Beth Gendler, vice president of sales and sports for the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Sports Commission, came to the area from Indiana in 2002 to run the sales department for what was then solely a CVB.
“At the time, we didn’t have a sports commission,” Gendler says. “Our job was to bring meetings and conventions to the area, and as a destination we started losing meeting space.”
Hurricane Ivan struck the area in 2004 as a Category 3 storm and destroyed several hotels. Instead of rebuilding hotels that included traditional meeting space, the region opted for condos.
Gendler and her team had to determine how to fill the new accommodations—from 9,000 rooms before the 2004 storm to almost 18,000 rooms today—in a way that didn’t require meeting space. In 2005, the sports commission debuted as a branch of the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism Bureau.
The timing turned out to be extremely beneficial for the area, as its beaches suffered from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in April 2010. “When we had the oil spill, it was sports that kept our summer alive, because visitors were coming here to play ball and not lay on the beach,” Gendler says.
The commission now brings in approximately 125 events every year, including the NAIA Men’s and Women’s Soccer Championship and the NCAA National Collegiate Beach Volleyball Championship.
“Everyone here should be so incredibly proud of the high-quality facilities we have, because we do host three collegiate championships on the same fields where the kids are playing their soccer games or their track and field events,” Gendler says.
One of her favorite aspects of working with the Sports Commission is the ability to talk to visitors who come in for the events and hear their stories. She often interacts with people who tell her that, before their visit, had no idea that Alabama had a beach. For some of the area’s visitors, the Gulf of Mexico beaches are the first they’ve ever seen.
“The fact that our facilities sit in two beach destinations really allows people to come down here and compete in a championship or tournament and also have a beach vacation,” Gendler says. “We call it a ‘sportcation.’”
The “sportcation” aspect of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach events has certainly helped the destination generate hotel stays. According to Gendler, the Sports Commission generated 117,000 room nights in 2019, with $121.44 million in economic impact.
That growth has given the commission national attention. In 2019, Director of Sales Michelle Russ was awarded the Sports Tourism Executive of the Year award by Sports ETA, the sports tourism industry’s national association. The seven-person organization, which is made up entirely of women, won the Sports Tourism Organization of the Year award.
Gendler says part of the success of the commission is really owed to the cities and other partners that work together to bring in events and make visitors feel welcome.
“The SEC and NCAA are both on ESPN networks the entire time they’re here, so that’s a lot of TV coverage for the area,” Gendler says. “Everyone really understands the value of these events … We treat our customers like part of our family, and I think they know that.”