President & CEO, Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau
Q: COVID-19 has brought so many challenges – what’s your perspective on what others might not realize?
A: 2019 was a record-setting year for the tourism and hospitality industry in Huntsville/Madison County. Madison County was the second most visited county in the state, second only to the Gulf Coast resort area of Baldwin County. More than 3.6 million visitors spent an estimated $1.6 billion in Madison County alone. Total employment in the hospitality industry was nearly 19,000 jobs. In mid-March, hotel occupancy levels plummeted resulting in staff furloughs and layoffs. Reduced restaurant capacities have made it difficult for restaurants to do a sufficient volume of business to keep wait and kitchen staffs. The cost of personal protective equipment and enhanced cleaning, safety and health measures can result in higher food costs or reduced services.
Q: Where do things stand now for our local hospitality industry?
A: Things are improving. Business is picking up for hotels, as people become more comfortable with travel and sanitization efforts. Occupancy levels vary widely within our community. Citywide occupancy has recently risen to 57 percent, as compared to 20-30 percent in April and May. When these levels rise and stabilize, it should signal the hiring of more staff. An added challenge is that many furloughed employees have found employment outside of the hospitality industry.
The case is similar for restaurants. Once the restrictions are eased, staff levels can be increased. Until then, restaurants are working harder and smarter to stay in business.
Local attractions are also pivoting to adjust to changes in travel during the pandemic. The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is offering unique experiences, like virtual reality snorkeling and underwater astronaut training. While many of these experiences will be offered for a limited time, some could be added to the list of optional activities available to USSRC visitors looking for a next-level experience. Visitor numbers are down for all attractions. Due to the closure of schools, the education market was non-existent in the spring. To increase visitor confidence and comply with state guidelines, attractions implemented changes to include timed tickets, touch-free admission, and limited capacity for special events.
The CVB continues to work with meeting planners to bring conferences, trade shows, sports tournaments and meetings to our community as soon as the participants and organizers are ready. We are concentrating on state and regional groups, as well as leisure travelers within driving distance.
Air travel continues to increase and we’re optimistic that trend will continue. The return to travel for federal government employees will have an immediate positive impact on the entire local hospitality industry.
Madison County’s hospitality industry is growing with new hotels under construction, the amphitheater plans and unique venues like Campus #805, MidCity, and Stovehouse adding tenants. We are very optimistic and working every day toward a bigger and better future.
Q: How can people reading this help?
If you’re responsible for planning employee holiday gift-giving, consider providing gift cards from local restaurants, attraction passes, tickets to events or a unique item from an attraction gift shop. If your business sends gifts to clients, buy local.
Invite family and friends for a holiday visit. Galaxy of Lights, Skating in the Park, the downtown Tinsel Trail and the new Christmas Spectacular at Toyota Field are all fantastic family-friendly and socially-distanced events. The Huntsville Museum of Art has a Gloria Vanderbilt exhibition which is another great option for locals and visitors alike.
Buy attraction memberships for yourself. Gift a membership or class to friends and family members for an unforgettable experience. Order take-out or dine-in at a locally owned restaurant. Several restaurants and meeting venues will offer holiday meal take-out. Consider a staycation at one of the local hotels. The Visitor Center at 500 Church Street has a nice selection of items that make great hostess gifts and stocking stuffers.
Let the CVB assist you in bringing a family reunion, church meeting, convention or trade show here in the future. Our team of experienced professionals will make it easy, and you’ll be helping the entire community!
This article appears in the December issue of Initiatives magazine, a publication of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber.