Huntsville, Alabama, is a place of discovery. It’s a place where high-tech blends seamlessly with cultural diversity and Southern hospitality. Known as “The Rocket City,” Huntsville has a rich history with U.S. space missions and space technology — one of its main draws is the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the official visitor center for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. And beyond space, the city offers arts and culture attractions, outdoor recreation, vibrant neighborhoods and new developments.
Pam Williams is the tourism and education sales manager at the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau. We chatted with Williams about what groups can expect when visiting Huntsville and how she can help tour operators plan successful trips to the area.
Q. Tell us about yourself. How long have you been with the Huntsville/Madison County CVB?
A. I am the tourism and education sales manager for the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau, and I have been with the CVB in a couple of different capacities for over 16 years. I have been the tourism sales manager since 2009 and then a couple years ago, I dipped my toes into the conventions world and now I am the education sales manager for meetings and conventions as well as group travel.
Q. How would you describe Huntsville/Madison County to someone who has never visited before?
A. Huntsville is not your stereotypical Southern town. One of the things that I love most about my city is that we have all the amenities of much larger cities and communities, but we still maintain our small-town feel and that famous Southern hospitality. I know that’s a broad analysis of Huntsville, but it’s one of the things that I appreciate the most about living here and it’s also one of the things that groups appreciate most when they visit, because even though we have all of the amenities, they’re easily accessible.
Q. Why is Huntsville known as “The Rocket City”?
A. People wonder why in the world Huntsville, Alabama, is Rocket City USA, and that is because we have Marshall Space Flight Center — our NASA facility and the very first NASA facility. Without Huntsville and the work that we’ve done since the 1950s through the present and onto the future, you wouldn’t have the rest of NASA. You wouldn’t have Kennedy Space Center. You wouldn’t have Houston. You wouldn’t have the more well-known NASA facilities without Huntsville, and so technically Huntsville you could say is the birthplace of the U.S. space program. Marshall is our NASA facility, but then we had the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, which is the official visitor center for Marshall and it is still the world’s largest space museum. It focuses on the past, the present and the future. Because Marshall has been involved with every single program from the very beginning, starting with the Explorer 1 satellite through the shuttle program, and now they’re currently working on The Artemis Program, which will return us to the moon and take us on to Mars.
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center and our history with the U.S. space program sets Huntsville apart from other destinations. Even if you’re not a huge space exploration enthusiast, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is a wonderful place to visit for historical and even patriotic reasons because it’s just amazing to see what we were able to accomplish just with brain power, even before computers.
Q. What else makes Huntsville a unique destination?
A. Another one of our strong points is our location, especially for group tourism. It you’re interested in doing a multi-city or even a multi-state tour, Huntsville is only two hours south of Nashville and an hour and a half north of Birmingham. Chattanooga is an hour and a half and Muscle Shoals and all the music heritage is only an hour and a half. Memphis is three and a half to four hours and Atlanta is three to four hours away, so there is a lot to do in this area without a lot of drive time.
Because of the work that we were doing here in the 1950s on to now, Huntsville is a very high-tech type of city. We have the second largest research park in the nation and the fourth-largest research park in the world. And when you’re doing that type of work, you have a very educated workforce. And when you have a very educated workforce, people want cultural experiences. So, in addition to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, we have a thriving arts and cultural scene in Huntsville. We have Huntsville Botanical Garden, which is basically right next door to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. We also have the Huntsville Museum of Art, which is right in the heart of downtown.
And one of my personal favorites is Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment, one of our old textile mills that has been converted into an arts facility. It’s the nation’s largest privately owned art facility, and there are over 200 artists there with working studios. It’s free to the public, so you can even talk to the artists. Many of them teach classes. In addition to the working studios, there’s open gallery space and there’s every medium of art from culinary arts to performing arts to photography. It’s a great location just to spend a little bit of time and get a snack. A lot of groups use it as free time.
Q. Why should tour operators bring their groups to Huntsville?
A. There’s a diversity of things to do in Huntsville and North Alabama in general. You can go to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and talk to a docent. The docents are retired NASA employees or government contractors. It’s fun to talk to them and gain their firsthand experiences. We have great culinary experiences and natural experiences, too.
Q. What’s new in Huntsville this year?
A. We have been extremely fortunate during the pandemic that none of our construction projects slowed down at all. And we had a lot going on prior to the pandemic. One of the big things that we’re all very excited about is The Orion Amphitheatre, which is opening in May. The amphitheater looks like the Roman Colosseum and seats 8,000 people. Bookings have already begun; it has some great acts coming up, of all sizes. The concept behind it is for it to be a multi-purpose community center, used year-round for different events. There will be a food village with locally sourced food.
We also had new hotels open during the pandemic and we are on track to add close to 1,000 more hotel rooms this year and by the beginning of the first quarter 2023.
The amphitheater is one of the big construction projects, and that’s located in mid-city, which is also still growing. They’ll be adding three new hotels there, and that’s going to be a live-work-play type community, and then we have several other places like that that are still being constructed.
Q. What services do you offer tour operators?
A. All of the services the CVB provides are free of charge. I can assist with customized itineraries and contact information. Unfortunately, I can’t book anything directly, but I can provide the suggested itinerary and all the contact information and some estimated cost analysis and refer them to the people they need to speak with. We can also assist with photos and videos, as well as welcome receptions and special motorcoach greetings.
I think DMOs have a greater role now since the pandemic because we’ve lost so many people in our industry. A lot of the tour operators don’t have the same contacts anymore. They can’t just call their favorite person at their favorite hotel or restaurant. I think that DMOs and the services we provide are even more important now.
The majority of our attractions have free bus parking on-site, and if they don’t, they have made arrangements where buses can park elsewhere. Most of our hotels have free motorcoach parking as well.
Q. What do you think surprises groups the most about visiting Huntsville?
A. Huntsville is not one of the huge top-tier cities. We’re not a New York or an Orlando. Once visitors get here, they’re completely blown away and just have a wonderful time. Once they get here, visitors often comment on how green and clean Huntsville is. Because our downtown area is surrounded by Big Spring International Park, we are a very green city in terms of the usage of actual greenery, like trees and plants.
Mark your calendars: Huntsville will be hosting the 2023 Southeast Tourism Society Domestic Showcase, April 17–20.