Look out your airplane or car window upon arriving along the Gulf of Mexico, and the view rivals those of Hawaii, Puerto Rico or other tropical islands. But that’s where the comparisons stop for the myriad Southern destinations that thrive, thanks to a nearly year-round pleasant climate and white-sand beaches. Depending on whether you’re in Florida, Alabama or Mississippi, there’s a different experience to be had. Here, we dive in (don’t worry, the water is warm).
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala.
Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism reported record growth for 2016, welcoming 6.3 million guests. A major attraction in 2016 was the World Food Championships at The Wharf, described as “America’s Most Watched Food Sport Event,” returned for a second time this November.
If you’re taking a meeting to this destination, you’re most likely going to utilize Perdido Beach Resort
, the area’s only full-service hotel. Not only is it right on the beach, the resort has fine dining with Voyagers, an on-site restaurant for buttering up VIPs. New additions to the hotel include a club level, where planners can place VIPs, and a beach-level conference room, Night Reef.
In June, the area gained its first upscale beachside boutique hotel in Hotel Indigo Orange Beach. The property has 62 guest rooms and is adjacent to Big Wave Dave’s Kitchen & Beach Bar, a casual restaurant serving coastal fare like Gulf shrimp and lobster rolls. A second full-service hotel, The Lodge at Gulf State Park (flying under the Hilton flag), is also in the works. The 350-room, $80 million property with on-site meeting space is scheduled for completion in 2019.
Mississippi Gulf Coast
The Mississippi Gulf Coast is where 90 percent of the Gulf’s fish originate, says Renee Areng, vice president of business development at The Focus Group in Gulfport and former executive director of Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast.“We’re a great fueling environment,” Areng notes.
Fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina, Biloxi
and its surrounding counties stand ready to energize meetings and events. With 15,000 rooms spread between casinos, hotels and beachside condos, Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast already plays well with the corporate crowd. Long term, the destination plans to add three hotels adjacent to the 400,000-sq.-ft. Mississippi Coast Convention Center.
Currently, Beau Rivage, IP Casino Resort and Spa, and Golden Nugget Biloxi are the largest meeting venues. An additional four casinos—required to be 4-star minimum by law—are in the pipeline, joining Scarlet Pearl, which debuted in 2015.
The $65 million Mississippi Aquarium is scheduled to open in Gulfport in 2019, adding another off-site reception venue. Infinity Science Center, home to NASA, NOAA and other scientific organizations, already hosts groups. MGM Park, a Minor League Baseball stadium, is available for large events, too.
Across the bridge from Orange Beach, Alabama, Pensacola plans to capitalize on newfound accessibility via Pensacola International Airport.
This summer, Southwest Airlines launched direct flights to and from St. Louis; Austin; Kansas City, Kansas; and Denver. More flights should add to impressive numbers from a destination that draws more than 2 million visitors per year, including medical conferences (Skin, Bones, Hearts & Private Parts) and and SMERF gatherings (Pensacon).
Pensacola Grand Hotel is getting ahead of the expected new traffic with renovations slated for completion in 2018, coinciding with a rebranding to Doubletree by Hilton. Portofino Island Resort will add additional towers with meeting space in the next five years.