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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Alabama: Have a ball in Birmingham

Courtesy Greater Birmingham CVB

Two problems caused by a down economy made the Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau change its game plan. When corporate travel to the state’s largest city slowed and plans for an entertainment district and new hotels at the convention center were shelved, the CVB decided to devote more of its energy to the sports market.

It has emerged a strong contender, attracting a number of high-profile amateur and professional sporting events.

“Fifty percent of our market is sports now,” said Mike Gunn, vice president, convention sales.
Birmingham’s BarberSports Park was a site for the Izod IndyCar Series for the first time this spring.

Tennis’ Fed Cup came to Birmingham in April. The suburb of Hoover will host the NCAA Men’s College Cup, considered the Final Four of collegiate soccer, next year and the south regional of the NCAA Cross Country Championships in November.

A Champions tour golf event, the Regions Tradition, will be held in Birmingham in May. The Tradition, for senior golf professionals, will be at Shoal Creek, a private country-club course. Birmingham will host the tourney for three years.

BarberSports Park and Shoal Creek are among a number of sports facilities the city can tout. Regions Park, in Hoover, is a baseball park, but it will be converted to a soccer field for the College Cup. It can also be reconfigured for football and for beach volleyball.

An indoor track going up on the old State Fairgrounds about 10 minutes west of downtown is is among several athletic facilities planned at the site.

“The track gives us another venue to pursue some other sporting events that we haven’t pursued in the past,” said Gunn. “The neat thing about sports is that you don’t have to have a hotel that connects to the convention center.”

Without more hotel rooms, it wouldwould be difficult to attract large conventions to the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex, Gunn said. (A 770-room Sheraton hotel is attached to the center.) A scaled-down version of the entertainment district might be built.

Plans now call for a 303-room Westin Hotel and shops and restaurants nearby. “Right now there is very little within walking distance of the convention center,” said Gunn.

What has come through for downtown is Railroad Park. A vacant 19-acre lot next to an active railroad line is now a ribbon of green punctuated by a lake, streams and 600 trees. It is expected to become a site for festivals and concerts. It can also be booked for private outdoor events.