Engraved Olympic bricks will be preserved at Centennial Olympic Park, where workers are creating more greenspace and open sightlines. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Stadium brings fresh buzz to Atlanta’s convention pitch

But skeptic calls claims of tourism boost ‘ludicrous’

The new Mercedes-Benz Stadium will give the Atlanta Falcons an updated home and possibly help the city of Atlanta revive the nearby communities of Vine City and English Avenue.

Boosters of the city’s hospitality industry hope it also gives them something important, too: Fresh buzz.

The giant downtown Atlanta sports facility provides a new attraction to pitch to trade shows and meeting planners who rank destination appeal as a top priority when deciding where to book their next gathering.

A domed stadium offers convention planners a chance to give attendees experiences not found in every city — dinner on a football field, or a chance to try kicking a field goal, for instance.

To be sure, the Georgia Dome has done that for years. But Mercedes-Benz will have that new-facility vibe, at least for a year or two.

“Meeting planners are always excited about the newest offerings,” said William Pate, president of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is responsible for attracting big shows to the city. “Convention planners want to come to a city where there’s growth and new development.”

Promoting the “new” is important to Atlanta. The convention business has grown increasingly competitive because of an oversupply nationally of meeting facilities, experts say. At the same time, convention attendance, while growing slightly over the past few years, is down overall from 1990s highs because of cuts to business travel and technology improvements that have made it easier to telecommute to conferences.

The Georgia World Congress Center — the nation’s fourth largest convention facility — had one of its best years since the ’90s in 2016, with attendance of 1.2 million, according to its annual report.

That was higher than its most recent peak of 1.17 million visitors in 2003, but short of the 1.4 million or more visitors logged in the late ’90s, when it still hosted the giant electronics Super Show.

Attractions such as the Georgia Aquarium and College Football Hall of Fame have helped maintain the city’s appeal by offering things to do at the end of the day or between plenary sessions, Pate said.

In addition to opening Mercedes-Benz, Atlanta is also expanding Centennial Olympic Park, which has become the heart of Atlanta’s tourism, and redeveloping Philips Arena. A host of other projects — including redevelopment of Broad Street and former top tourist attraction Underground Atlanta — will also give boosters fresh product to shill.

“Once the construction is announced, we can begin selling because meetings book so far in advance,” said Pate, who starting pitching the Mercedes-Benz Stadium back in 2014. “Convention and meeting planners want to come to a city where there is growth and expansion.”

An overbuilt business?

Heywood Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio and frequent critic of the convention industry’s boosterism, said the addition of Mercedes-Benz Stadium will have little impact. He said Atlanta, like most convention cities, has seen flat growth because big meetings and trade shows aren’t the draws that they used to be.

“The bottom line is the convention business is overbuilt,” he said. “The notion that adding a stadium is going to make the difference is ludicrous.”

Some of the new stadium’s business will come from holdovers of the Georgia Dome’s past.

The Distributive Education Clubs of America, or DECA, for instance, plans to use Mercedes-Benz during its annual conference in April next year. DECA is a training program for high school and college entrepreneurs and leaders interested in marketing, finance, hospitality and management programs.

Christopher Young, the group’s high school division director, said stadiums provide better sight lines for students who can sit in the stands during the conference proceedings, which includes presentations from the stage and awards ceremonies. About 20,000 students attend the national gatherings, which was last held at the Dome in 2008 and 2014.

An elevated design

“The energy and atmosphere is so much greater in a stadium because the stands offer an elevated design,” he said, contrasting that with traditional convention centers where all seating is on the floor. “The students get a 360 degree view and everybody can see each other.”

Mark Woodworth, senior managing director at CBRE Hotels in Atlanta, which tracks the city’s hotel business, said a bonus of the stadium will be the light it shines on Atlanta through the Super Bowl, Final Four and the College Football National Championship.

Those games will fill rooms throughout metro Atlanta, but also expose the city to groups that might not have had Atlanta on their radar.

That’s important because like most cities, Atlanta has convention and visitation peaks and valleys, he said. For instance, hotels almost give rooms away during Thanksgiving.

“It can help to make the valleys less shallow,” he said.

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