Atlanta convention business disrupted by delta variant concerns

06/11/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Convention goers walk around as they explore The USA-CBD Expo convention at the Georgia World Congress Center, Friday, June 11, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
06/11/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Convention goers walk around as they explore The USA-CBD Expo convention at the Georgia World Congress Center, Friday, June 11, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Convention business in Atlanta has been in a “downward spiral” since early summer because of a super-contagious strain of the coronavirus that’s still circulating, said officials from the city’s marketing and tourism organization.

Conventions are key drivers of customers for hotels and restaurants in downtown Atlanta, but the number of events has dropped due to concerns about the virus’s delta variant.

Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau executive vice president Mark Vaughan said in a recent meeting that some upcoming conventions have been canceled and there has been a “continuous erosion of attendees.”

“After we had this great summer surge, there’s absolutely no doubt the delta variant has just had an unbelievable effect on our business,” said ACVB CEO William Pate. “This variant has definitely got us in a little bit of a downward spiral. Everything peaked on June 23 and everybody was feeling good. ... And then after June 23, I mean it just dove. And that’s all related to the variant.”

Pate cited research that shows the percentage of people who say they are “unlikely to attend conventions” has gone from 45% to 59%.

He also said there is a movement toward requiring vaccinations for those attending meetings. A Destination Analysts survey this month showed that 39% of those polled support a vaccination mandate for conferences and conventions.

“That’s where the industry is heading,” Pate said. “You’re going to have to have proof of vaccine in order to enter a facility.”

Coronavirus restrictions on public gatherings and restaurants were lifted in Georgia earlier in the spring than in most states. That led to Georgia getting an outsized share of meetings business. Now that most of the country is open, “it’s starting to level out a little bit,” Vaughan said.

Now, average hotel occupancy in Atlanta is projected to be about 48% for 2021, versus hopes in July for a recovery to 51 or 52% for the full year.

Many convention planners are also holding off on booking big events even in 2026 and beyond. That’s because the historic disruption to business, travel and most other aspects of life has made it difficult for meeting planners to predict how many people will attend future conventions, according to Pate.

What’s more, conventions planned for other cities that were canceled because of the pandemic have in some cases rebooked in those places, preventing other areas from competing for that business, he said.

“It is putting some additional pressure on our booking pace,” Pate said.

He hopes there will be pent-up demand when planners resume booking large conventions for future years.