Herb Malone: the visionary who transformed the Gulf Coast


In 1993, the economy of the Gulf Coast began to change. The Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), or Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism (GSOBT) as it is known today, had been established.

At the forefront was President/CEO Herb Malone, a champion for the Gulf Coast who believed in this area, and who believed in sharing our natural wonders with others.

“When the CVB began, it was the first of its kind in Baldwin County,” said Donna Watts, CEO/President of the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce and longtime friend of Malone. “We were all watching with great anticipation of what it would do for the county, because when you bring people through other places throughout the county we all knew it would have an economic impact. I don’t think anybody understood the truth of what would happen.”

Malone’s fascination and love for the area grew from a young age. Malone was born and raised in Citronelle and was the youngest of three children. His father worked at Brookley Air Force Base in Mobile. When he was around five-years-old his parents purchased a lot on the Fort Morgan peninsula and built a small house on the bay where he spent every summer.

“The day school let out for summer, my mother would pick us up at school with the car already loaded and we would come down and spend the entire summer. We would go home two or three days before school started,” Malone said.

After graduating from high school, Malone went on to study business administration and play football at Livingston State College (now the University of West Alabama). During his time at Livingston the football team won the NAIA National Championship and he met and married his wife Bessie.

Malone signed a free agent contract with the Atlanta Falcons when he finished college. He went through training camp and the preseason before being cut from the team.

“It was a great experience and I got to play in five preseason games. It is a very competitive world,” Malone said.

When he was cut from the team, the Falcons handed him a plane ticket and sent him home. It was time to figure out the next step. He did not know what he was going to do or where he was going to work but he knew where he wanted to live.

Malone spent four years working in Mobile before moving his family to Gulf Shores in 1978 where he and Jim Owens partnered to open Gulf Shores Title. He became very engaged with the community, joining city clubs, volunteering as a firefighter and running for Gulf Shores City Council. He served two and a half terms before stepping down midterm for business reasons. He was also recruited and elected the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber board of directors chairperson.

In 1988, the CEO of the chamber Jim Bradley called Malone to let him know he was moving to Texas to take a new job. When Malone mentioned this news to Bessie and his business partner Jim Owens, they both encouraged him to put his name in the hat.

“I liked the people I worked with at the time, but I had gotten bored with the work. I did not know anything about running a Chamber of Commerce but the people that know me best think I can do this job. I called Bradley and sat down with him and he said, ‘Oh hell yeah you can do this job.”

In 1988, Malone resigned from the chamber board and applied for the job as CEO of the Alabama Coastal Business Chamber.

During those day, the chamber did all the marketing for the area with a small budget. The advertising dollars were spent in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The need for a separate Destination Marketing Organization was spurred when the Mississippi Legislature passed the Mississippi Gaming Control Act in June 1990 allowing casino gambling in counties along the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast.

“There was a lot of angst about how much business they were going to take away from the Alabama Gulf Coast. One of the chamber board members had business interests in Panama City and learned that organizations on the Florida Panhandle were working to create tourism development and upping their revenue because they were afraid of the casinos as well. We began talking about what we could do. We thought if Mississippi gets casinos and Florida ups their game, with our marketing resources we are going to get left behind,” Malone said.

Over the next few years, Malone began to look around the state of Alabama to see what different regions were doing and who had developed a Destination Marketing Organization (DMO). Local businessman and chamber board member, Pedro Mandoki, leveraged his extensive hospitality connection in Florida and he and Malone visited areas all over Florida to investigate their DMO structures and strategies.

Then it was a matter of piecing together a model that would work here.

“We sat down and set some specific goals. First, we wanted to create an organization that’s focus was on nothing but destination marketing. Second, find a better funding mechanism. Our goal was to be self-funded with a stable income source at an adequate amount to compete with our regional competitors,” Malone said.

In May 1993, the Alabama legislature passed a bill, and it was signed by Governor Jim Folsom Jr. The legislation allowed for an organization to be created for the sole purpose of destination marketing and set up a 2% lodging tax to fund the organization.

From idea to execution, it took two years for the GSOBT to come to fruition. In the first year the staff consisted of Malone and five employees with a budget of $1 million and it has grown every year. Today, the staff includes 30 full-time and 12 part-time employees with a budget of $12 million.

When asked what his greatest professional achievement is Malone said, “I think it is helping the community bounce back from the tropical occurrences, oil spill and now the pandemic. I feel proudest whenever we go all hands-on deck. We cut anything that isn’t good strong core marketing.”

He isn’t the only one who believes his ability to handle any crisis that comes our way is remarkable.

“I was there for a long time and worked with Herb through Ivan and I also worked very closely with him during the oil spill,” said Sherry Dusko, former advertising manager at the GSOBT who worked with Malone for 17 years. “Herb is such a great leader. His devotion to the community is unreal. He is so intense in making sure that everything we do is the right things to do for the community. He is also that way with his staff and takes pride in the fact that staff is family.”

After the oil spill, Malone was responsible for hosting free concerts on the beach to help raise money for cleanup efforts and to get visitors back to our area. Those who were there remember the turnout of those who love the beaches as much as locals being overwhelming. And it’s not just local disasters that Malone assists with recovery for.

“After Sept. 11, Herb asked Mike Foster who was the VP of Marketing and me to put together packages working with our industry partners that was condos, dolphin cruises and restaurants,” Dusko recalled. “We put that all together to give to the first responders in New York. If I remember correctly, I believe we had 300 packages which tells you not only about Herb but also the whole community. When I think about that, it wasn’t a common thing to do back then. I think it’s a reflection of the trust the industry partners have for Herb.”

Throughout the years, Malone has been responsible for innumerous initiatives within the county, including birding trails, the byway system, Leave Only Footprints, and cleanup and recovery efforts after the oil spill and many hurricanes.

“It’s just recognizing and realizing what people around the country were wanting to do and were doing in other areas, and Herb had a passion to develop our natural resources in such a way that we gained benefit from people coming here to experience those natural resources,” Watts said. “I’ve always had such deep respect for him, both in his role and as an individual … I hope he gets credit for every single thing he’s done - I don’t pretend to be able to list them all, there’s too many.

“He’s one of a kind and a leader that we all should aspire to be like. He grew and changed and developed as his role required him to, and not everybody has that ability,” Watts said.

Malone plans to enjoy retirement and stay busy. He has two grandchildren in the Birmingham area, and he looks forward to dance recitals and tee-ball games. He also plans to work on honing his skills when it comes to his hobbies.

“I have several hobbies; fishing, golf, outdoor photography, but I’m not really good at any of them and I’d like to get better. I am not going to sit around and watch tv all day that’s for sure,” he said.