The Dakotas Alabama Club recently held its final meeting of the year in Orange Beach. As many as 75 people count themselves as members, which is one of several state snowbird groups in the area.
Like many avian species, every year the flock moves south, migrating toward warmer temperatures as their homeland freezes over. In coastal Alabama they find open water still in its liquid form, food options aplenty and ample lodging in a destination typically catered toward spring and summer crowds.
They are snowbirds, secure retirees from the opposite end of the Interstate 65 corridor, but also from the Northeast and deep in the Midwest. They typically arrive by December, but as lodging rates rise when spring break draws near, they migrate back to where they came from, and many return winter after winter.
“Specifically for me, it’s all of the wonderful things there are to do here,” said Joyce Anderson, who is spending her 10th winter in Baldwin County after being first introduced to the area by friends in 2009. “Whether you’re a history buff, whether you golf or you’re a runner or a biker, if you just enjoy being on the beach, if you’re a fisherman. There’s just a lot of variety of things to do, and I think as our retirees are healthier and living longer. They find this a nice place to be.”
Anderson is the president of Alabama’s North and South Dakota Snowbird Club, a group of anywhere from 65 to 75 snowbirds whose permanent homes are on either side of the Missouri River crossing the Dakotas. On Tuesday, they gathered for their final breakfast together at Luna’s Eat & Drinks in Orange Beach, before many began to pack up and head back north.
It’s been a relatively mild winter in her hometown of Sioux Falls this year, Anderson said, but it typically gets “a lot of snow” and at least once last December, temperatures there fell to 45 degrees below zero, including the wind-chill factor.
“It’s definitely more preferable to be at a condo on the beach,” she said.
Similarly, Chris Hedlund and her husband, Steve, make the annual trek from Iowa City, Iowa. She is the president of the Iowa-Alabama Gulf Coast Snowbirds Club, and when she was initially reached by phone last week, she was in the middle of a round of golf at Fairhope’s Rock Creek Golf Club.
Afterward, she disclosed she and her husband had been snowbirds for 10 years, staying at the same unit in the Caribe Resort in Orange Beach every year. The couple, who love the outdoors and are avid golfers, “look for a way to escape the cold winters.”
While they may escape the weather temporarily, they stay close to family, friends and news back home. They return for family gatherings during the holidays, but watch the bulk of the Big 10 basketball season from afar. They participated in the Iowa caucuses with absentee ballots or early voting, but were not subjected to all the related campaigning, canvassing and stump speeches.
“It’s nice to get away from the barrage of TV ads during the caucuses, but this year there are a lot of them on TV down here, too,” she said.
The Iowa club counts around 500 members minimum, Hedlund said, and has shown growth over the years they’ve participated. Coastal Alabama has grown along with them.
“It’s gotten a lot busier around here. We used to come down and it was pretty quiet and the traffic wasn’t too bad, and now there is a lot of traffic and everything is busier,” she said. “We kind of joke and just say we don’t want to tell any more people to come down because it’s getting too popular.”
Snowbirds also play tennis and pickleball, join in other physical activities at local recreation centers, organize and participate in special events and artistic pursuits, and dine together or individually in local restaurants.
At the Dakotas club breakfast Tuesday, attendees were treated to a selection of songs from the Sweet Harmony Chorus, a group of women from Indiana, Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Maine, New York and Ohio who sing barbershop acapella music. The chorus hosts an organizational meeting every December and practices every Monday while performing several times before the season ends and they go their separate ways.
Dollars and cents
Herb Malone, president and CEO of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism (GSOBT), said snowbirds are a big piece of the statewide tourism pie, and they often fill an otherwise steep decline in coastal accommodations bookings during the off-season.
“We have seen steady growth with our winter visitors over the last several years as more snowbirds become aware of our area,” he said. “It is still a market that we see a lot of growth potential with. By continuing to increase the number of winter guests, we help increase the business to our area restaurants and attractions and position Gulf Shores and Orange Beach as a true year-round vacation destination.”
According to a GSOBT study published last May, the average person spent $111 per night, with average travel parties spending $2,310 per trip in the winter months. Only about four in 10 winter traveling parties included children, while 81 percent traveled with a spouse or partner. The average household income among winter guests is $130,635.
A survey of people who cycled through the visitor’s center last year found 54 percent of first-timers said they were “very likely” to return within a year, while 91 percent of repeat visitors said it would remain their first choice for a winter destination.
According to preliminary data for 2020, it’s a banner year. Through January, winter occupancy rates were up 10 percent over the same three months of 2019 and up 17 percent since 2017. But prices are also increasing. From an average daily rate of $65.67 in 2017, visitors this year have paid an average of $75. In the same period, revenues per unit have increased from $30.67 per night to $34.67.
Indeed, those who first visited a decade ago arrived on the heels of an economic recession and BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Today, there are more full-time residents, tourism has exceeded its pre-2010 levels and the economy is stronger than it has been in years.
In a letter last year, Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon recognized that growth, and said snowbirds were vital to his city’s annual economy.
“Our winter visitors to the beach, called snowbirds, arrive in earnest after the holidays and generally stay between Jan. 1 and mid-March,” he wrote. “It is during this time when 60 percent of Orange Beach’s 9,900 accommodation units are occupied, ballooning our 6,000 population to upwards of 30,000. In short, we become a much larger city than most people realize even during the ‘off’ season. At the height of the summer season in July, Orange Beach becomes the state’s fifth largest city, and even during the winter months we’re in the top 20.”
Dana Pagador of the Perdido Key Chamber of Commerce reported that occupancy rates for both hotels and real estate management firms have reflected an increase this winter.
“In my discussion with local business owners, the winter guest demographic plays an imperative role in their survival throughout the winter months,” she said. “In our efforts from a chamber standpoint, they are a vital piece in the larger puzzle to help aid in our community’s goal of breaking the seasonality barrier most coastal communities face. When a community has a robust winter demographic, it helps businesses retain a qualified workforce throughout the entire year versus seasonal hiring keeping a stable staff who live and work in the communities they serve.”
Hedlund said the local hospitality is both recognized and appreciated, and it’s one of the top factors in their considerations to return.
“In general the people of this area make us feel so welcome and they are so happy we are here,” she said. “They make us feel like we are part of the community and I’ve been told many times that without us, they would not be able to keep the doors open or their employees employed and they really make us feel like we are an important part of their lives.”
“It takes a group effort to retain the winter guests who have been staying in the Perdido community for decades as well as attract others who are now discovering our unique area,” she said. “With events like Welcome Wednesday hosted by the Flora-Bama, our Snowbird Hootenannys organized by the chamber, and other guest events hosted by various vacation rental companies and restaurants, we can provide not only a beautiful location to visit but also one with fun and excitement for all to enjoy.”
Stay and play
Lena and Jeff Cooley manage the 173-site Island Retreat RV Park in Gulf Shores, and said many of their guests over the past few months have hailed from Michigan, Winsconsin, Ohio, New Jersey and New York.
“We’re completely full and snowbirds just love our place,” Jeff said. “We’re owned by very receptive and responsive people from Pensacola, and our whole thing is if it wasn’t for snowbirds coming to this area, a lot of us would be out of a job.”
Many of the snowbird clubs also organize charitable fundraisers and volunteer opportunities to give back to the communities they call their second homes. The Dakotas club has been a beneficiary to the Christian Service Center in Gulf Shores and The Snook Foundation of Foley, donating time, nonperishable food items and cash to the organizations. The Pennsylvania club hosts a sausage festival, pancake breakfasts, trivia nights and a low-country boil to raise funds for local charities.
Just this year, different snowbird groups granted the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo $6,500; three fire departments on Pleasure Island were awarded a total of $2,400; a $1,000 scholarship was provided to a high school senior; and $1,800 was awarded to Baldwin County’s Angel Tree project.
“It may not be much, but it’s something that brings us together, something to say ‘thank you’ and we enjoy doing it,” Anderson said.
Malone said that kind of charity can make some snowbirds even more connected to the community, leading some to find permanent homes in coastal Alabama.
“We are seeing winter visitors transitioning to property owners,” he said. “They have come here for a few winters and fall in love with the area, so they buy their retirement home or condo here. We are very blessed that our winter visitors really become engaged in the local community and feel like Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are their winter hometowns.”
Anderson said the growth and affordability has certainly been a consideration in their annual plans to return, but couldn’t say if there was a ceiling that would make it less attractive.
“It’s been a good price point for a lot of us seniors,” she said. “I know it is getting to be a little bit more expensive and maybe more popular, which, for those of us who have been coming for many years, that’s not always the best. Traffic is crazier and crowds, too, but we do love it here. There’s definitely a lot of eating opportunities as well so the restaurants are plentiful generally and there’s not really very long lines anywhere. It’s still a small town in a lot of ways and I find that I run into people that I’ve met. So, I really, really appreciate that, as well as it gives more of a small town feel versus a big city feel and I love it.”
John Mullen contributed to this story.
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