Cash flows into Atlanta on Labor Day weekend

Atlanta visitation has increased 34 percent over the past six years.

2015 : 51 million

2014: 49 million

2013: 46 million

2012: 43 million

2011: 41 million

2010: 38 million

Labor Day weekend has become Thanksgiving in September for some metro Atlanta businesses.

Thousands are expected to descend on the metro area for a diverse collection of annual events that have one thing in common: filling hotel rooms and restaurant tables.

Gay Black Pride, Dragon Con, the AJC Decatur Book Festival and the Chick-fil-A Kickoff football game, which this year pits the Georgia Bulldogs against the North Carolina Tarheels, are slated to entertain big crowds and keep cash registers humming.

Ayman Kamel, owner of Midtown restaurant 5Church, said weekends like this are a business owner’s dream come true.

“There’s such a buzz in the air, with all sorts of people mingling together,” he said. “You can’t beat the foot traffic with so many events going on at one time.”

The confluence of events reflects metro Atlanta’s growth as a visitation hub for the Southeast.

Consider this: About 51 million visitors now make their way to Atlanta annually, according to the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. D.K. Shifflet and Associates, which provides the ACVB with visitation data, defines a visitor as anyone who makes “an overnight trip or any day-trip greater than 50 miles one-way from home.”

For the past two years, average daily hotel occupancy has been at about 70 percent or above and convention business has boomed. The International Woodworking Fair, one of the city’s biggest meetings, attracted a record 40,000 conventioneers to Atlanta in late August.

“Basically if you’re in the hospitality business right now and you’re not doing very well, then you’ve got a really big problem,” William Pate, president of the ACVB, told an economic conference recently at Georgia State University.

Until about a decade ago Atlanta had long been recognized as a great place for business, but one lacking in attractions to keep tourists busy.

Underground Atlanta, often cited as the city’s biggest draw, had lost its luster and other amusements, such as Stone Mountain Park, the Atlanta History Center or Zoo Atlanta, were off the beaten path for downtown conventioneers. The city also demolished Buckhead’s party district, an “unofficial” draw.

That changed with the addition of Georgia Aquarium in late 2005, which touched off a wave of new attractions around downtown’s Centennial Olympic Park. The attractions include the New World of Coca-Cola, SkyView Atlanta, The Center for Civil and Human Rights and the College Football Hall of Fame.

Michael Fletcher, director of sales and marketing for downtown’s Hilton Atlanta, said Labor Day weekend is one of the hotel’s most profitable.

“All three events turn this area into the center of the sci-fi universe,” he said. “It’s the most exciting weekend you can be downtown. People fly in from all over the world. It’s a blast to see first-hand.”

Gary Stokan, president and CEO of the Peach Bowl, which operates the Chick-fil-A Bowl, said Atlanta has been able to move the needle because of its large number of hotel rooms — the metro has about 83,000 — the ease of getting here from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and its growing list of attractions.

“Feedback is very positive due to Atlanta’s ability to host big-time sporting events on this scale,” he said.

It doesn’t hurt that this year’s Kickoff Game will include the Georgia Bulldogs to bring the fans out.

“With Georgia in the game this year, the game is sold out and we are expecting a record crowd,” he said.

Kickoff organizers plan a “bowl-like” atmosphere with interactive FanZone experiences, a “Team Walk “where the players walk through FanZone and tailgating in the west plaza outside the Georgia) Dome,” Stokan said.

“These events have grown and been added to since (the Kickoff’s) inception,” he said.