Atlanta conventions booked up; will visitors turn up?

And crossing its collective fingers.

After a disappointing 2009, Atlanta will have one of its biggest years ever in 2010 with 19 citywide conventions on the books. Citywides — meetings that generally require so many rooms that hotels are booked from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to the Perimeter area — can mean boon or bust in the convention business.

The problem: Will attendees show up?

They didn’t this year.

Meeting attendance dipped dramatically in 2009, with some conventions down as much as 20 percent. The Georgia World Congress Center, the nation’s fourth largest convention facility, expects to lose more than $5 million in fiscal 2010 — which began this past July — because of the slumping turnout. And visitation to Georgia’s capital hemorrhaged about 2 million people between 2007 and 2008, the most recent numbers available.

Hospitality officials see next year’s increased bookings as the pick-up the city needs.

The Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, the city’s main tourism and convention organ, will be even more involved than usual next year in helping meeting planners reach out to potential convention attendees.

In addition to setting up Web sites for specific meetings that point out “what to do” while the visitors are here, the agency hopes to partner with the conventions to find draws on their own.

They’ll start with Featherfest, a weeklong cook-off in January that pits about 40 local restaurants against each other to see which can create the best chicken or egg dish. The contest is designed to entice attendees to show up in droves for the 20,000-strong U.S. Poultry and Egg Association convention late that month at the Georgia World Congress Center.

The goal is to get 100 percent attendance at the citywide shows in 2010, said Mark Vaughan, ACVB executive vice president and chief of sales and marketing.

There’s a lot riding on the strategy. Hotel occupancy, as of September, has fallen to about 54 percent while the taxes collected on the area’s more than 93,000 rooms is off 20 percent.

In addition, metro Atlanta’s hospitality industry, which used to bring in about $11.4 billion annually, saw that total drop to $11 billion in 2008. Hospitality leaders worry that number could be lower when this year’s data is recorded.

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