Making visitors feel welcome in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’
“Welcome to Alabama!”
If you’ve walked through the doors of one of Alabama’s eight State Welcome Centers, those words no doubt would have greeted you.
Last year, a record 1.3 million people visited the centers, on their way to Alabama and points north, south, east and west.
The centers are owned and maintained by the Alabama Department of Transportation, and the lobbies are staffed by the Department of Tourism. The number of tourism representatives at each center varies from five to seven, depending on the traffic.
“Grand Bay has seven because their center is so big,” says Collier. “It was built to be a staging area for storms so they could accommodate more people.” The center, on I-10 East at the southernmost tip of Mobile County, was rebuilt and expanded in 2016 and displays original art, including carvings of beach scenes in the brick exterior walls and a large fiberglass oyster painted by Mobile artist Lucy Gafford featuring sites around Alabama.
“Our oyster is called ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’” says Grand Bay tourist promotion representative Emily White. The oyster is part of the Oyster Trail, an educational scavenger hunt through coastal Alabama to support the Mobile Bay Oyster Gardening Program.
Each center is stocked with brochures about sites throughout the state, divided by geographic regions. And representatives, wearing their trademark “Sweet Home Alabama” shirts, are equipped to answer questions about destinations, both in their area and beyond.
“We want them to feel that this is the best place they’ve been to, when they come to our centers,” says Collier. “You know the old adage, ‘people may not remember what you say but they’ll always remember how you made them feel’? That’s what I tell my staff.”
Before employees are hired, they must first be certified through the state Personnel Department, Collier says, and she sits in on all interviews. “We’re looking for people with customer service experience, who have worked directly with the public,” she says. After hiring, it’s “mostly on the job training” she adds. “Then after they start, we do familiarization tours where we take them to different parts of the state, because if you’ve been there, it’s easier to tell others about it.”
Each year the employees have a retreat at a tourist destination, such as the OWA Amusement Park in Foley in 2017. They’ve also been to Dothan, Huntsville, Mobile, Tuscaloosa, Eufaula, Birmingham, Montgomery and other cities.
“We get a lot of international visitors,” says Gerlena Hall, manager at the Sumter Welcome Center in Cuba, off I-59 in west Alabama. Many of them want to know about the civil rights movement and the sites associated with it.
“We get a lot of traffic from Louisiana and Texas during summer breaks,” says White, with most heading for the beaches in Alabama, Florida or to Disney World.
International visitors, meanwhile, usually aren’t beachgoers but are looking for historic sites. Some are visiting all the state capitals.
Visitors have questions, they have answers
Sometimes visitors ask unusual questions, depending on where they are from. “A lot of people from the north ask, ‘What is Mardi Gras?’” says White, who is only too happy to explain the annual celebration.
Becky Clark, another employee at Grand Bay, was once asked, “Where is Greenbow, Alabama?” referring to the town where Forrest Gump lived in the movie of the same name. She explained it wasn’t a real town, but that Bayou La Batre is a real town not far from the welcome center, where they could see scenes and shrimp boats from the movie. “They were very excited to buy some fresh shrimp right off the boat!” White says.
At the Cleburne Welcome Center off I-20 East in Heflin, manager Kathy Freeman says they are often asked for restaurant recommendations. “They don’t want chain restaurants, but something local,” she says. “If I’ve eaten there, I’ll tell them about it. We want them to stay in Alabama and leave their money here.”
The Welcome Centers have had their share of famous visitors and even animals. Some years ago, the Budweiser Clydesdale horses, likely on their way to an event in Birmingham, stopped at the Cleburne center for a break. Comedian Jerry Clower, musician Bret Michaels and Penny Marshall of “Laverne & Shirley” fame have visited the Sumter center.
Every center has had its share of visitors with health emergencies. “Medical emergencies happen infrequently,” but staff have a plan in place, says Collier. They can call 911 and an oxygen machine is available if needed.
Some of the most popular items the welcome centers provide to visitors are copies of Alabama Living. Two hundred copies are shipped to each center every month. “Travelers want recipes and we show them the recipes in the magazine and all the other good information,” says Freeman. “They love Alabama Living.”