2 min read October 2021 — William Pate, president and CEO of Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, spoke to Focus: Atlanta about what was a crushing 18 months for the convention business in Atlanta, normally a large draw for the city. Things are on the up again though, as leisure travel continues to grow and people are excited to be out.
What challenges resulted from the pandemic?
Because our business has so much scale, when it’s going well, economic impact and employment in the city are strong. The hospitality industry generates a lot of cash flow throughout the city. Conversely, when visitation disappears, it has a huge impact. Revenue fell 65 percent during the pandemic. We probably lost close to half of the jobs in the hospitality industry in 2020. That then starts affecting small businesses that serve our visitors. The other thing to remember is this downturn didn’t just affect conventions. All of our demand generators, including concerts, festivals and sporting events, were essentially shut down. We went from a high of 74% daily occupancy in all the hotels in the city of Atlanta to 9% in April 2020. It’s amazing how quickly that occurred — really in a matter of four to six weeks. Nearly all of our 2020 business canceled. Many of the city’s restaurants and hotels in Atlanta suspended operations at some point in 2020. Our convention calendar was gutted, and it had a significant impact on our industry and employment. Hospitality is an important generator of growth in our city. When visitation was substantially reduced, people all over the city were affected.
What makes the convention center central to Atlanta’s allure?
Atlanta is the fourth-largest convention city in the country, and our accessibility is unparalleled. Eighty percent of the U.S. population is within a two-hour flight of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, providing direct, non-stop access from more than 150 U.S. cities and 75 international destinations. Once you land, you’re less than 20 minutes from the heart of the city and everything Atlanta has to offer. There are more than 12,500 hotel rooms within walking distance of Georgia World Congress Center so when you think about it from a meeting planner’s perspective, it’s very easy to get people to where they need to be.
Construction is currently underway on another headquarter hotel on Georgia World Congress Center’s campus – Signia by Hilton Atlanta. This property will add 975 guest rooms and nearly 75,000 square feet of event space when it opens late 2023. Signia by Hilton Atlanta will enhance our position as a top meetings and conventions destination and provide an exciting new option for meeting planners and guests.
If you like shopping, we’re the shopping capital of the Southeast. Midtown is the heart of our arts and cultural district. Whatever you’re looking for, Atlanta has it.
What marketing tactics have you deployed to boost revenue?
Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, we’ve lost about 450 events totaling nearly 1.5 million hotel room nights. Like most destinations, we focused on leisure travelers to help us rebound. We did several leisure-oriented campaigns targeting drive markets to Atlanta, particularly as we got to the summer and fall last year. People had been hunkered down in their homes for several months, and they were looking to get out and about. As the vaccine became available, people began to feel better about going out in public. We were able to drive a significant amount of business into our hotels, attractions and restaurants as we sought to keep their businesses viable through this pandemic.
What challenges are you experiencing in attracting people to conventions now?
In the short term, it’s about helping people be comfortable and building confidence in travel again. The safety and health of our visitors is our top priority, and hospitality partners throughout Atlanta continue to implement procedures to safeguard our guests. Airplanes and hotel rooms have never been cleaner in our lifetimes. Despite the implementation of protocols last year, the spike in the delta variant has still made people hesitant to travel. The recovery will continue to be choppy through the fourth quarter but as we begin to put this pandemic behind us, we are set up for a very strong rebound in 2022.
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