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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Alabama Coast’s a great catch

Courtesy Alabama Gulf Coast CVB

The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico lap lazily onto the sugar-white sand beach. Brightly colored parasails soar overhead and sailboats bob rhythmically in the surf. Visitors stroll along the shore, stopping to pick up shells now and then, turning their faces to the warm rays of the sun. It sounds like a tropical paradise, but it’s much more accessible and affordable than you might think. This is Alabama’s Gulf Coast, 32 miles stretching from the edge of the Florida Panhandle along the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile, Ala., surrounded on the north by Mobile Bay.

More than 16,000 lodging units
Alabama’s Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are the region’s two cities, their combined population under 20,000. More than 16,000 lodging units range from condominiums to beach houses and hotels and from full-service to limited-service properties on the beach, off the beach, along the intracoastal highway and along the bay. The choices are abundant, making the Gulf Coast a major player in recent years when it comes to attracting meetings.

“We’re in the Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach vicinity when it comes to amount of lodging,” said Beth Gendler, director of sales for the Alabama Gulf Coast CVB and Sports Commission. “We are definitely a drive destination, so we handle mostly state and regional meetings; but we also have smaller corporate meetings that are national. Many times, people bring their families along and make a vacation of it because of the variety of activities we have to offer.”

The abundance of venues, which include churches, small restaurants, convention hotels and resort condominiums, makes it difficult to pin down the number of meeting places.  According to the CVB, the number is nearing 35, encompassing  more than 100,000 square feet of meeting space.

Perdido Beach has most meeting space
The largest venue is the Perdido Beach Resort, where 45,000 square feet of meeting space includes 9,000 square feet of exhibition space. Small meeting rooms with views, a ballroom, an executive boardroom and a beachside deck are among its other meeting spaces.

This 346-room Mediterranean-style resort is between Gulf Shores and Perdido Key, Fla., 20 miles west of Pensacola, Fla., and 60 miles east of Mobile.

         Courtesy Alabama Gulf Coast CVB

“We enjoy having our meetings at the Perdido Beach Resort because of the convenience,” said Wally Lowery, assistant director of the Alabama Judicial College in Montgomery, Ala. “The conference center is easy to get to and close to everything else. We don’t have to walk 100 miles to get someplace.”

Lowery took 300 people to the Gulf Coast in September and nearly 70 in August. It’s popular among attendees.

“We ask people where they want to go, and they usually tell us the Gulf Coast,” he said. “The audio-visual equipment is state of the art, and they’re really good about having the food brought in on time. Lots of people bring their families along and make a vacation of it.”

Besides on-site catering, the resort has a casual restaurant, a more formal dining area and a pizzeria and ice cream parlor.

“Corporate groups love that flexibility,” sales manager Amy Peralta said. “It gives them an option for a spur-of-the-moment get-together, a spontaneous meeting that doesn’t center around a planned meal.”

The second-largest meeting space in the region is a new conference center at the Wharf in Orange Beach, a resort and marina with luxury waterfront condominiums, shopping, dining and an 18-hole golf course.

The 20,000-square-foot space can accommodate 1,600 for dinner, 2,000 for receptions and 100 booths for exhibitions. It can also be divided into as many as five meeting rooms. Among its major selling points is its position on a marina, making it a good location for a variety of events.

Scattered about the Wharf are other small meeting spaces, including five meeting rooms, each about 300 square feet, at the Outfitter’s Center, a Southern plantation-style building with an outdoor pavilion that is used for meals and breaks, and a 2,500-square-foot meeting room on the Wharf’s Main Street near shops and restaurants.

For those not at meetings, the Wharf is an entertaining place. There’s a zero-entry wave pool and lazy river, a tiki bar, live music every weekend, a 10,000-seat amphitheater for year-round performances, and several blocks of boutiques and shops anchored by a huge Ferris wheel, all within walking distance of the condominiums, which gives the place a festive atmosphere.

With 600 condo units, the Caribe Resort has 14,000 square feet of meeting space, with about that same area in the  Beach Club, which also offers 312 condos and cozy cottages. The 137-room Hilton Garden Inn has 2,000 square feet of meeting space; the 119-room Holiday Inn Express in Orange Beach, about 1,000.

Being on the beach is a draw
“We’re on the beach, and that’s really the main draw,” said Brenda Lazenby, director of sales at the Hilton Garden Inn at Orange Beach. “Our meeting room has a pull-down screen, podium with both clip-on and wireless microphone, and complimentary Internet access in the meeting room and throughout the hotel.”

The hotel’s staff will arrange off-site activities such as dolphin cruises, fishing and golf outings or team-building activities like beach volleyball or beach Olympics.

Since most meeting attendees in the Gulf Coast area take their cars, they also take their families.

          Courtesy Alabama Gulf Coast CVB

“In this day and time, whenever you can mix business with pleasure, do it,” said Rebecca Camerio, vice president of finance for Manufacture Alabama. “We make sure all our attendees take a minivacation if they want that. Everybody wants to go to the beach, and there is no prettier beach than the Gulf Coast.”

Camerio took 95 people there for a meeting in September but ended up with more than 150, because many took their families. They stayed at the Perdido Beach Resort, where the company has held meetings for three years in a row.

“I kid you not, waiters come up and hug you, because they remember you from the last time you came here,” Camerio said. “One time we had a computer problem, and so many of the employees came in to help us with it.”

The Manufacture Alabama convention offers lots of leisure activities, such as a day of fishing, golf or sailing on Fridays followed by a beach party.

“The CVB there is so accommodating when I ask them about things to do,” she said. “I know the area like the back of my hand, but there are always new places opening. We enjoy shopping at the Wharf, and the Tanger Outlets are just 25 minutes away [in Foley, Ala.].”

Many ways to enjoy the water
There are many ways to enjoy the area’s most popular draw: the water.
Visitors can feel the ocean spray on their faces while gliding 800 feet above the ocean on a trip with Parasailing Adventures.

Dolphin cruises can be booked through Dolphin Express Cruises, Sail Dolphin Cruises and other cruise companies. The captains of these boats know the area and are expert at attracting playful dolphins that swim along in the wake, jumping in the air next to the boat. Sunscreen and cameras are must-haves on these trips.

Captain Ben Fairey has been taking groups out fishing with the charter boat Necessity for 23 years. He offers everything from four-hour to multiday trips. His 62-foot-long boat is 19 feet wide and licensed for up to 35 people.

“I’ve been fishing out of Orange Beach for 37 years, and there is a wonderful variety and abundance of fish here,” he said. “Most people do meetings in the morning and then come fishing in the afternoon or the other way around. We work around their schedule. We get about 20 miles out on a six-hour trip.”

Fishing for first timers and old salts
Passengers can catch anything from tuna to blue marlin to sailfish. Bottom fishing is also good, with snapper, grouper, king mackerel and bluefish. Fairey supplies everything needed for a good fishing trip, including bait, tackle and fishing rods.

“I took some first timers from up north, and they were very inexperienced,” he said. “We always give a short fishing lesson before we start, and one fellow had obviously not paid attention. He grabbed the wrong end of the rod and tried to fish with it. We told him it might work out better for him if he turned the thing around.”

Fairey said most guests are surprised by how strong the fish are, as saltwater fish bite much harder than freshwater fish and can put up quite a fight.

“Sometimes I watch them struggling and tell them, ‘That fish will die of old age before you get it in here,’” he said. “Then we help them. Everyone always has a really good time.”

Several other companies offer sunset and dinner cruises. The Southern Belle has sightseeing; the Southern Rose handles about the same number for receptions.

MT Charters, located at the Wharf, has the 45-foot yacht Dream On with all the amenities of a floating resort.

Lulu’s tops list of interesting eateries
Although many corporate events have their meals catered, attendees are always on the lookout for interesting places to eat off site.

Lulu’s, located on the Intracoastal Waterway, is owned by Jimmy Buffett’s sister Lucy and is a colorful, fun place to take a group or a family. Be sure to save room for the Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding.

Cobalt, on the Intracoastal, seats up to 70 in a private room that opens onto a private deck. A private iPod can be piped into the dining area.

“We have a lot of groups who come here,” said Lisa Benson, catering manager for Cobalt. “Some have breakfast meetings, others want heavy appetizers or dinner. Our menu is eclectic. We have everything from bison rib-eye to grilled oysters to pizza.”

In the foyer, a large virtual aquarium greets guests, along with a “petting pond” with stingrays and redfish.

“But we do ask the guests not to pet the fish,” said Benson. “Some of them bite.”

There’s lots to see, lots to do, lots to eat and lots of places to meet.

“We have groups who meet here year after year,” said the CVB’s Gendler. “The Alabama Gulf Coast is reasonably priced and amazingly beautiful. It’s no wonder they keep coming back.”