Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft says the secret to success in the hospitality industry is seeing obstacles as opportunities.
As mayor of Gulf Shores, Robert Craft has his finger on the pulse of the hospitality and tourism industry in Alabama. He knows that families are the secret ingredient to the popularity and growth of Alabama’s Gulf Coast as a summer vacation destination.
“What distinguishes us from a lot of the rest of the tourism industry along the Gulf Coast is that we are local people who have a local connection that is generational,” he says. “We are a multigenerational family of communities, and when we invite people to our coastal communities, we are inviting them into our home.”
Craft was at CHES on March 12, 2014 to deliver the Shila Bowron Leadership Lecture in the restaurant, hotel and meetings management program. While on campus, he was inducted into the Alabama Hospitality Hall of Fame, which was established in 2010 by the University’s Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management. Craft told future hospitality-industry leaders that their life experiences would likely parallel those of Alabama’s Gulf Coast communities. “There is no straight, smooth slope — it’s always a bumpy ride — but the key is to deal with the obstacles and be prepared to recognize the opportunities and have the courage to embrace them.”
The Gulf Coast tourism industry has faced natural and man-made disasters in the form of catastrophic hurricanes, economic downturn and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. But Craft points out that after each crisis came a period of positive, sometimes phenomenal growth, as families and community leaders recognized opportunities in the midst of challenges.
In the 1970s there were fewer than 2,000 rental units on the 32 miles of beach from Fort Morgan to Orange Beach, most of them wood-frame beach homes. Few people were even aware that Alabama had a beach, with most visitors coming from close-by Mobile or other parts of Baldwin County.
All that changed in September 1979. Hurricane Frederic made a devastating hit to the tiny town of Gulf Shores and wiped almost every wood-frame home from the beach, leaving only a vast expanse of pristine white sand.
Lessons were learned about hardened construction, and the first concrete, multistory, multifamily structure was built in 1980. By 1993, there were 8,000 units for rent, and the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau was formed to consolidate Gulf Shores and Orange Beach marketing efforts.
Then in 2004, Hurricane Ivan struck, wreaking $18 billion in damage. But thanks to the fortified construction based on what had been learned from Frederic, the area was restored and open for business by summer of 2005. Construction again boomed, with 3,000 units added, for a total of 11,000 available for rent.
Just as the coastal tourism industry began to recover from the 2008 financial crisis with a record first quarter in 2010, disaster of a very different sort struck. In April 2010, the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill began to dump millions of barrels of oil into the pristine waters that wash the sandy shores of the Gulf Coast, threatening the survival of family owned, multigenerational small businesses.
“This time there was anger,” Craft says. “Mother Nature gave us this place, and economies are cyclical. But this was a case of pure greed, and it hurt.”
But the high-profile disaster brought quick action from the local community and high-profile help from others. President Barack Obama toured the devastation, and local leaders called for BP to take action to restore the area both environmentally and financially.
Amid the cleanup efforts, native son Jimmy Buffet performed a free concert on the beach in July, drawing 35,000 visitors back to the area. Country Music Television broadcast the event live, giving the world a firsthand view of the beautiful Alabama coast. The Concerts for the Coast series was created to bring attention and tourists back to the area, and Brad Paisley and Bon Jovi concerts in October continued the momentum. The can-do attitude of the local community and its leaders had turned the worst man-made disaster in Gulf Coast history into an opportunity to introduce the world to Alabama’s beautiful sugar-white beaches.
“The local leaders made a decision in those early days of the oil spill. We would not allow ourselves to be defined by disaster. We would be defined by our recovery,” Craft says. “The silver lining is that the world now knows that Alabama has beautiful beaches.”
Today, the Gulf Coast is home to more than 16,000 rental units, 45,000 travel-related jobs and $1 billion in wages and salaries. In 2013, 5.5 million guests spent $3 billion there.
Through it all, the leaders have strived to maintain what makes their communities special — a clean, safe, usable environment with a family focus. They have studied the environmental damage concerns that come with growth and are practicing principles of good stewardship.
“We’re now ready to create some opportunities,” says Craft, “and the future looks bright.” Plans include a new education complex, expanding the beach expressway for greater transportation access, and growing quality medical services in order to attract retirees to the area. A major priority is to use BP recovery funds to rebuild the state park lodging and convention center that was lost in Hurricane Ivan.
“What we’ve learned is that when we work together we can do anything. That’s a wonderful feeling as a community. There’s nothing you can throw at us that we can’t handle.”