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Happy Trails

Hotels Help Well-Known Alabama Golf Trail Become True Destination

Monday, June 26, 2017
Steve Pike
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John Cannon remembers back some 18 years ago when construction was underway on the Capitol Hill golf course project, which included three courses and a hotel in Prattville, AL. Never heard of Prattville? That was Cannon’s point to his bosses, including Dr. David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

“I said it was the ‘dumbest thing I had ever seen. How is this going to work?’” Cannon said.

That question sums up the 25-year history of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, in which Capitol Hill’s golf courses and Montgomery Marriott Prattville Hotel each play integral parts.

How is a golf trail that runs north and south through Alabama of all places, going to work? Behind the scenes, some people involved in the original concept of the Trail will tell you they had no idea. It was a bold project, to say the least, and one that even to this day has its detractors.

“It was sort of a ‘build it and they will come,’ mentality,” said Cannon, president of SunBelt Golf Corp., the golf course development and management arm of the RTJ Golf Trail, each owned by the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which manages public pension funds for state and local employees and public education employees—approximately 350,000 people—in the state of Alabama.

Well, they did build the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. And for the past 25 years people have come to Alabama—to Florence in the north and as far south as Point Clear along Mobile Bay—to play golf and experience the Trail’s Renaissance and Marriott-branded hotels and resorts.

The RTJ Golf Trail—which is comprised of 11 sites, eight hotels and 26 golf courses—each have exposed thousands of business people and investors to Alabama.

“They were maybe pigeon-holing Alabama and not giving it its fair due,” Cannon said.

On the tourism side, the Trail receives approximately 500,000 visitors annually and its courses have seen a total of 12 million rounds of play since 1992. Not such a dumb idea after all.

Magnolia Grove in Mobile was one of the trail's original seven courses that opened in 1992 and 1993. The newest, Ross Bridge in Hoover, opened in 2005. The Renaissance-flagged Ross Bridge Resort & Spa has become one of Alabama's more popular destination resorts, as has the 147-year-old Grand Hotel Marriott in Point Clear.

The Grand Hotel currently is undergoing a renovation (but remains open) and this fall will be added to Marriott’s Autograph Collection of hotels and resorts.

In northern Alabama, Marriott Shoals in Florence sits along the banks of the Tennessee River. The hotel features Swampers Grill, named in honor of the sessions band at FAME Studios in nearby Muscle Shoals. Before he became a legend, guitarist Duane Allman was a member of the Swampers in the late 1960s. It was in Studio B at FAME Studios where Allman met fellow guitarist Barry Oakley and founded the Allman Brothers Band.

“The hotel and the golf courses (Schoolmaster and Fighting Joe) have turned Florence and Muscle Shoals into a destination,” Cannon said. “It’s a great place for meetings, for families and for music history.”

Each of the hotels along the Trail is managed by PCH Hotels & Resorts, another arm of the RSA.

“What (the hotels) have done for the Trail is to expand our market to reach different kinds of customers who expect different kinds of experiences, so we’re not just selling golf on its own,” Cannon said.

But while golf is at its core, the Minnesota-born Bronner envisioned much more. That vision hasn’t changed in 25 years. Bronner’s goal for the RTJ Golf Trail remains to help expand tourism, recruit industry and attract retirees, thus strengthening the state’s economy while adding to the quality of life for all Alabama citizens.

Bronner’s vision has come to fruition. For example, international companies, including Hyundai and Airbus, each have built manufacturing plants in Alabama and created thousands of jobs for Alabama citizens; the PGA Tour and the LPGA Tour each have tournaments on RTJ Golf Trail courses; and the Retirement Systems of Alabama ended 2016 with more than $38 billion in assets, including office buildings in Alabama and New York City.

“Hospitality goes along with the golf and hotels,” Cannon said. “We’ve been able to attract business meetings from Fortune 100 companies, but we’re also creating the opportunity to attract permanent business. We’re heavily involved in the economic development of the entire state.

“It’s fun to be involved in the Trail and to impact the well-being of the entire state through golf. Only about 8 percent of Alabamians play golf. But what we want to do is improve each of their lives whether or not they play golf,” he added.

Steve Pike
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: Steve Pike is an award-winning golf writer and author who helped define golf business reporting in the early 1990s as the first Golf Business Editor for Golfweek magazine and later at Golf World and Golf Shop Operations magazines for Golf Digest. Pike further pioneered this genre at the PGA of America and Time Warner as the golf business writer and editor for PGA.com. He started in newspapers more than ...
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