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Huntsville/Madison County Visitor Center Temporarily Closed

In efforts to minimize the spread of COVID-19, the Huntsville/Madison County Visitor Center, Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau administrative office, and Huntsville International Airport visitors kiosk will be closed through Wednesday to allow for a thorough deep cleaning. The Visitor Centers and administrative office will resume regular operating hours Thursday.

Visitors should visit the COVID-19 travel resource page at huntsville.org for updates on attraction closures, event cancellations and delays, travel advisories, and more.

As FAME Star Shines, Chamber Formalizes Partnership with Rocket City Chapter

From the time Toyota launched its flagship Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME) initiative in 2014, city leaders praised it as a promising and much needed apprenticeship training program and recruitment tool for the entire region.

AMTs Paul Logston and Brandon Powers working at Huntsville’s EFi Inc.

Now the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce is formalizing its support for the Rocket City Chapter of FAME Alabama with an official partnership.

According to Lydia Pennington, Chamber Industry Relations director, this new partnership includes local industry and education partners, and the North Alabama Manufacturing Institute.

“Making this partnership official will help support Toyota and AL FAME as a trusted employer-led talent solution,” said Pennington. “For several years, the Chamber has been a constant presence in support of the program and that has not changed, but more than 10,000 new manufacturing jobs have been announced over the past three years in Huntsville/Madison County. That accounts for more than 80 percent of total job announcements, so we are excited about this.”

FAME also got the attention of Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle who, in a panel discussion after his State of the City Address, said his administration was discussing strategy, trying to shore up anything that could prevent Huntsville from realizing its full potential when FAME filled in some problem areas.

“At the time, Toyota was advertising for 200 jobs, and they had 10,000 people apply,” he said. “That showed us we had an under-employment issue that needed to be addressed.”

Pennington said the partnership will also help the Rocket City chapter grow and diversify into other industries besides automotive – in fact, that is already happening.

Brown Precision, a machine manufacturing company in Huntsville, has been onboard almost from the beginning.

“The FAME program is the most effective way we have found to solve the problem of finding qualified industrial maintenance technicians,” said Co-CEO Greg Brown. “We have over 50 CNC machine tools that need constant planned/preventive maintenance and occasional major repairs.

“I’ve been impressed by the rigor of the FAME program’s technical education as well as the program’s emphasis on the ‘essential’ skills required to be a part of a successful organization. I am thankful that the FAME program has filled a critical void for Brown Precision Inc.”

Matthew Johnson, Dante Thomas and Matthew Rolin at FAME graduation.

In Huntsville, FAME enrollment has more than doubled since 2014 and that jump in 2019 was a topic of discussion last September when First Daughter Ivanka Trump visited the Manufacturing Institute to celebrate the partnership that brought the FAME USA apprenticeship program under MI leadership.

“Toyota did something exceptional in creating a pilot that was excellent, to train that next generation of high-tech manufacturers, and then we start to scale it across the country,” Trump said. “FAME is an example of manufacturing taking best class practices from the private sector and scaling that opportunity so that many, many, more Americans can experience this pathway of acquired skills through this great program.

“We’re seeing people who have previously been on the sidelines of our economy, now entering the workforce and securing the skills that they need to not just get a job, but to secure a career.”

Findings in a report put out by the Brookings Institution and Opportunity America show AL FAME is one of the most successful apprenticeship models in the country. The report draws special attention to FAME’s benefits for less advantaged students, including older learners and those not planning to attend college.

Apprenticeship is the only path to a postsecondary credential and well-paying career for these people but, with COVID-19, a more job-focused education and training is also an option.

“Our study highlights what a growing group of manufacturing employers already know,” said Opportunity America President Tamar Jacoby, one of the authors of the report. “The FAME program works to prepare learners for today’s rapidly changing economy, teaching not just technical skills but also critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork.”

Today, FAME is a national network of nearly 400 companies in 13 states, with more than 1,100 Advanced Maintenance Technicians (AMTs) completing the program.

“We welcome this partnership with the Chamber, which we know will allow us to continue to grow … the workforce needs of this region,” said Scott Russo, president of the Rocket City Chapter of AL FAME. “The rapid growth of this chapter shows the value of the FAME model, and now, with more than 20 companies sponsoring AMTs, it is a great time to add an experienced and trusted partner to help us manage the Chapter.”

For Tony Davis, senior director for Workforce Initiatives for MI and FAME USA national leader, the partnership is a model for a win-win situation.

“With the Chamber helping employers solve their skilled position needs while growing local workforce capacity, at the same time theses employers are strengthening their pipeline of global-best talent while fostering relationships with local schools to continue to feed that pipeline,” said Davis. “All of this makes the area more attractive for continued growth, ensuring the entire region benefits from the economies created through this partnership.”

There are 51 graduates from the Rocket City Chapter of FAME, and there are currently 73 students enrolled in the Huntsville program.

“The Chamber is committed to supporting the FAME Rocket City Chapter and helping it grow to meet local demand,” said Pennington.

 

Huntsville Named Inaugural Cohort of Tennessee RiverTowns Program

Huntsville is one of 15 Tennessee River communities selected for the Tennessee RiverTowns Program. The program is part of the Tennessee RiverLine, a new regional trail system featuring paddling, hiking and bicycling along the river’s more than 650 miles.

Huntsville applied to be a part of the Tennessee RiverTowns Program to emphasize the enjoyment of the Tennessee River. The program offers an opportunity for visitors and residents to seek out activities in communities and towns along the Tennessee River, including Huntsville.

“As Huntsville’s gateway to the Tennessee River, Ditto Landing is always encouraging residents and visitors to enjoy the river whenever they can,” said Quick. “The Tennessee RiverTowns Program will enhance this effort by providing access to activities and events in cities, towns, and communities along the river, while also encouraging visitation to Huntsville.”

Through its participation, Huntsville will leverage the program’s geographic reach and national visibility to position itself as a premier destination for outdoor tourism, recreation, and watersports.

“Outdoor recreation is one of the top tourism drivers to our area, and our access to the pristine Tennessee River at Ditto Landing is a jewel in the crown of our community’s outdoor offerings,” said Judy Ryals, president/CEO of the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re proud to be selected for this opportunity, and look forward to working with Ditto Landing and the RiverTowns initiative to grow our city’s reputation as a top-of-mind destination for relaxation and adventure.”

Huntsville Restaurant Week 2020: Socially Distant, Still Delicious

As everyone and everything is adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic, Huntsville’s annual fare fair – aka Restaurant Week – has met the challenge with creative alternatives.

So, you better have your appetite ready because Huntsville Restaurant Week 2020, with the slogan “Socially Distant, Still Delicious,” begins Friday and the participating businesses will be serving up a wide assortment of amazing eats through Aug. 23.

To meet the pandemic challenge, people have the option of dining in, take out, or delivery. The Huntsville/Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau has partnered with Grub South, making it easy to enjoy all that Restaurant Week has to offer – in the comfort of one’s home or hotel room.

“A thriving culinary scene is crucial for any city to succeed as a travel destination,” said Judy Ryals, President/CEO of the CVB. “We want – and very much need – our local restaurants to make it through this pandemic. For our residents, this year is not just an opportunity to enjoy local restaurants, it’s also an opportunity to support your neighbors and friends during a very challenging time.”

This year, there will be more than 50 locally owned and operated restaurants, food trucks and breweries featured; each presenting unique menu items, combined with an assortment of special offerings.

A sample of the delicious fare offered during Huntsville Restaurant Week. (Photo/Steve Babin)

There will also be several first-time participants for the annual event. Domaine South, Hippea Camper, Kona Grill, New South Hot Dog & Sushi, along with Madison favorites Tom Brown’s and Goodland Pourhouse are but a few of the newcomers.

Along with a wide assortment of dining options, this year’s Restaurant Week is sporting a new logo – a pairing of culinary arts and rocket iconography. It’s a fresh new look that succinctly captures the essence of the event, as well as the community.

Now in its ninth year, Restaurant Week is an event where locals and visitors alike can partake of the finest culinary delights the Huntsville hospitality industry has to offer. Only this year, COVID-19 has changed things up a bit. 

Throughout Restaurant Week, the CVB will host 10 days of giveaways through social media. Participants need only tweet or post to Facebook or Instagram, using the hashtag #DineHsv – and include their favorite “foodie” photos and food-inspired commentary. A winner will be selected daily. Prizes include restaurant gift cards and other exciting goodies. 

For a list of participating restaurants, visit www.huntsville.org/restaurantweek

Area Tourism, Conventions are Looking to Rebound in Wake of Pandemic

Tourism has taken a hit in the Tennessee Valley as the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted daily activities across the nation as well as globally.

The good news is some of the impact will not be long-lasting.

For example, the United States Tennis Association’s girls clay court championships that were held here for the first time in 2019 was canceled this year but will return to the Huntsville Tennis Center in 2021-24.

That’s an economic loss of around $175,000.

“The good news is they were so happy with the way it went last year the USTA awarded it to Huntsville through 2024,’’ said Mark McCarter, sales manager for the Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

“We’ve been through months of cancelations. The focus now is on how do we get the business back. We got lucky in that a lot of things that were canceled this year were annual events. You hate to lose it for sure, and it’s had an impact, but it’s people who have a history here and they’re coming back next year.’’

In March, the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) canceled its 2020 Global Force Symposium and Exposition, which is one of the largest conferences Huntsville hosts annually. It brings over 6,000 attendees and represents an estimated $3.6 million in economic impact.

 “We understand AUSA’s desire to prioritize the health and safety of their delegates, and look forward to welcoming them in 2021, said Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Judy Ryals. “Going forward, the CVB will continue to work with our hospitality partners and public health officials to ensure that the health and safety of our visitors remains a top priority.

“Supporting our local hospitality industry is also of utmost importance – as travel is impacted, we encourage our residents to explore their own backyard and be patrons to our Huntsville/Madison County restaurants, attractions, hotels, and others.” 

Jamie Koshofer, vice president of conventions for the CVB, has worked closely with AUSA over the past year.

“AUSA has long been a close partner of the CVB, and we will continue to provide support for them in all ways that we can,’’ Koshofer said. “2021 is right around the corner, and we look forward to bringing that business back to the Rocket City.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said, “The City of Huntsville has developed a great partnership with AUSA over the past several years. While we share in the disappointment of the community, we respect their decision to make the health of AUSA members, participants, and our citizens a top priority. We will continue to work with them and look forward to seeing AUSA in Huntsville in the coming years.”

Kristen Pepper, marketing director for the CVB, said the AUSA was one of three large conferences that were planned for spring that had to cancel. 

“Obviously the tourism and hospitality industry has been hit pretty hard, especially compared to other industries,’’ she said. “I know just from talking to our hotel partners we’re starting to be on the upswing now.’’

Pepper said local hotels were operating at about 10 percent occupancy during spring at a time where 80-90 percent is the norm. Now, she said, hotels are reporting closer to 50 percent occupancy.

She also said conventions moving forward are “wait-and-see.’’

“Everyone’s kind of playing it by ear,’’ she said. “We have some conferences that as of now you know they’re moving forward for fall and winter 2020. Some have canceled. It’s very dependent on the meeting planners and kind of the general makeup of their attendees. A lot of the conventions that have an older demographic we’re seeing them be a little bit more cautious, but conferences that maybe have a little bit of a smaller headcount or maybe a different age makeup they might feel comfortable continuing for later this year.’’

Area Hospitality Industry Weathering COVID-19 Storm

It officially began with a health order from the state March 20.

That’s when all on-premise consumption of food and beverages in restaurants and bars had been officially banned.

Then, Gov. Kay Ivey’s “Stay at Home order” followed on April 4 thus further delineating “essential” versus “nonessential” businesses.

One thing that is certain since COVID-19 is uncertainty. Since mid-March, there have been a lot of mandates with the information changing daily, perhaps even hourly in some instances.

Over the past few years, Huntsville and Madison County have been experiencing exponential growth in lodging, dining, and beverage establishments.

However, COVID-19 has been quite the game changer, for both seasoned and new businesses alike.

Although the order was scheduled to end April 30, it is anyone’s guess as to the long-term impact and what Huntsville-Madison County’s version of the “new normal” will be.

Many people do not immediately consider North Alabama as a tourist destination.

However, in 2018, there were roughly 3.35 million visitors to Madison County and more than $1.4 billion generated by tourism.

“We receive information on an annual basis from the Alabama Tourism Department,” said Charles Winters, executive vice president at Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “As far as estimated visitors to our county, their estimation of economic impact of all types of visitors; that’s business travelers, convention attendees, all the folks who come into our community.

In North Alabama alone, tourism-generated dollars are tied to a multitude of capital improvements, as well as an estimated 20,000 jobs in the hospitality-service industry sector.

With the “Stay at Home” order, businesses cut back their hours and services, which translated into fewer employees being needed. Many have been furloughed, laid off, or flat-out terminated.

As a result of COVID-19 and assorted mandates, varying from state-to-state, the hospitality industry has been hit particularly hard, with estimates as high as 7 million jobs lost or furloughed at the national level.

Although restaurants have been deemed “essential” and can still offer curbside or window pickup, as well as a variety of delivery and pickup options, not all restaurants have decided to keep their doors open.

“Due to COVID-19, Grille 29 Huntsville is temporarily closed,” said Regina Burnett, director of catering sales. “We are unsure of a return date at this time.”

The layoffs and furloughs serve as a double-whammy for the already personnel-strapped hospitality sector.

“As an industry, we’ve been growing exponentially here in Huntsville,” said Jennifer Middleton, director of sales at Candlewood Suites Huntsville-Research Park. “Workforce has been a huge issue for everybody, especially the hospitality industry.”

As the area growth ensued, local industry leaders addressed the issue by getting involved in tech programs, culinary programs at area high schools, along with assorted job fairs, all designed to bring attention to showcasing hospitality and service industry jobs as variable career options.

“Then, overnight, this work that we have been promoting as one of the best industries to work in – it comes to a halt,” said Middleton. “It’s just sad, for us to come from one place to another where we were in desperate need and, now, we have too many and not enough demand.”

In response, the Huntsville-Madison County Hospitality Association board took action. Using social media, the association contacted its members, letting them know that resource information had been posted on its Facebook site. A Facebook public group site titled, “HSV Food To Go Options (COVID 19)” was also created so people can find out what restaurants are open along with ways the community can help do their part to boost the hospitality industry.

“On a positive a note, we can promote ourselves as one of the best industries to work in because, as an industry, you can see how resourceful we are,” said Middleton. “We say this all the time, amongst ourselves, that we are one big family.

“And we’re passionate about serving people and especially about taking care of our own.”

AUSA Cancels Global Force Symposium

Following the Association of the United States Army announcement that the 2020 Global Force Symposium & Exposition has officially been cancelled due to the ongoing public health threat, the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau  offered reassurances that the Rocket City remains a welcoming destination for conferences, tradeshows, and other events.

The Global Force Symposium is one of the largest conferences Huntsville hosts annually, bringing together more than 6,000 attendees and representing an estimated $3.6 million in economic impact.

“We understand AUSA’s desire to prioritize the health and safety of their delegates, and look forward to welcoming them in 2021. Going forward, the CVB will continue to work with our hospitality partners and public health officials to ensure that the health and safety of our visitors remains a top priority,” said Judy Ryals, President/CEO of the CVB. “Supporting our local hospitality industry is also of utmost importance – as travel is impacted, we encourage our residents to explore their own backyard and be patrons to our Huntsville/Madison County restaurants, attractions, hotels, and others.”

Jamie Koshofer, vice president of conventions, said the CVB has worked closely with AUSA over the past year.

“AUSA has long been a close partner of the CVB, and we will continue to provide support for them in all ways that we can,” Koshofer said. “2021 is right around the corner, and we look forward to bringing that business back to the Rocket City.”

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said he is disappointed in the cancellation but the city and AUSA have a strong partnership.

“The City of Huntsville has developed a great partnership with AUSA over the past several years,” Battle said. “While we share in the disappointment of the community, we respect their decision to make the health of AUSA members, participants and our citizens a top priority.

“We will continue to work with them and look forward to seeing AUSA in Huntsville in the coming years.”

Currently, there have been no official reported coronavirus cases in Alabama.

Sports Tournaments over Weekend Generate $1.7 Million Economic Impact in Huntsville

Huntsville isn’t just a high-tech town known for helping put man on the moon.

It’s also a magnet for competitive sports tournaments that attract thousands of visitors and produce millions of dollars each year in the community. In fact, the Southeastern Short Course Championships and NASA Volleyball Bash this past weekend had an economic impact of more than $1.7 million in Huntsville alone, the city announced in a news release.

With more than 25 sporting events scheduled for 2020, the Huntsville Sports Commission reports an economic impact of over $2 million already this year in Huntsville. Sports Commission Executive Director Ralph Stone said this past weekend was a great example of Huntsville’s potential in the sports tourism industry.

“It was a great weekend for sports business in Huntsville,” he said. “With a combined economic impact of over $1.7 million for the City, it goes to show why the Huntsville Sports Commission does what we do.”

Below are main specs from both tournaments over the Feb. 21-23 weekend:

Southeastern Short Course Championships

  • Host: Huntsville Swim Association
  • Total Economic Impact: $870,312
  • Participants: 945
  • Daily Spectators: 1,890
  • Room Nights: 2,044

NASA Volleyball Bash

  • Host: NASA Volleyball Club
  • Total Economic Impact: $855,672
  • Participants: 1,704
  • Daily Spectators: 2,500
  • Room Nights: 1,864

Nancy Rickmeyer, tournament director for NASA Volleyball Bash, said this year’s event at the Von Braun Center was one of its best competitions yet. Downtown Huntsville was also a key factor in making the event so successful, she said.

“Downtown Huntsville has more opportunities than ever for dining, shopping and activities close to the VBC for all participants,” she said.

The Southeastern Short Course Championships also went well, thanks to partnerships within the community, according to Huntsville Swim Association Head Coach Matt Webber.

“The Southeastern championship meet is as well run a meet as you will find in the country,” he said. “The support we receive from the City of Huntsville, Huntsville Sports Commission and Huntsville Parks and Recreation Department is unmatched in terms of contributing to successful competitions.”

A recent study by WinterGreen Research estimates the youth sports industry is a $19.2 billion market in the U.S., rivaling the size of the $15 billion NFL. As traveling sports teams grow in popularity, that figure jumps to $24.9 billion worldwide.

Judy Ryals, president and CEO of the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the Southeastern Short Course Championships and NASA Volleyball Bash demonstrated the critical role sports tourism plays in Huntsville’s economy.

“It’s evident in the past weekend’s events and in others like the inaugural Huntsville Championship professional golf tournament in April and the U.S. Tennis Association’s national championship for 16-and-under girls this July, and so many other competitions,” she said. “It’s a testament to the excellent facilities and the city leadership in recognizing the benefit of sports to our community.”

Governor’s Conference on Tourism Coming to Huntsville

Elected officials and tourism leaders throughout the state will gather in Huntsville for the 2019 Alabama Governor’s Conference on Tourism.

The conference, which is Aug. 17-20 at the Von Braun Center, brings the state’s travel and tourism industry together for professional development, networking, and collaboration on strategies to promote Alabama as a premier travel destination.

Approximately 200-250 guests, including representatives from statewide attractions, hotels, convention and visitors bureaus, marketing firms, and other hospitality workers, are expected to be in attendance.

“The conference not only gives Alabama travel professionals the opportunity to learn from experts in tourism and marketing, but to also raise money for in-state college scholarships and reward hard work through industry awards,” said Patti Culp, CEO for the Alabama Travel Council.

Judy Ryals, president/CEO of the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the city is excited about the conference.

“2019 is such a hallmark year for our city as we celebrate the state bicentennial, the Apollo 11 50th anniversary, new dining, retail, and entertainment developments, and so much more; this is perfect timing to welcome our tourism partners to see the growth happening in Huntsville and experience everything we have to offer as a destination,” Ryals said. “We look forward to the opportunity to showcase our community’s progress to industry leaders and highlight why Huntsville/Madison County is a key asset in the state’s tourism offerings.”

In 2018, the travel and tourism industry, which includes leisure and meeting visitors, was responsible for more than 17,000 jobs in Madison County. The 3.4 million visitors also pumped a record-breaking $1.4 billion into the local economy.

While in Huntsville, the visitors will attend receptions at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Campus No. 805 and , Alabama Constitution Hall Historic Park & Museum; play a round of golf at Robert Trent Jones – Hampton Cove; and tour the Huntsville Botanical Garden and downtown.

 

Good Eatin’ Ahead as Huntsville Restaurant Week Kicks Off

Some tasty offerings during the Huntsville Restaurant Week press conference at Stovehouse. (Photo/Steve Babin)

Guests were met with the delicious aroma of roasting garlic and were served complimentary spicy veal meatballs and seafood Fritto Misto from Mozzara’s Italian Kitchen at the Stovehouse during the official kickoff for the eighth annual Huntsville Restaurant Week, Aug. 9-18.

Mayor Tommy Battle laughed that Restaurant Week is 52 weeks a year at the Battle house as he and Madison Mayor Paul Finley joined the Huntsville-Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau in highlighting the culinary events ahead.

“As Huntsville grows, so does our local dining scene, and we’re excited to have so much to offer to visitors,” said Judy Ryals, president/CEO of the Convention & Visitors Bureau, “There are culinary experiences in Huntsville that can’t be found anywhere else: from dining under the National Historic Landmark Saturn V rocket at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s Biergarten, to the one-of-a-kind settings at venues such as Campus No. 805, Stovehouse, MidCity, and so many others.

Judy Ryals

“Huntsville is truly a destination that attracts visitors seeking unique dining and travel experiences.”

More than 50 local eateries and breweries will participate in “ten tasty days of deals” beginning Friday to encourage people to try some of the new cuisine that has come to Huntsville in the past couple of years. Straight to Ale, Old Black Bear, and InnerSpace breweries are also participating with specialty Restaurant Week craft beers.

“As the coordinator of Huntsville Restaurant Week, it has been my pleasure to see this promotion grow,” said Pam Williams, Tourism & Education sales manager for the CVB. “Each year it is surprising to see how many new places have joined the Madison County culinary scene, and 2019 is no different.

Pam Williams

“Ultimately, the CVB’s goal for Restaurant Week is to showcase the Madison County dining scene to visitors, and to remind locals to try something new.”

Patrons will find lunch specials featuring two courses at fixed prices of $10 and $15; with three-course dinner specials in the $10, $20, $30, and $40 range. Restaurants can choose one or any combination of those specials and offer other specials beyond these categories.

The event also features a special “Bonus Bites” category for establishments that do not offer a traditional lunch or dinner, but offer breakfast, desserts, appetizers, or small bites exclusively.

At Stovehouse in Huntsville, Madison Mayor Paul Finley, left, and Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle encourage visitors to take in the best food the area has to offer during Restaurant Week. (Photo/Steve Babin)

The CVB has partnered with OpenTable, an online restaurant reservation platform and the official online reservations provider for Huntsville Restaurant Week. With just a few clicks, patrons can view all participating restaurants and secure a reservation.

The CVB’s #iHeartHsv blog will feature dedicated food and beverage content throughout the month in hopes of attracting “foodie” visitors from out of town.

For information on the events of Huntsville Restaurant Week, visit huntsville.org/events/restaurant-week/.

Bon appetit Madison County! There’s some good eatin’ ahead!