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Selling Alabama to international travelers

Andy Facer, Alabama’s representative for the UK and Ireland travel market, checks out a NASA astronaut suit at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville.

By Minnie Lamberth

Andy Facer was born and raised in the United Kingdom and lives in Cambridgeshire, yet he works full-time to promote trips to Alabama. He’s the state’s tourism representative for the UK and Ireland travel market.

Alabama has a lot of benefits to sell, Facer notes. “The Alabama people are some of the friendliest I have met and always keen to share their own unique stories and experiences,” he said. “During my tour of the state last year, I was wowed by how different each area is and the diversity. You can get a totally different experience in a few hours traveling by road.” 

Facer began representing Alabama in January 2017 as a contractor through Global Travel Marketing. “We work very closely with our partners in the UK travel trade,” Facer says. “We embark on multiple joint marketing activities throughout the year, highlighting the diversity that Alabama offers – from the amazing beaches on the Gulf Coast, our civil rights history, wonderful recording studios in the Shoals and our unique space experiences in Huntsville. This is all enhanced by training sessions with their selling teams.”

Janin Nachtweh, based in Berlin, promotes Alabama in Austria and Switzerland as well as Germany. When she began as a contract representative in January 2016, Alabama hadn’t had a representative focused on this market for about 15 years. “The knowledge of Alabama was nearly zero,” Nachtweh says. Since then, she has been reaching out to tour operators, attending travel trade shows and working with the media to sell the state’s story. Currently 24 tour operators include Alabama in their offerings.

“Alabama is always a big surprise,” Nachtweh says. Tour operators may have heard of Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr., but they don’t realize that the civil rights movement started in Montgomery. They may be familiar with the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and his involvement in the American space program, but they don’t realize his relationship to Huntsville and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. They are familiar with famous musicians who have recorded at Muscle Shoals, but they don’t know about the renowned production studios there. Nachtweh’s marketing activities help tour operators learn about the state’s opportunities.

The Alabama Tourism Department also has a contract with Ying “Springna” Zhao to promote Alabama to travelers in China. According to Deputy Director Grey Brennan, “China is one of the fastest growing international tourism markets – growth is exceedingly high.” Though based in Montgomery, Zhao is a native of China and is able to talk with decision makers who aren’t comfortable speaking in English. “Springna bridges that gap,” Brennan says.

Alabama shares a number of representatives to reach additional international markets. For example, Travel South USA, a coalition of 12 southern states, is one of the oldest regional organizations promoting tourism in America. “We band together to promote the South as an international destination to visitors,” Brennan says. “Through Travel South there are six countries that have representatives that promote Alabama and other states. These representatives as a whole will talk to tour companies to try to put Alabama destinations in their offerings.”

Berlin-based Janin Nachtweh, on a recent visit to Alabama, visits the Sumter Welcome Center. She promotes travel to Alabama in Austria, Switzerland and Germany.

As part of a southern trip, many travelers will key in on such destinations as Nashville or New Orleans or other areas that surround Alabama. By partnering with other states, Alabama attractions get included in the tour. “So when visitors come to do these southern vacations, they also come to Alabama,” Brennan says.

Alabama’s growth as an international destination is important to the state’s tourism efforts. Tourism is, after all, an economic engine, and international visitors tend to spend more dollars in their travel in the U.S. than domestic visitors do. “It’s wise to attract those visitors,” Brennan says.

“People from other countries go on vacation more often than Americans. America is a key place for them to go,” he adds. Often, a first trip to the United States may be to a major destination spot, such as New York City. “The South is that next experience, and Alabama is a key part of the South.”

Alabama’s tourism opportunities cover a variety of categories – including history, golf, museums and the outdoors. Yet international travelers won’t realize that these opportunities exist without coordinated promotional strategies. “Very few people stumble on this information magically on their own,” Brennan says. “To be a tourist destination is a lot of work behind the scenes.”