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Gulf State lodge rebirth is on schedule

By David Rainer

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/alabama/the-lodge-at-gulf-state-park-a-hilton-hotel-PNSLGHH/index.html shows that Hilton will start accepting reservations “on or after” January 1, 2019. Visit www.mygulfstatepark.com 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.

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.”

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.”