On May 10, more than 200 attendees at Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism’s (CVB) 2016 Tourism Summit learned that in 2015, Baldwin County served 6.1 million guests leaving behind $3.9 billion in travel-related expenditures, supporting 48,243 travel-related jobs and $1.3 billion in wages and salaries.

Herb Malone, president and CEO of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, presents to more than 200 attendees at the organization’s 2016 Tourism Summit at Erie Meyer Civic Center in Gulf Shores May 10. (Photo: Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism)

Herb Malone, president and CEO of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, presents to more than 200 attendees at the organization’s 2016 Tourism Summit at Erie Meyer Civic Center in Gulf Shores May 10. (Photo: Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism)

In Gulf Shores and Orange Beach alone, taxable lodging revenue was up 13.6 percent from 2014 with $432 million, and taxable retail sales were up 8.8 percent with $791 million.

“Through March of this year, lodging is up 17.4 percent, and retail sales are up 9.5 percent,” added Herb Malone, president and CEO of the CVB. “As we enter peak season, we commend our beach cities and tourism industry partners on helping us tell our destination’s story year after year.”

Malone identified the numerous tourism businesses populating the island, including six hotels and two condominiums under construction, adding 562 units and 205,000 room nights to the current inventory. Additionally, the CVB leader emphasized excitement for the Gulf State Park enhancement project, major event contracts and a successful spring for the Leave Only Footprints campaign.

“The goal of the Gulf State Park project is to enhance the area’s natural environment while making our destination nationally if not internationally known,” said Malone. “On another sustainable tourism note, Leave Only Footprints went surprisingly well in the spring. I want to congratulate our cities on how they handled spring break for the safety of the students who were here and all those around them.”

Regarding major event contracts, the inaugural NCAA National Collegiate Beach Volleyball Championship held May 6-8 was well-received as millions caught a glimpse of Alabama’s beach destination on live national television. Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission’s contract with the NCAA extends through the 2017 championship.

Another key event this year is the World Food Championships Nov. 8-15 at The Wharf in Orange Beach, where more than 1,110 competitors on over 340 teams from around the world will compete in various categories for a chance at winning a share of $350,000.

Kay Maghan, the CVB’s public relations manager, spoke to the local business community about the importance of hosting travel media to give a third-party endorsement of Alabama’s beaches through written and visual storytelling.

“When you host media for an individual or group press trip, you build relationships and see repeated and lasting results,” said Maghan. “When journalists and bloggers experience the destination, industry partners have the opportunity to gain loyal brand ambassadors.”

Shelley Piraino, the bureau’s digital marketing manager, shared how the organization brings personality to the destination through local “characters” via social media.

“We decided we needed a better way to highlight our coastal characters,” said Piraino. “Through our Instagram Celebrity Takeovers, tourism businesses are able to tell their story visually.”

Echoing the CVB’s sentiment of the importance of storytelling and encouraging experiential travel, keynote speaker Tony Bodoh of Tony Bodoh International shared about his company’s heartbeat – transforming customer experiences.

Bodoh explained “the quality of the question determines the quality of the experience” when interacting with customers. For example, a server at a restaurant should ask, “do you have any questions about the locally-grown produce or fresh Gulf seafood on the menu?” rather than simply “do you have any questions about the menu?”

Expressing the power of listening and letting people know they are being heard, Bodoh encouraged the audience to “leverage experiences your customers are already having in your marketing” because customer feedback is the greatest marketing tool.

In closing, Alabama Tourism Department Director Lee Sentell brought the impact of tourism full circle noting taxes that travelers paid saved Alabama families $425 in state taxes in 2015. He also thanked the CVB for its part in promoting the state.

“The level of expertise and professionalism at this CVB is astonishing,” said Sentell. “This kind of consistency and quality is not being duplicated anywhere. You give people memories. You make them happy.”