AO Tourism

Auburn-Opelika Tourism's efforts over the past year and during the pandemic picked up a major nod from its peers last week when the Alabama Tourism Department named the bureau its Tourism Organization of the Year. 

The award was announced at the 2021 Alabama Governor's Conference on Tourism at Gulf State Park last week. 

"We have incredibly strong tourism industry professionals in Alabama, and those recognized this year are no exception," said Lee Sentell, director of Alabama Tourism Department, in a news release. 

Receiving the award was great, said Robyn Bridges, vice president of AO Tourism, although she added that the bureau's focus isn't on winning awards but serving the community. 

"We're not here to be recognized or to win awards. That's not the purpose that we serve," she said. "The reason that I applied for that one was because it was all about spending a year helping our community and they deserve for people to know what was going on with them because people don't necessarily appreciate what our small business owners are going through or what hotels are going through or what the lack of visitors may mean if it's not on your radar."

Bridges highlighted the efforts of the John Emerald Distilling Co. during the pandemic as in need of more recognition. The company quickly shifted focus during the early stage of the pandemic to produce hand sanitizer for the community when runs on stores created a shortage. 

"They're the most amazing folks to work with, always," said Bridges, whose application for the award noted that AO Tourism helped John Emerald offset the cost of equipment and promote the hand sanitizer. "I thought if there was any time we were going to do this — like letting people know what people were going through in this community and how we all came together — this was 100 percent the right time."

While the hospitality industry was slammed during the first year of the pandemic, AO Tourism used its resources to help out where it could, launching campaigns to promote local businesses, encouraging residents to utilize curbside and carry-out options from restaurants and purchase gift cards. 

AO Tourism also created a webpage that helped track the constantly shifting status of area businesses during the pandemic, listing their hours, service options and providing other updates as needed to inform residents. 

AO Tourism also established a program to help provide meals to restaurant employees who had been laid off work as restaurants closed or pared back their shifts and hours. AO Tourism also helped local businesses navigate the often-changing pandemic guidelines, from masking to social distancing requirements.

Tourism in the Auburn area, thankfully, got a much-needed boost during the fall football season, with lodging revenue from home games in 2021 exceeding the totals from 2019, increasing from about $8.6 million in 2019 to over $10.2 million in 2021, according to data provided by AO Tourism.

"We're far more fortunate than many, many, many," said Bridges. "I would never want it to appear that we had struggles comparable to some people in our same role and in our industry. 

"It was just a natural occurrence for us to figure out what we could do to help the people in this community. It was just so very obvious that there's no one coming to visit."

With the pandemic still ongoing, challenges remain, including staffing shortages. 

"It's still a tough environment for all the restaurants and, obviously, retail. It's just questionable still," said John Wild, president of AO Tourism.

Bridges agreed, saying that "it's workforce issues that are the struggle now."

While the pandemic heavily impacted some tourism markets like conferences, the sporting event market proved resilient. 

"That was the one market that proved not only is it recession resistant, historically speaking, but we found out it was also Covid resistant because people will go with their kids, and the kids sports they're going to try to continue no matter what, so we were very fortunate to have that," said Bridges, who added that the convention market is still lagging behind where it was prior to the pandemic. 

"The convention piece is still not back, and we don't know when it will be back," said Bridges. "That business travel and that convention travel is still missing."

People flocking to outdoor venues and activities helped some sectors, including Chewacla State Park, weather the pandemic.

"Anything outdoors, of course, was just on fire," said Bridges. "We've been lucky and hope that it continues. We'll just keep doing what we do, spread the word and hopefully the conventions will come back."

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