Tourism sector shows signs of life in Georgia

Tourism sector shows signs of life in Georgia

By: Felipe Rivas 

2 min read September 2020 — In the Peach State, and throughout the world, the coronavirus decimated the travel and hospitality industry. Though the tourism sector remains among the most embattled sectors of Georgia’s economy, data trending in the right direction coupled with recent developments in the airline industry and a new museum coming to the Atlanta area are reasons to celebrate in the midst of a bleak year for the sector. 

Coming off a Super Bowl year in 2019, Atlanta, and the state of Georgia, was prepared to continue showing Southern hospitality to millions of tourists and guests. As of January, more than 500,000 people were employed in the hospitality sector across the state of Georgia, according the the U.S Bureau of Labor. But by April, as shelter in place measures and global travel restrictions were in full effect, the number of hospitality sector workers dropped precipitously to around 284,000 in a matter of weeks. According to the data, however, employment in the tourism sector has trended upward, month after month, since April, and currently over 420,000 Georgians are employed in the sector. 

While the tourism data is promising, the top U.S. airlines are doing their part to increase consumer confidence in the face of the coronavirus. United, American and Atlanta-based Delta this week announced they would drop most change fees for good. Change fees have long been a steady revenue stream for the airlines at the expense of the customer experience. For Delta, flexibility and maintaining health standards has been a major priority during the coronavirus pandemic. “We’ve said before that we need to approach flexibility differently than this industry has in the past, and today’s announcement builds on that promise to ensure we’re offering industry-leading flexibility, space and care to our customers,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in a press release. “We want our customers to book and travel with peace of mind, knowing that we’ll continue evaluating our policies to maintain the high standard of flexibility they expect,” he said. 

And while the tourism sector in Georgia sang the blues for the better part of this year, a new museum experience announcement will bring a much-needed change of tune to the region. The Grammy Foundation along with the Georgia Music Accord on Monday approved the Grammy Museum Experience in Atlanta. The Georgia Music Accord is exploring possible sites for the museum experience and locating funding sources, according to Saporta Report. The four pillars that will solidify the museum in Atlanta revolve around education, economic impact, workforce development and a celebration of Georgia’s musical heritage, according to the news outlet. Additionally, the museum reportedly is envisioned to have a scoring stage that would work on music scores for movies, TV shows and video gaming.

Technology professionals curious about Gwinnett’s Peachtree Corners

Technology professionals curious about Gwinnett’s Peachtree Corners

By: Felipe Rivas

2 min read June 2020 — Techies, entrepreneurs and business owners throughout the Peach State and beyond are curious to explore the possibilities found in Gwinnett County’s newest and largest city. Officially incorporated in 2012, the city of Peachtree Corners and it’s Curiosity Lab, a publicly funded economic development initiative, is drawing the attention of tech-related professionals looking to test their ideas and projects at the lab’s 1.5 mile autonomous vehicle testing track and 25,000-square-foot innovation center.  



Peachtree Corners, which boasts a growing population of more than 43,000 residents, is quickly reaping the fruits of its calculated investments in the tech sector, while simultaneously testing and perfecting the future of smart city technologies.

In May, the city announced the launch of a fleet of the world’s first tele-operated e-scooters to operate on public streets. Technology companies Tortoise and Go X came to Curiosity Lab to perfect their vision of offering an e-scooter that could, through the use of Tortoise’s remote tele-operators, respond to a customer’s call to action, or reposition itself to a parking spot. Peachtree Corners has been working with the two tech companies to revolutionize city e-scooter mobility, while solving complications related to finding an e-scooter and their return to home base for appropriate overnight parking and charging. In other words, no more e-scooters left haphazardly in the middle of a sidewalk because they’ll park themselves. 

The e-scooters will operate in the city’s Technology Park Atlanta, a 500-acre technology park with more than 7,000 employees that is also home to Curiosity Lab. The tele-operated e-scooters will be available for use by the general public. The e-scooters’ initial pilot will run for six months and marks the first time that tele-operated e-scooters are deployed on public streets.

“We are excited to showcase this innovative technology,” Mayor Mike Mason said, according to a city press release. “It’s another opportunity for the city to look beyond traditional transportation and seek innovative ways to improve mobility. We invite our citizens and the business community to see and experience this new technology.” 

Tortoise and Go X’s e-scooters are the latest vehicles to roll through Curiosity Lab’s autonomous vehicle testing track. Last fall, Olli, the self-driving shuttle designed and built by Local Motors, began operating along the city’s 1.5-mile testing track, which offers companies a facility to test emerging technologies in a real-world environment. 

“An important goal for us was to ensure that residents can enjoy the convenience of using e-scooters, right here in Peachtree Corners,” said City Manager Brian Johnson, according to a city press release. “As a reflection of our commitment to making cities smarter, we didn’t hesitate to partner with Tortoise to launch the first-ever fleet of self-driving e-scooters for public use. We are extremely pleased to be a partner in this innovative and world-changing technology.” 

In March, Curiosity Lab’s autonomous vehicle testing track and smart city laboratory won the transportation category in the third annual IDC Smart Cities North America Awards (SCNAA) for its connected and autonomous vehicles project. “Curiosity Lab is a unique economic development investment that helps advance new technologies and grow the employment base of the city,” said Curiosity Lab’s Executive Director Betsy Plattenburg, according to a city press release. “We have had interest in testing from both startups and Fortune 500 companies,” she said.

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Spotlight On: Tim Perry, Managing Partner, North American Properties

Spotlight On: Tim Perry, Managing Partner, North American Properties

By: Felipe Rivas

2 min read June 2020—The new real estate landscape will belong to those companies who find value through innovation, differentiation and that are ready and able to provide safe environments for their guests. Tim Perry, managing partner of North American Properties, provides the details of how the company is tackling development, leading the community out of isolation, and where it sees opportunity for future investment.


How is your “Smart Development” concept influencing projects across Atlanta’s real estate landscape?

North American Properties began to retool our approach to property operations during our reprogramming of Atlantic Station, a 138-acre mixed-use development in Atlanta that was once on the “death watch” list of many real estate pros. We deployed a hospitality-focused approach, implemented a strategic remerchandising plan and created a heavily activated environment for guests to enjoy. Through trial and error, we curated a robust and mixed-use experience that resonated with the community and turned around the property. We even trademarked the term ExperienceMaker™ to refer to the concierge and operations team that delivered this intrinsic sense of place and belonging to guests – we became stewards of the community’s asset. We were able to deploy this same formula at Avalon in a nationally recognized way and found that the street level activation was only part of it – the ancillary developments were a large contribution to the overall success of a mixed-use destination. Whether working in an office, living in a residential unit, or staying in the hotel, each component contributed to the greater effect, and rent reflected 40%-plus above market. 

We are now deploying this same concept at Colony Square in Midtown Atlanta, and Newport on the Levee in Newport, Kentucky. Colony Square will feature the first dense infill theater in the market along with a nationally renowned operator launching a Food Hall. In Newport, amid the leasing angst created by COVID-19, we signed eight leases while on quarantine and opened the Bridgeview Box Park, a colorful, open-air box park featuring local restaurants and retailers, on the Ohio River at the beginning of the summer. Elements like these are not just for our guests, but drive the desire to live near and work near the amenity-rich “Smart Development.”


How is your company tackling ground-up developments?

Residential fundamentals are strong, both in single family with low rates and with multifamily as the trend continues to slowly move toward rent vs own. We will see how the long-term effects of density affect in-town locations, but we are very optimistic on close suburbs where the cost can be reduced. The COVID-19 effect also has turned some landlords of office/retail properties into land sellers of portions of their site for residential, due to lease encumbrances that are expiring or businesses not opening following the pandemic. Commercially, we are seeking existing assets that are mixed-use, or can be turned into a mixed-use development. For example, a surface-parked suburban office project may present an opportunity to add neighborhood amenity retail, residential, hospitality, and at a lower basis than ground-up development of the entire property. It is the community that has to accept the project, so we are being selective. 


What is your assessment of the CARES Act?

Small businesses lead the country out of tough economic times – they are nimble, creative, and entrepreneurial at heart. The initial PPP program was really beneficial to small businesses, and was a very creative way of using businesses to essentially put unemployment checks into people’s hands until the program changed and midsized businesses no longer were able to gain that access and employees found themselves in a long queue for unemployment. Having said that,  the SBA was trying to find a few solutions for millions of business problems and not all fit, so I applaud the states for letting small businesses reopen to find millions of solutions for the millions of problems. Every industry will be impacted with unemployment over 20% but capital injections into small business will lead us out again.  


How is your company tackling the COVID-19 outbreak?

Safety is our first concern, and several weeks before any municipal restrictions were announced, we formed a task force called “Better Together” in order to focus on each property, the unique challenges with each, and our own office staff for a safe re-entry into an open economy. While sanitization and masks were the easy conclusions, our team also researched and invested in virus-killing UV lights, security enforcement of social distancing, forced flow for pedestrian traffic, and an enhanced code of conduct such that every guest feels welcome.   


What are North American Properties’ expectations in Atlanta toward 2021?

Innovate and differentiate. There are great assets with unrealized potential that may or may not trade at a discount the market wants but have ample return to invest at values that are still accretive to opportunistic investors. The capital stockpile in the market will be rewarded by smart buys sooner rather than cheap buys later.


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Spotlight On: Randy Hall, President & CEO, Batson-Cook Construction

Spotlight On: Randy Hall, President & CEO, Batson-Cook Construction

By: Felipe Rivas

2 min read May 2020 — Despite the prevalent challenges of construction costs and a depleted talent pool, Atlanta continues to showcase growth and a business-friendly environment for construction players. In an interview with Invest:Atlanta, Randy Hall, President and CEO of Batson-Cook Construction, talks about how his company is thriving in the market and tackling the issues the sector faces.



How did Batson-Cook’s perform in 2019?

We have been in the Atlanta area for six decades. 2019 was a good year for Batson-Cook.    We are approaching $700 million in revenues as a company and exceeded our business expectations in 2019. We launched several construction projects across the Southeast in 2019 and some new ones in 2020. The most prominent to break ground is Emory University’s Winship at Midtown cancer facility. We work for all the healthcare systems around town, from Northside Emory, Piedmont, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Northeast Georgia Medical Center, to name a few. Historically, half of our business is in healthcare, the other half is in commercial construction. We are primarily a Southeastern-based contracting firm; however, in 2019 we opened an office in Dallas and we are growing our presence there. Even through the pandemic, new work continues to be widespread. We have received several new project awards through the second quarter of 2020.


How are construction companies tapping into the demographic and economic synergies of the Southeast region?

We follow the demographics in the areas where our offices are located. Each city has its own personality and needs. Batson-Cook does its best to be flexible and agile to serve those needs by offering a diverse suite of services and expertise across the Southeast. The Southeast still enjoys constant migration flows from inhabitants in the Northeast and the West Coast. Of our seven offices, Atlanta is by far the largest in terms of revenue. Atlanta’s airport and its pro-business environment are major catalysts for continued growth in Atlanta.


How are construction companies and academic institutions collaborating to cater to talent needs?

Our recruiting team dedicates a significant amount of time to interactions with 10 different academic institutions. We intensely promote internships at different levels in collaboration with college institutions that have construction programs. We employ between 40 and 50 interns each summer and 30-40 year round. We are delighted with our relationship with higher education institutions across the state of Georgia. Kennesaw State, Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern are the best recruiting grounds for talented young people who share our core corporate values. Historically, more than 90 percent of our interns accept our job offers at the end of their internship.


How are you navigating the prevalent challenges the construction industry faces?

Most of the work that Batson-Cook does involves a significant portion of pre-construction. We understand how to manage the construction process and by getting involved early in the design phase, we can maximize the opportunity to complete a project as economically for our clients as possible. An uptick in construction costs impacts the entire value chain. We are constantly looking for better ways to build so owners can achieve what they are looking for at the lowest cost possible. 


We are proud to work in an industry that is considered essential in the United States. All our projects have continued to work successfully during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because our industry continues to suffer from a shortage of qualified labor, we are hopeful that unemployed workers will find the construction industry to be a viable alternative to their previous place of work.


What is your outlook toward 2021?

Even though the hospitality market has been dramatically impacted by COVID-19, more so than the other spaces that we work in, we still see opportunities for hospitality. Healthcare systems continue to expand and grow; however, funds are being shifted from capital expenditure budgets to operations. We are optimistic that impacts to the healthcare industry due to the pandemic will not dramatically impact future construction work. 


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Spotlight On: Jenna Kelly, Northern Georgia Region President, Truist

Spotlight On: Jenna Kelly, Northern Georgia Region President, Truist

By: Felipe Rivas

2 min read May 2020SunTrust and BB&T have combined in a historic merger of equals to create Truist, the sixth-largest U.S. bank holding company. With 275 years of combined history serving clients and communities in high-growth markets, the new company will deliver the best of both companies’ talent, technology and processes, Northern Georgia Region President Jenna Kelly told Focus: Atlanta.


Q: What has stood out for Truist in Atlanta in the last year?

A: We announced our merger in February last year and closed it in December. We spent the bulk of the year operating independently as SunTrust and BB&T. This meant we really only had three months as a joint entity before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. All along, we have been talking about how this merger was an opportunity to build a better bank and we looked at how we were better together, including our complementary business lines and strategies. One of the exciting developments this year was our announcement of the new branding and our purpose. The Truist purpose is to Inspire and Build Better Lives and Communities. That purpose is at the center of everything we do, and something that differentiates us, especially given the current circumstances, to our clients.

Q: What has been the real impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the operations of Truist?

A: We said from the outset of the merger that all our client-facing teammates would retain roles. Within the Northern Georgia region, our team remains in place and our efforts have really been more about how we integrate culture. With the pandemic, most of our team is working remotely. We paid a $1,200 special bonus to all our teammates who make less than $100,000, we have implemented additional time off and we have introduced more flexibility given family dynamics can be difficult to juggle when childcare or education are not available. 

We also turned our attention to how we can provide our clients with relief. We are participating in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and we are working on how we can get our clients the funding they need. Through the first round of funding, we have helped around 32,000 clients with $10 billion in PPP loans. In Atlanta, we made around $4 million in grants to the agencies that are on the frontlines of the crisis response. 

Q: As you have seen the landscape change, how have you seen the banking industry set up for the future?

A: The message is that there is a place for everyone, whether it be a small bank, a large regional or a multinational. The impetus behind our merger was the growth of technology in banking. We looked at the demands our clients have in the way they want to be serviced, and it is not necessarily walking into a branch anymore. We needed some additional scale, and we came together so we could be more innovative and make new investments. This does not mean there is no longer a role for community banks. We believe we have a unique opportunity however to leverage our high touch community bank model with investments in technology to create better client experiences and build more trust – something we call T3.

Q: What role does Atlanta continue to play for Truist in its portfolio?

A: Atlanta is our largest market, given it was the headquarters of SunTrust. When we merged, we enhanced our market position. Atlanta is a diversified economy both in industries and population and from a banking perspective, we like where we are in the market. We continue to invest to strengthen our position.  

We have a very long history of supporting Atlanta as well as communities across the state. We announced last year that we would double our commitment to the Atlanta community to $300 million in investments over a three-year period. The investments include a combination of community development investments from the bank and philanthropic grants from our foundation. 

More broadly, the Southeast has been one of the most attractive areas of the country. Those growth dynamics play well for Atlanta, which will continue to attract jobs, companies and population. As we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we hope to recover faster than other parts of the country, given our position going into the crisis. 

Q: How are banks going to be able to help small businesses through this crisis?

A: Unfortunately, small businesses will be the hardest hit through this pandemic. The government stimulus is certainly a starting point and that will give them some temporary relief. We want to be able to leverage the tools and capabilities we have as a larger bank and deliver them on a local, personalized level. We, as a bank, can perhaps help fund CDFIs that can in turn fund small businesses. There is no one solution, but that is an area we were considering well before the pandemic.

I think it will be interesting to see how this pandemic changes the world for all of us. We have all adapted in ways we probably thought we never would or could. There is a lot of digital activity going on now that makes our merger make even more sense. We set up a portal for the PPP program within 36 hours so our small-business clients could apply for this funding quickly. Now we have this online business portal we can use when it is over to help small businesses apply for loans in ways that were not possible before. It remains to be seen what the scale of the impact will be. For our teammates, the priority will continue to be about their safety and when we will go back to working in a more traditional environment. But we have all proven that we can be productive in a nontraditional environment.

Q: What is the outlook for Truist Atlanta in the next 12-18 months?

A: We will continue our integration of the two banks because we are still operating fairly independently in terms of systems and brands in the market. The full rebranding will not happen until the third quarter of next year, so we have a lot of integration work to do in the next 18 months. We will focus on doing this in the least disruptive way for our clients. One significant and positive development is that we will not need to change our clients’ existing account and routing numbers so they will not have to order new checks. Creating a seamless transition to Truist will help solidify and grow our brand awareness in Atlanta, especially given the loyalty our previous brands generated. 

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Atlanta’s Entertainment Pull Buoys Hospitality Industry

Atlanta’s Entertainment Pull Buoys Hospitality Industry

By Sara Warden


2 min read October 2019 — With 130 new hotel constructions planned across Metro Atlanta, the city now ranks fifth in the country for new hotel construction. The momentum generated from this year’s Super Bowl seems to have continued as the city now looks to attract other major sporting events, such as World Cup 2026 after it made the shortlist as a potential host city.

“Atlanta’s standing as a preferred site for major sporting events has been enhanced by the 2017 opening of the state-of-the-art, $1.6-billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as well as the opening of SunTrust Park and the conversion of Turner Field into the new Georgia State Football Stadium,” said a report by the Hotel Valuation Index (HVI).

And Atlanta doesn’t just draw visitors for sporting events. Hotels are now incorporating convention centers as standard to provide the greatest value to customers. “In recent years, the city’s large amount of meeting and event space at competitive price points has advanced Atlanta’s position in citywide convention cycles and has improved the city’s standing in relation to other large convention markets,” said the HVI report. “Increasing convention demand will continue to be supported by the ongoing $55-million expansion of the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) and the 2019 announcement of a 1,000-room Signia Hilton convention hotel to be located adjacent to the GWCC.”

Of the 107 projects tracked by real estate firm CBRE, 15 are located in downtown Atlanta, 14 are in Gwinnett County, 11 are in Cobb County and a further 13 are located along the corridor of the GA-400 freeway.

As the competition heats up, hotels need to evaluate their offering to ensure they are in the best position to attract new clientele. Most recently, luxury hotel chain Kimpton jumped on the bandwagon and partnered with developer Portman Holdings and leading hospitality firm IHG to build new properties in Atlanta and Houston. The 216-room Kimpton Buckhead hotel is slated to open in the second half of 2020 and will feature a restaurant and bar, courtyard, private pool and a rooftop lounge.

“We’re thrilled to expand our presence with a second Kimpton hotel in the Atlanta market,” Mike DeFrino, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants’ CEO, said in a statement. “The partnership with Portman Holdings allows us the perfect opportunity to bring Kimpton to the stylish Buckhead neighborhood and to continue consolidating our presence in the Southeast at-large.”

Developers in Buckhead also are targeting what they describe as the hotel market’s “white space,” or those customers willing to pay $250-300 per night for a room. While luxury hotels in Atlanta command an average of $227 per night, other neighborhoods can attract rates of more than $350 per night. “So, the white space occurs between that $350 and the $225 rate that is prevalent in all of the other hotels in Buckhead,” Regent Partners President Reid Freeman told Bisnow. “There’s $125 worth of white space that no one is capturing.”

Next month, the company is expected to break ground on a $90 million boutique hotel in the Buckhead Village district, to be operated by Thompson Hotels. Buckhead is also a target for Songy Highroads, which is planning a $75 million Hyatt boutique hotel targeted to millennials. “The experiential factor is becoming more prominent. You have different segments of travelers, from millennials to people aging into retirement. They are looking for an experience and place that is a reflection of the surrounding community,” Songy Highroads CEO David Songy told Bisnow.

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