30 MAR 2012: The headlines raged about tornadoes devastating parts of Indiana and Kentucky. Survivors who narrowly escaped from the eye said their lives turned upside down that Friday afternoon. Two days later I was headed to the annual Travel South USA Showcase in Louisville Kentucky, a mere 20 miles from the worst tornado-hit spots.

Henryville, Indiana was wiped off the map so was Marysville, another 29 miles north. In West Liberty Kentucky, the entire Main Street was flattened.

I should have known something was up when my connecting Delta flight in Detroit was rescheduled three times, only to be cancelled at the final hour, “No flights to Louisville from here, I’m afraid,” announced a Delta crew member distributing meal vouchers.

But after a full day of long airport wait times and a surprise side trip to Memphis I finally arrived.

The Kentuckians couldn’t have been more gracious.

The four day event which attracted 600 delegates, scheduled over 7,000 appointments, delivered over $700,000 of economic impact to the city and generated close to US $15 Million in future tourism sales for the region.

Early Travel South USA Showcases

Big changes have happened since the first get-together in Tampa Florida occurred in 1983 among 11 states. The mandate: To bring more group travel business to the Southern states.

“We were the first regional tourism organization of its kind in the United States,” beams Liz Bittner executive director for the Travel South USA who relayed how this southern region recognized the benefits of tourism long before other destinations.

America’s oldest and largest regional travel promotion organization was formed in 1965.

Commonwealth of Kentucky

Tourism has grown into a huge industry sector, employing 170,000 Kentuckians and is the state’s third largest industry.

Kentucky is famous for a host of reasons. The Kentucky Derby is considered America’s oldest thoroughbred race.

It’s the land of Colonel Sanders of KFC fame. He’s resting in Cave Hill Cemetery which believe it or not is a favourite tourist haunt.

“They had to put a yellow marker on the road so people knew where to drive to see his plot,” marvels Leslie Burke from City Taste Tours (www.citytastetours.com).

George Clooney fans flutter at the mention of the pop film star’s hometown Lexington. Corvette hounds rev their engines at the mere sight of America’s favourite sports car. The only Corvette manufacturer in the country is found in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

And, who needs to travel all the way to Australia when they can head to Kentucky Down Under? The local kangaroo farm is a completely hands on interactive exhibit with animals from Australia. The latest addition is 10-month old Foster, an eastern grey joey who was hand-raised. This convention crowd just couldn’t get enough of Foster sightings.

Bourbon Trails are plentiful too. The oldest distillery in the US is in Frankfort known as the Buffalo Trace Distillery.

Then there are the abundant trails of Appalachia and the land of Daniel Boone. Outdoor buffs get a kick out of retracing the racoon hat adorning legend at a national forest spanning 21 counties named after him.


Georgia on my Mind

“We’re very popular with Canadians especially when it comes to golf,” says Stephanie Paupeck, of the Georgia Tourism CVB. “We find golfers all the time in shorts and t-shirts in February then we find out they are from Canada,” she smiles. Yup, sounds like us.

Situated along I-75, this hugely used highway among our snowbirds has become a widely welcomed stop-off for those who like the coastal beaches and Georgia’s Barrier Island.

If your clients are flying to Atlanta anytime soon, big changes will be noticed at the Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. A huge transformation is now underway at the world’s busiest airport.

On May 16, 2012, a brand new international terminal will create huge efficiencies says Mark Vaughan, executive vice president and chief sales officer, with the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In November, Atlanta will be hosting the inaugural International Travel South USA Showcase. Tourism is the number one employer in Atlanta with a $12-billion meetings and conventions industry.

“Right now there’s a lot of music happening in Georgia,” Stephanie says, listing local groups from the 70s and 80s like the Allman Brothers, REM and the B52s.

Music fans head to Columbia County for Lady Antebellum while Athens, a small city (a 1 hour 15 minute drive north from Atlanta) is where fans of REM and the B52s like to hang.

“The B52s house is not open yet but when you go to downtown Athens and see where they recorded music, the vibe is still there,” she smiles, adding a great drive is the Antebellum Trail with its nine communities. “These are towns General Sherman travelled that were so beautiful he did not burn them down during the Civil War.”


Sweet Home Alabama

The food year in Alabama has arrived. BBQs, grits, bread pudding and lots more. Grey Brennan, marketing and regional director for the state, laughs and says, “You ain’t seen nuthin’ till you did our 100 dishes in Alabama before you die promotion.”

Brennan promises when you visit any town in Alabama you will find a special dish. So you can actually declare: “You tasted that part of the city.”

Edith Parten, communications director for Alabama explains that the 100 Alabama Road Trips is a new campaign being rolled out in phases - with the first ten ready to launch shortly. You can choose from four to 10 day itineraries and scour the main finds among these cities.

Picture the Gulf Coast, romantic getaways in Mobile, a walking tour of downtown Birmingham, Alabama’s biggest city, or even Muscle Shoals. Learn about the hit recording capital of the world during the seventies and eighties. Think the Rolling Stones, Cher, Rod Stewart and the Queen of Soul. “They say Aretha Franklin got her soul (in Muscle Shoals) because she used to just sing show tunes until she went there.” Says Edith.

Snowbirds love the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and its 32 miles of sugar white sandy shores. “It’s laid back and friendly, you don’t get a lot crowds like the other beaches.”

For long term condo and house rentals check out GulfShoresRentals.com. www.alabama.travel

Let the Good Times Roll: Louisiana

The folks across Louisiana like to spread their hospitality which is evident in their big restaurant scene, and of course, it helps the state has produced some great musicians in its day.

Watch for a new campaign ready to roll out. Called the Louisiana Soundtrack, the promotion will focus on music and will have an interactive website packed with interview clips from musicians past and current, an interactive radio station, and an online trip planner that allows you to plug in by genre and musician then gets you going to places you’d never dreamed existed.

“Louisiana (LA) is the other LA. The History Channel just kicked off the third season of the Swamp People. There’s even a ring tone with Troy saying ‘Shoot em, shoot em,’” laughs Misty Velasquez, director of programmes and services for the Louisiana Office of Tourism. “They actually built a swamp in the middle of New York City to kick off the third season and we did have live gators, and musicians there.”

Head over heels in crawfish season, warm winter means the season should be good.


The long state in the middle aka Tennessee

Graceland, Elvis’ Memphis home, The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo Choo might be some obvious Tennessee creations, but going down this state’s memory lane made me realize just how much more Tennessee has to offer especially to clients big on nostalgia.

For starters, you can’t get away from the Civil War. Husband and wife team, Steve and Allison Gipson won’t let you. The two have been hauling around their Civil War dinner theatre for 15 years to various museums and shopping centers and since 2006 have plunked down stakes at a more permanent home, an old church in Whitwell which they have restored.

Talk about passionate. These two combed countless archives across the US in search of Civil War documents, memoirs and confess their 21 year in production play is constantly getting tweaked due to new information he says they continue to cull. She sews their costumes, he likes to share their finds, it’s all part of the Buttonwillow Church Civil War Dinner Theater.

“Gone with the Wind was the number one book and people are still interested in this best selling movie of all time. Adjusted for inflation, to this day it’s the number one film so the interest in this war isn’t going away and the people in the south have an affinity to it,” Steve, a Civil War expert, says. Looks like filmmaker James Cameron’s two blockbusters will have to step aside for this one.

Another film reference - this one is creepy - is an 80’s flick called The Manhattan Project. The title is based on a true story chronicling a real town that actually existed but of course no one knew about it, not even the people purportedly living there.

Debi Boody from the Oak Ridge CVB, representing America’s Secret City explained, “We were not on a map. There was no way to identify us. We were a total secret. We made atomic bomb components for WW2 which inevitably was dropped and did end the war and people in Oak Ridge did not even know they were working on this until after the war was over.”

If anything this town will get curious types, World War II and Cold War addicts, and those obsessed by espionage some thrills because Oak Ridge today is open for business.



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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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