The Snowbirds’ Flight South
by Elizabeth Bonner
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
No, it’s not Christmas — it’s the days and weeks after. For snowbirds, that means pulling out of one driveway piled high with snow and parking in another bordered with palm trees.
Every new year, retired residents of northern states travel south for the winter to escape chilling temperatures. Many find their temporary home on the Gulf Coast.
These migrants have become known as snowbirds.
“When they come in it’s like everyone down here is 70 years old,” said David Hughes, manager of Coastal Resort Properties. “It’s like an older wave that comes through town.”
June Johnson, rental manager of Three Palms Vacation Rentals in Orange Beach, said the usual snowbird season is Feb. 1-March 15.
The sunken state of the economy and fallout of the April 2010 BP oil spill suggests a decrease in the presence of Gulf Coast visitors, but these factors haven’t kept the winter travelers away.
The oil spill has proven to have the opposite effect on the tourism rate.
“We’re setting a record this year from 4.6 million to 5 million visitors,” Hughes said. “It’s the best tourist season ever. Right now the whole world knows where Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are.
“When you think of Alabama, most people think of rednecks and racism, and now everybody knows what we’ve got — white beaches — and it’s beautiful down here.”
Betty Wood, director of hospitality and information for the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, reiterated Hughes’ theory that attention from the oil spill brought people to the area.
“Word has really gotten out this year,” Wood said. “BP did a lot of advertising for us. We have seen an influx of people coming to the area. We’re excited about getting the word out that Alabama has a beach.”
The snowbirds have even come earlier this year. Johnson said many came at the end of December and will stay through March.
“They just have found that this is a better place to be when the weather starts turning cold up north,” Johnson said. “Our weather’s flexible up here. It’s kind of low key and a good place to visit.”
The snowbirds are welcomed into the community with open arms because they keep the Gulf’s economy going during the unpopulated winter months.
“It’s dead in December and all of a sudden we start getting cars and traffic again, and we know the snowbirds are here,” Johnson said.
Wood said they “baby” the snowbirds because their presence is so pivotal.
“They actually get us through this season when we’re normally not busy at all,” Wood said. “If we didn’t have our snowbirds here, we would be totally dead this time of year.”
Though their contributions to the economy spread across the community, Hughes said their presence clearly impacts pharmacies, churches and Veterans of Foreign Wars clubs.
“They all come down here, and they have to fill their prescriptions,” Hughes said. “A big part of the drugstores’ business is snowbirds. They usually grew up in very religious households, so the churches just swell.
“Veterans of Foreign Wars clubs are sort of nightclubs for people that have served in the armed forces. A lot of the snowbirds are ex-military, and the VFW clubs swell in numbers. One goes from 50 to 250.”
The visitors like to connect with each other during their winter vacation, so many join clubs with other snowbirds from their state.
There are 13 active snowbird clubs in the Gulf Shores area. The Michigan Club is the largest, with more than 1,200 members.
“We have five meetings during the year,” said Charlie Arensmeier, president of the Michigan Club. “They’re primarily to have entertainment at the meetings, announcements about upcoming events and door prizes. We have luncheons and golf. A lot of people join the club to play golf.”
Arensmeier and his wife have been coming to Gulf Shores every winter since 2004, and he feels there are several factors that keep snowbirds coming back.
“I think some of it has to do with the climate,” Arensmeier said. “The climate is not real hot, but it’s not real cold. People like that it’s not crowded. A lot of people go to Florida and think it’s crowded, so they come here.
“(Another reason is) camaraderie. People get to know each other and look forward to coming back to see their friends.”
Club members’ contributions to the economy go beyond bringing business to local stores and restaurants; many of these snowbirds become active members of the community during their stay.
“They really do a lot of good for the city,” said Kitty Simpson, owner of Kitty’s Kafé in Gulf Shores. “They help raise money for different charities and give back.”
The walls of the hallway in the back of Simpson’s small, home-style restaurant are covered with framed certificates that read “Snowbird Appreciation Award” and come from the clubs of various northern states.
“We’ve always given them T-shirts and gift certificates for the snowbirds that help,” Simpson said. “They know they can count on us for door prizes. They definitely support us a lot as far as coming in for meals.”
Simpson said the clubs often coordinate philanthropic events such as cookouts.
“I know we’ve donated mustard packets for a bratwurst fundraiser they had,” Simpson said. “They sell the meals, they’ve got most of the food donated and they give the money back to the community.”
The annual Snowbird Bratfest has raised more than $77,000 for the area’s fire departments in the last 13 years. Arensmeier said all the clubs team up every year to coordinate the event.
Some of their fundraisers even reflect the coastal culture.
“We do something called a low country boil in February, and that money is for the Gulf Shores Zoo,” Arensmeier said. “We have about 900 that participate in that.”
Wood sees the northern visitors immerse themselves in the customs of the Gulf Coast and take on its traditions.
“This is our time that we have Mardi Gras,” Wood said. “They love the Mardi Gras parade. Several clubs march in the Fat Tuesday parade that we have here in the area.”
Though an influx of visitors can annoy locals, Simpson said many are grateful for the snowbirds and feel their contributions to the community outweigh the mild frustrations that accompany their arrival.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh God, the snowbirds are here. I can’t get in the post office. I can’t get in the grocery store,’” Simpson said. “But they bring a lot of money to the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. They keep us going in the winter.
“Even though they drive a little slow,” Simpson said as she laughed, “they’ve paid their dues, in my opinion.”