, we are not offering daily housekeeping, and for a hotel of our luxury level, that is not how it used to be. So, we’ll see if we keep that in place or if we go back to servicing every room every day.
TOP QUESTION: What are the big trends in the hotel industry? Transient business is recovering nicely — that’s your leisure and individual biz traveler. We’re not back to pre-pandemic occupancies but getting closer. What has not recovered yet is the group business. Frequency of groups is recovering, but what is still hurting is attendance. We are seeing news come out and then that pushes declining attendance as you get closer to the event. That’s leading to some frustration with groups as they are all contracted, and if they fall below the threshold of what they have committed to, the group is responsible for that. We’re having to do a lot of case-by-case negotiations with groups on this.
Experience Montgomery is the Chamber’s team that’s dedicated to promoting tourism (both groups and individuals) and serving visitors. It’s led by Ron Simmons, Chief Officer Destination and Community Development, and as a Destination Marketing Organization, it has two main departments:
- A Convention Sales team that’s responsible for bringing large conventions and conferences to Montgomery. They pitch Montgomery to the world, constantly travelling to tradeshows, making sales calls and connecting with the area hotels, so they can effectively sell Montgomery to meeting and event planners. “The tradeshows are like speed dating,” said Jernigan. “At any given show, they have 30-40 appointments and sometimes as little as four minutes to wow these planners into learning more about bringing their convention or conference to Montgomery.” Nationwide, this segment of the tourism industry has taken a big hit due to the pandemic, but Experience Montgomery is bucking that trend, picking up major bookings for 2022 through 2025.
- A Visitor Experience team, led by Ashley Jernigan, Hospitality & Tourism Consultant, that’s responsible for marketing, communications, convention and event servicing and the Visitor Center. This team develops and promotes the brand for the city, implements marketing strategies heavily focused on the 300-mile drive market, works with the sales team to provide servicing and visitor bags for all upcoming major events and conventions, and connects with local industry partners to pitch stories to journalists writing for media outlets all over world. “Our Visitor Experience team is directly responsible for guiding a person throughout the city whether they are right at the Visitor Center speaking with one of our ambassadors or looking online at 2 a.m.,” Jernigan said.
Experience Montgomery is working hard to make sure every visitor to the city has a positive, meaningful experience, one they’ll share with others. Ashley Jernigan outlined the recent projects and initiatives designed to aid, welcome, engage and downright thrill the folks coming to check out our city.
A greater downtown wayfinding trail connecting traditional “downtown” activity to Centennial Hill, Old Alabama Town, Historic Five Points and even the Mooseum. This will allow our industry partners better access to the visitor and the resident. The trail will have QR Codes on the sidewalk every half mile allowing people to scan to learn which attractions, nightlife, retail and dining are within walking distance. We will also direct them to other locations outside the greater downtown area that match their interests.
An in-person “360 degree” tour from The Visitor Center, which recently relocated from Union Station to One Court Square on Dexter Avenue. Residents with visitors in town can bring them to the Visitor Center at a specified time, and we will walk them around the fountain and share all they can learn, see, eat and shop in the area. We will show them how to use the wayfinding trail and give them materials about tours, attractions, dining and shopping across the entire city. This can even be great as a “refresher course” for residents.
A new and improved website that will truly highlight every facet of Montgomery is being developed. It will break Montgomery down into hot topics: Events, Dining, Accommodations and Attractions. See for yourself at exploremgm.com.
The recently launched “Journey Starts Here” campaign. This campaign highlights Montgomery as the place where some of the most iconic journeys in history began, from the spot where the telegram starting the Civil War was sent to the place where the spark that ignited the Modern Civil Rights Movement was struck. This continues today, with the Journey to Truth and Reconciliation started by the Legacy Museum, Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Mothers of Gynecology Monument.
A Civil Rights Audio Tour. We’ve re-released a civil rights audio tour that was developed years ago and connected it into the Journey Starts Here campaign. QR codes on poles around the city will teach visitors what happened at these key spots during the civil rights movement. We are also streaming these 19 audio tracks, so anyone can learn about what happened here and why Montgomery is called the Civil Rights Capital of the Nation.
What do you see as the main draw bringing more visitors to the city? For the downtown market, Civil Rights continues to be a huge draw for business and leisure travelers. The Staybridge product is unique in that we offer tremendous amenities and excellent customer service in a more intimate, casual atmosphere that sets us apart from our competition. - Sarita Gullette-Smith General Manager, Staybridge Suites Montgomery-Downtown
What is your business doing to address and respond to the challenges facing the Montgomery tourism industry? My restaurants Central and Tower Taproom, as well as my cocktail lounge, Lower Lounge, are all located in downtown Montgomery. The pandemic significantly reduced business and recreational travel to our downtown area, which in turn impacted our businesses tremendously. Now that travel restrictions have been lifted and people are feeling more comfortable traveling, we have seen an increase. We have had to adjust our hours of operation to accommodate this increase in activity, but we’re still not back to normal operating hours pre-pandemic.
Our other challenge has been the labor shortage. Finding qualified, skilled employees has been difficult, which also impacts our ability to add additional days of service. Even with these challenges, I am optimistic that the future of tourism in Montgomery is bright. Montgomery’s rich history provides plenty of reasons for tourists to visit, and now with the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, we have seen a huge increase in visitors to our city. - Jake Kyser Kyser Property Management Co., Inc.
“Tourism is economic development. Montgomery’s tourism impacts approximately 35,000 jobs within and around the city of Montgomery. When leisure travelers, convention delegates and sporting groups visit Montgomery, they spend an average of $530 per day per travel party in our city—generating more than $1.9 million in revenue through lodging, gas and sales taxes every day. As a result, the average household saves more than $400 per year.” – Ron Simmons, Chief Officer Destination and Community Development, Experience Montgomery
Montgomery is the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement and its epicenter, meaning the city has a wealth of sites and attractions that provide insight into this significant period of our history. So too do nearby Selma and Tuskegee. A recently developed “all in one” attraction passport makes it easy and affordable for visitors to see more and spend less by purchasing a single ticket for multiple experiences. It’s simple to get too: Just visit gonow.alabama.travel, buy your ticket, and it’s then texted or emailed to your phone, ready for you to show when you arrive at the included attractions, museums and more.
Short-term rental (STR) properties (like AIRBNB and VRBO) continue to gain market share globally and here at home; there are currently more than 300-plus AIRBNB properties available in Montgomery. Cassandra Crosby, owner of CCI Premier ReDesign and Staging, is one of the capital city’s pioneers in this sector, and she walked MBJ through how she got into the short-term rental biz, and what she sees on the horizon for this piece of the tourism pie.
MBJ: How many STR properties do you own (or manage) in Montgomery?
CC: My company CCI owns and/or operates 15 short term rental properties that include AIRBNB and VRBO. We just added five more, expanding in the metro Atlanta area.
What got you into it?
CC: I purchased a property in the heart of downtown when there wasn’t much here in 2008. It was initially for our office space, which was fine for a couple of years, but since we were zoned for residential and commercial, I decided to be a landlord and transformed the space into two lofts, which was just beginning to happen but was still not popular yet. That was fine and fun but not as financially sound or as lucrative as I wanted. So, in 2014, I became one of Montgomery’s first Airbnb hosts. The first year I had maybe three bookings; the second year, about 10 or so; the third year, I had 20. Then the EJI memorial happened, and the rest is bookings history. I’m now an AIRBNB Superhost and an AIRBNB Ambassador.
What does it mean to be an Ambassador?
CC: It’s so cool because I am afforded unlimited resources through AIRBNB to introduce others to the platform. My company now offers an array of services, from assisting you with locating a property, showing you how to start your AIRBNB business and providing styling, turnover and management services. We are exploring the idea of our own turnover cleaning company catering to short-term rentals, too.
What is trending in the STR space right now?
CC: Offering an experience. We offer concierge and private car service.
How are STR properties faring in relation to traditional hotels?
CC: Compared to hotels, AIRBNB, as I mentioned, is about experiences. Feeling the pulse of the city, meeting the people and hearing our stories, having a local connection, that’s all part of it. AIRBNB’s platform offers what are called AIRBNB experiences, that partners with locals and opens the door for them to come into the spaces and share their services, whether it’s a cooking or painting class, yoga, dance, tours, etc., and this is something hotels are missing out on. Again, the experiences are making the difference. Also, many times, if you’re traveling with four or more, it’s more economical when you can share a home with all the amenities, plus get ultimate privacy.
Are they taking over the accommodations market?
CC: I would not say STRs are taking over the market because hotels will always have their place. I still personally sometimes use hotels. Montgomery’s STRs are growing, and just like hotels, there is no competition. I tell my other AIRBNB hosts to make their space the best it can be, and people will come. We are always going to choose what we like, and there’s something for everyone, be it The Renaissance or a home tucked away in one of Montgomery’s many amazing neighborhoods.
5-STAR NEED TO KNOW - Cassandra Crosby, an owner of multiple short-term rental (STR) properties in Montgomery, addressed the pushback that some STR owners/hosts get from locals, stressing that it often stems from a lack of knowledge. “Many times, when locals don’t understand AIRBNB and how it works, they tend to be afraid and maybe against the concept,” she said. “But AIRBNB has a safety policy in place where each user has to be over 21 with identification and credit card payments only. Hosts are responsible for vetting their guests, making sure they are a good fit, unlike hotels. CCI personally has created an agreement that is catered to our locations that all my guests have to sign before entering the properties. One of the many rules in this agreement is no parties, ever.”
As the city’s hospitality industry expands and evolves, one thing doesn’t change: A vibrant diverse culinary scene is crucial to attracting visitors. Mindy Hanan, President of the Alabama Restaurant & Hospitality Association, elaborated. “Alabama is a state well on its way to being known as a ‘foodie’ destination. In recent years, many cities across the state, including Montgomery, have been mentioned on numerous ‘best of’ lists on a national level,” she said.
She stressed the need to keep this going and growing as part of the appeal to visitors. Hanan pointed to recent honors earned by two Montgomery restaurants. “In 2021, Vintage Hospitality Group’s proprietor Jud Blount was named Restaurateur of the Year, and The Lower Lounge’s head bartender Nick Ware was named 2021 Bartender of the Year in the Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Association’s Stars of the Industry Awards,” she said.
Here’s a taste of what’s new and notable in the Montgomery dining and nightlife scene.
- 23 Court Luxury Cigar Lounge opened in late 2021 next to historic Court Square Fountain and offers premium cigars and fine spirits.
- Café Verde at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts serves up pretty park views alongside dishes made with fresh, seasonal ingredients and inspired by the world’s diverse food and culture with a nod to the South’s traditions.
- Vintage Hospitality’s Red Bluff Riverfront Outdoor Bar. Opening this month, this local watering hole is perched atop the historic high ground overlooking the scenic Alabama River and features bar food and signature cocktails like the Goat Island Blood Orange Margarita and the Lake Famous Bushwhacker.
- Vintage Hospitality’s Ravello. Inside the restored City Fed development at 36 and 46 Commerce Street in downtown Montgomery, this restaurant, also opening this month, features simple and thoughtful dishes rooted in the flavors of Italy’s Amalfi Coast.
- Hilltop Public House. On the edge of the city’s oldest residential neighborhood overlooking downtown, this casual spot offers used bikes and tune-ups and serves up coffee, bagels and pastries during the day as well as craft beer and cocktails at night.