Gary Ellis was adjusting to retirement when a call from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) promptly changed his plans.
Instead of a life of leisure, Ellis soon found himself embarking on one of the most fascinating challenges of his career. “I’m flattered to be asked to lend my talents on what I believe will be a historic project for the state of Alabama,” Ellis said.
Ellis, who retired in 2016 from Compass Media, a company he founded 1986, was hired as the Director of Community Relations and Administration at Gulf State Park. His challenge is to support the implementation of the Gulf State Park mission statement:
~Gulf State Park will be an international benchmark for environmental and economic sustainability demonstrating best practices for outdoor recreation, education, and hospitable accommodations.~
This nearly 5-year vision is nearing completion with an extensive revival of a new lodge and state-of-the-art facilities that are scheduled to open later this year.
“This is not just a premium hotel on the beach,” Ellis said. “The entire entity of Gulf State Park – including The Lodge, Living Campus, the Interpretive Center, the new trails and improvements – will be a game-changer for the state. We all can recall the reputation enhancements that occurred when the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail was built. That was a game-changer. It changed a lot of perceptions about Alabamians and what we’re about. Mercedes was another game-changer in what people believed and expected about our state.
“I believe Gulf State Park will rank in those categories as enhancing the image of Alabama and further communicating what wonderful resources we have. I’m excited to see that. The new lodge should draw not only from Alabama but all over the United States. We’ll also be appealing to international visitation. The work and strategic thinking that have gone into this will put us in a different playing field other than just a resort hotel on the beach. This is much bigger when you bundle all of this together and you think about the magnitude of the experiences available.”
The official name of the hotel and conference center is The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel. Obviously, Hilton will handle The Lodge booking. Valor Hospitality was hired to open the hotel and manage the new park enhancements, the Interpretive Center and Learning Campus. Ellis’ role is connecting the surrounding communities and Gulf State Park together with the new lodge and enhancements as well as managing the other facets of the 6,125-acre park.
“I just had lunch with the general manager and regional director for Valor Hospitality,” Ellis said. “They are moving along quite rapidly. It’s a full-court press right now. We are projecting an opening for November 1.
“We’ve been getting a lot of interest and a lot of good feedback that people are excited to replace the old lodge and bring on the fresh new opportunity for leisure travelers as well as the meeting and convention travelers.”
When Hurricane Ivan destroyed the old lodge and convention center in 2004, the Alabama Gulf Coast was left lacking facilities large enough to host any sizeable conventions or conferences. Ellis said Alabama soon should get a great deal of that business back.
“During the time we didn’t have a lodge, we had the campground, cabins and cottages,” he said. “Those were our only accommodations. What we were missing out on was that conference and convention business that had gone elsewhere. And it was not elsewhere in Alabama. We lost a tremendous amount of business to northwest Florida, places like Sandestin and that area.”
“I don’t think anybody was comfortable with Alabama state associations meeting out of state, so this gives them an opportunity to keep their money at home and invest it in our own neighborhoods. A lot of the state associations rotate locations around the state. We just didn’t have the accommodations for the scale and size of those meetings, but now we will.”
The Lodge will accommodate up to 1,000 people for conferences and conventions with a 350-room hotel that includes 20 suites. The beach-view ballroom is 12,160 square feet with an adjacent 7,500-square-foot outdoor terrace, and several other smaller meeting and conference rooms are available. A Gulf-front pool will have a pool bar and grill, while a Gulf-front restaurant will have terrace seating and a private dining room that will serve house-prepared dishes sourced from regional suppliers, including fresh Alabama Gulf Seafood.
Obviously, a 350-room hotel is not large enough to house a 1,000-person convention, but Ellis said that was by design so that the hotels and condominiums in the surrounding communities would benefit from the overflow.
The Lodge, Interpretive Center and Learning Campus are being constructed under LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) protocols. The Interpretive Center is pursuing certification under the Living Building Challenge, a designation currently afforded to only 16 buildings in the world.
“The thing so unique about Gulf State Park is it’s being built on a smaller footprint than previously existed,” Ellis said. “They are using every environmental standard possible from design and construction work but also from the operation perspective, such as some of the principles they are using for recycling water.
“One thing I found intriguing is the day I went by the construction site where they were busting sheetrock, grinding it up to be trucked to farms in middle Baldwin County to be used as lime supplement. This practice not only minimizes waste, but also makes use of reclaimed materials. Not only is it following LEED principles, it’s also doing something the Alabama Gulf Coast has never seen before.”
Ellis said the new facilities will benefit the Alabama Gulf Coast economy during the traditional so-called “shoulder seasons” that fall outside the normal summertime peak usage.
“This will help us with our seasonality challenges,” he said. “For about 75 days out of the year, we’re doing really well; everybody’s happy. But that leaves a lot of other months that we need to balance out our seasonality and build towards a year-round economy. We should appeal to the niche environmental groups that travel, young couples and individual travelers. A lot of them like to travel in the spring and fall.
“The new and improved Gulf State Park and all its entities will hopefully help smooth out those ebbs and flows in business.”
Ellis said The Lodge is designed to meet the needs of families on vacation, corporate travelers and convention delegates, with a soft opening planned for sometime in November. A visit to this link shows that Hilton will start accepting reservations “on or after” January 1, 2019. Visit here for more information about other opportunities at the park.
With its 3 miles of sugar-sand beaches, Gulf State Park was recently recognized as the 2018 Attraction of the Year by the Alabama Tourism Department.
“Gulf State Park is one of the jewels of our entire Parks system,” said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “We’re honored to receive the award from Alabama Tourism, and we expect next year will be even better with the opening of the The Lodge at Gulf State Park.”
Ellis added, “There are lots of awards, but when you are recognized by your own state tourism industry as being Attraction of the Year, you’re in pretty good company. When you consider the Space and Rocket Center, Bellingrath Gardens and the USS Alabama Battleship, The Civil Rights Institute, we are thrilled to be recognized, and the timing is great.”
State Parks Director Greg Lein pointed out that the Alabama Tourism Department award isn’t the only recognition Gulf State Park has received.
“Gulf State Park has been recognized by its customers for its excellent service through certificates awarded by TripAdvisor.com,” Lein said. “Gulf State Park was inducted into the TripAdvisor Hall of Fame for receiving such awards for five consecutive years.”
Ellis said he has been impressed with what the Gulf State Park staff has accomplished since he joined the team.
“The team I’ve inherited has done a lot with limited resources,” Ellis said. “I’m amazed at this team. They have worked under challenging circumstances to deliver excellent service.”
With the new facilities coming online soon, Ellis finds it difficult to subdue his excitement.
“There’s nothing but a bright future ahead of us with many wonderful things coming,” he said. “It’s a great honor for the staff here. Bundled together, we have some incredible experiences that we can deliver – from nature, hiking and biking and great beaches all the way to luxury lodging, honeymoons and weddings as well as regional and national conferences.
“This is something Alabama will be very, very proud of.”
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.