An APR News feature
Last year was a good year for Huntsville tourism. The area brought in around 3.7 million visitors last year. This makes Huntsville and Madison County the second most visited place in the state behind the Gulf Coast. However, the coronavirus pandemic had other plans for the area.
Judy Ryals is the president and CEO of the Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau. She said it was a banner year for the Rocket City.
“Huntsville was second in visitation of the number of visitors we hosted in 2019,” she said. “We had a 15.2 percent increase in the number of jobs increased as well as the number of travelers.”
That translates into dollars. Last year the Huntsville/Madison County area brought in over $1 billion from visitors coming for the attractions or conventions. Ryals said they had plenty of things going on to help bring people in.
“I think it’s a combination of all we had going as well as a number of significant events with celebrating the Apollo 50th anniversary. U.S. Space and Rocket Center did an outstanding job bringing in additional visitors in and I think that played a big role," she said.
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center provides educational programs, tours, a museum and space camp for Alabamians and children from around the world. Pat Ammons is their director of communications and said 2019 was a huge year.
“We literally had visitors from around the world who came the Huntsville, to the space and rocket center to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was an extraordinary time, we had visitors from 82 countries and every state in the Union, and just packed with people all year long, it was amazing," she said.
It looked like the good times would carry over into this year, but Ammons said that feeling was short-lived.
“We had waiting lists for space camp, we were projecting an incredible year with tourism as well as our space camp program, but all of that has come to a screeching halt of course as we closed up on March 13," she said.
The Space and Rocket Center shut down before the official orders came down from the governor’s office. Ammons said were able to get ahead of pandemic.
“Once the state pretty much shut down, we were already in place, with a few people working remotely but the vast majority of our employees have been furloughed for some time now," Ammons said.
And for the spring and summer seasonal hiring that means up to 1,000 employees. Ammons said they plan on reopening the museum by the end of this week, but space camp will have to wait.
“We don’t intend to open space camp back up until the end of June and that is only contingent on the state health department’s recommendations at that time," she said. "We hope to have space camp opening back up June 28 with a vastly limited numbers than we typically would have.”
The center is a self-sustaining institution. It is a commission of the state but does not receive operating funds from Montgomery or any federal funding. Ammons said its important for them to be open.
“This is the busiest time of year, therefore we make between March and July, we make about close 50 percent of our income for the year, so we’re shut down at a critical time for us,” she said.
While they are anxious to reopen and start teaching people again, Ammons said the health of their workers and visitors is a top priority.
“Given whatever the order is at the time, we will be doing a lot of things you’re seeing in grocery stores, where you have one-way areas, requiring masks, certainly for our staff. We will be taking whatever the governor orders and then some, I can assure you that," she said.
They aren’t the only ones reopening. The Huntsville Botanical Gardens have already reopened their doors.
That’s Kathy Gilder is the Chief Operating Officer of the gardens. She said they see a significant number of visitors during this time of the year.
“Springtime is obviously a major activity time for the garden. We celebrate the return of the beauty of the garden and a number of different activities," she said. “During the spring months we see about 25,000 daytime visitors to the garden in the time period that we were closed this year. In addition to that we have our field trip activities and our spring plant sale and all of the things that make the garden the garden in the springtime.”
Gilder said they have not been sitting on their hands during the shutdown. Her team has been planning on how to tackle the rest of the year.
“We’ve been working throughout this whole time we’ve been closed to look at our operations and look at our expense structure and then look at ways we can continue to engage people both onsite and virtually and generate the revenue needed to sustain the garden," she said.
Gilder said they reopened first for their members, but now that the gardens are opening back up to the public, they will be implementing the social distancing guidelines suggested by the governor.
“We’re asking people to wear masks and to maintain social distancing. We have numerous floor markings, our gift shop has now reopened and we have a limitation of how many people can be in the gift shop, we’re being very cognizant and again making sure health and safety are our number one priority," Gilder said.
Gilder said that even though they are covered with masks, after being shut down for so long, she loves seeing faces coming back to the gardens.
“And I will say the response from people coming since we reopened, it is the best thing going right now, as a staff member standing there welcoming people and seeing how excited they are to come back to the garden.”
Both the Space and Rocket Center and the Botanical Gardens feel they will rebound from the pandemic but are preparing for lower turnouts and less revenue. Ryals with the Visitors and Conventions Bureau said they are also pushing outdoor activities.
“We work closely with the Huntsville land trust to convince people to come up and visit and stay in our hotels as well as the different parks we have as well as the state park. Monte Sano State Park, which offers some really pretty views from on top of that mountain," Ryals said.
She thinks the Rocket City’s tourism industry will weather this storm.
“I still think we’ll be able to recover and we have hope. We are ready for visitors when they’re ready to come," she said.