Beth Gendler has worked on tourism in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach for 21 years. In 2021, she was appointed president and CEO of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, the tourism agency for the two beach towns.
Following the coronavirus pandemic, tourism in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach skyrocketed to new highs. In 2021, eight million people visited the Alabama Gulf Coast, according to the city of Gulf Shores website. Here, Gendler discusses how tourism revenue is keeping up with the record-breaking pace, and how the influx of tourists impacts south Baldwin County.
Questions and answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.
We’re still in the peak season of tourism in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. But we’re past the Fourth of July, really the last holiday we have left is Labor Day. How are things going? How has tourism looked this season?
Surprisingly, well. I will tell you, I think that summer has turned out better than we really anticipated. May was a little down for us, and part of that is we didn’t have a large track event that we have hosted in the past…So that that really hit us in May. Hangout Music Festival was back, but it was maybe not as highly attended as it has been in the past. It was all really just the economy, and we looked at June and July earlier on in the year, because we have forward-looking data which showed us, “Okay, we’ve got to really, really work on some things.”
I challenged our marketing team to get prospective travelers, people who are still looking, still debating whether their salaries are going to be good, their jobs are secure, the inflation isn’t going to be atrocious, that are still considering travel, to get them to our websites and our industry partners to see what was available. And the team came up with a great campaign, “book today, beach tomorrow.” We are very much a drive destination, so you truly can book today and be at the beach tomorrow. I think that campaign, along with some creativity with our industry partners, changing arrival-departure patterns, didn’t stick to the seven-day minimum, they were much more flexible with people’s travel plans…
Honestly, I think all of that together really shored up our summer. June and July are as close to even as last year as we could possibly be. That is really, really encouraging. Because those are the two peak months, June and July. And from all I see from our data, it really looks like we were even with last year, and I think in anybody’s minds’ eye, that is a win. Because last year was our best year ever, ever, ever. And the year before that was our best year ever, ever, ever. And 2019, before COVID, was our best year ever. So we’re maintaining record-breaking years. When I mean record breaking years, 2021 was up 48% over 2020, which was only down 7% to a record-breaking year, 2019. And then 2022 was up another 11% up over 2021. So enormous gains in visitation revenue, and we’re so far managing to be right on track with that year-to-date through July. And the forecast for fall looks good. Not up, but even, or real close to it, from last year.
You said that fall was looking about even, about on pace with 2022? Is that accurate?
Yes, our projections look like we should be about even. We’re right now about even where we were at the same time last year. So it all remains the same. And if the bookings happen like they did last year, we should end the year strong, and hopefully, it’s close to last year. I mean, the wish would be to be a little over. But what I think we’ll all take even or flat to last year, with inflation and just how much the increases were.
I think that that’s the important part to remember, we just had enormous increases in 2021 and 2022. To maintain those or be flat to those in 2023, with all that is going on in the world. And not just to mention, the whole world is open again. Beach destinations, mountain destinations, outdoor destinations were really the only places to go in 2021. And then in 2022, there still was not international travel, big cities were still just opening back up and recuperating. So now everything is open. People are going internationally; people are going back to big cities. So for us to maintain, I think it really speaks to the fact that people love coming to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, and they want to keep coming back.
Something I want to ask is, for tourists or people potentially visiting the area, visiting Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, what should those people know about visiting the area?
Well, that’s broad. I’m not sure exactly what you’re asking. But just in general to know about the area, they should know that, and, of course, we have a great website that that explains a lot of these things. But we’re not just a beach destination. We’ve got 6,100 acres of the Gulf State Park that has 28 miles of trails through it. There are lake systems through it, there’s cabins, there’s cottages, there’s this amazing learning center, there’s a fabulous little restaurant within it.
We’ve got golf, we have fishing, we are not just a beach. We are this authentic, southern destination, where you’re not going to come here and find a bunch of chain restaurants. There are locally owned shops, people live here, work here, care about this area. And we want people to come and be great guests and have a great time. And we are very much a generational travel destination. You know, kids grow up coming here. They get married, have their kids come here. It’s multi-generational. So there’s a ton of great events, great concerts, a great race series if you’re a runner. Does that answer your question? I mean, there’s a lot to know about our area. We are not just a beautiful beach.
What’s the future of tourism in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach?
Do I dare say the future is bright? Tourism is always going to be at the heart of what we are. We are a tourism destination. Again, I mentioned the residential population, which has grown, we’re at maybe 25,000 people in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. 25,000 people do not need a 10,000-seat amphitheater, they do not need 200 restaurants, they do not need all the shopping that we have here, even in Foley. Would the Tanger Outlet be supported by just the people that live in south Baldwin County? I think that tourism will always be our number one industry, and it is an industry, around the country around the world. It will always be integral and important to what makes this destination.
I also think so many people that moved here have visited here. This is anecdotal, but they came here on a vacation, they loved it and said, “Yeah, I want to retire here. Yeah, I want to move my family here. Yeah, I want to open my business here.” And that is also a huge part of the fabric that makes up our area. It starts with a visit, right? I mean, you visit here, you make a place where people want to visit, and live and work, and it’s just this big circle.