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Roll Tourism Roll: How Alabama is Handling Tourism Amidst COVID-19

Published on April 21, 2021 at 10:00 p.m. 
by Mattie Naman.

Alabama is home to some of the United States’ greatest treasures such as college football, Mardi Gras, the beach and NASA’s U.S. Space & Rocket Center. Tourists travel far and wide to experience all that the great state of Alabama has to offer.

It comes as no surprise that tourism has declined since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020. The state of Alabama was a victim of this decline, and its individual cities and towns had to come up with new ways to keep their tourism industry alive.

Although the whole state was impacted by the tourism downturn, the cities of Huntsville and Tuscaloosa were creative in their efforts to keep tourism running.

Tuscaloosa, home to none other than the Alabama Crimson Tide, seems to be centered around The University of Alabama. So, when all of its students went home for lockdown, the city had to pick up the pieces.

Stan Adams, director of sports for the Tuscaloosa Sports and Tourism Center, explained that Tuscaloosa is more than just Alabama football. His department has been the driving force behind bringing tourism back amidst COVID-19.

Adams said that although it may come as a surprise to many, Tuscaloosa was able to host many outdoor sporting events throughout the COVID-19 pandemic because it was one of the few cities that was open to doing so.

Photo from Library of Congress

The city of Tuscaloosa lost the chance to host some of its premier sporting events such as the USA Duathalon’s National Championship, but Adams explained how Tuscaloosa still prevailed. “As soon as June 15 came, when I was given the green light to start hosting events again, we hit the ground running in planning events,” said Adams.

Adams claimed that the numbers of sporting events actually soared because the city’s outdoor facilities became a necessity for sporting event needs. “Our biggest campaign was letting people know, ‘Hey, we’re still here guys,’ and getting people booking sporting events and getting people in hotels,” said Adams.

The Director of Tourism for Tuscaloosa Sports and Tourism Center, Jasmine Rainey, dove a little deeper into what tourism has looked like in Tuscaloosa since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Rainey explained that “for the calendar year of 2020, [the city’s] hotel occupancy was down almost 25%.”

Rainey noted that community development has been the biggest focus since the pandemic started.

She said that Tuscaloosa has been marketing its outdoor activities and to “the three-to-five-hour driving market.” Rainey said that they want tourists to know there is still a safe way to travel and that they can come to enjoy all that Tuscaloosa has to offer.

When it comes to events, 2020 brought many cancellations with the pandemic. Rainey explained that the city of Tuscaloosa is now “approaching the tail-end of that” and has started slowly having events again. “We just recently hosted our half-marathon, which was very successful,” said Rainey. “All of our events are scheduled to return this year, which will be great for the city,” she added.

Rainey hit home on the fact that although tourism is thought to be about bringing people into the city, the tourism industry must first think about its locals. “If you are educating the people who live here about all of the great things to do in Tuscaloosa, they can be your advocates for the city,” said Rainey.

Rainey hopes that people from all walks of life, both residents and potential visitors, are educated about what Tuscaloosa has to offer as a vibrant city with nightlife, outdoor activities, sports and rich history.

Another Alabama favorite, the rocket city of Huntsville, faced its own struggles amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kristen Pepper, marketing director for the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau, gave insight on what the tourism industry has looked like during this difficult year.

Pepper believes that the city is on “the road to recovery, with many people receiving the vaccine” with the hope that things will start getting back to normal. “Road trips are making a comeback faster than any other type of travel, so we are seeing a lot of those numbers go up,” said Pepper.

Pepper explained that the biggest challenge that Huntsville has faced, which is unique to its market, is the decline of government travel. She said that government “was one of the first sectors to stop traveling.” Pepper noted that this market is Huntsville’s “bread and butter,” so this shutdown hurt the city a great deal.

Photo by Alex Robinson on Unsplash

The city of Huntsville is a huge driving market, so most of its tourism comes from conventions and conferences. Some of Huntsville’s largest conferences were scheduled for March 2020; when the global pandemic was announced in mid-March, the city “lost millions of dollars in a matter of hours” due to cancellations, according to Pepper.

Although this part of its industry took a big hit, they are making a comeback by installing safety protocols and figuring out new ways to run things.

Just as the city of Tuscaloosa did, the city of Huntsville survived by connecting with its locals. The locals were the ones keeping restaurants and small businesses open by buying gift cards and ordering takeout. “Our locals are not usually our primary audience, but that quickly changed,” said Pepper.

Pepper explained that as businesses start opening up, the city is slowly widening the radius from just locals to places three-to-five hours away, such as Birmingham, Alabama, and Nashville, Tennessee. “We will slowly open the radius more as things improve,” said Pepper.

“Something important to think about from a PR perspective is who your stakeholders would be in a crisis,” said Pepper. Pepper said that you need to have already cultivated those relationships with your locals in a crisis.

During this time, Huntsville needed its locals more than ever to support its small businesses; the city’s prior efforts to form those relationships paid off, Pepper said.

Keep on Rolling
Tuscaloosa and Huntsville have faced many challenges throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but they can definitely agree on one thing: Tourism begins at home.

If a city wants to keep on rolling through a crisis it needs to cultivate meaningful relationships with its locals.

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