Hotels, convention business still recovering from COVID impact

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Atlanta’s convention and hotel industry, mired in a years-long recovery from COVID-19, is enduring yet another setback because of the omicron surge and likely won’t see a return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023.

Metro Atlanta hotels averaged 59.9% occupancy in 2021, officials said Friday, up from 47.8% in 2020. In 2019, hotel occupancy was nearly 70%.

“This has really been very hard the last two years,” said Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau president William Pate. “We’ve had these fits and starts, where we got into the spring of last year and everything looked good, and we were looking forward to a great recovery. And then (the delta variant) hit and kind of sucked the air out of the room.”

At the downtown hotels that normally draw conferences and business travelers, occupancy averaged 42.3% in 2021. That’s up from 33.3% in 2020 but still significantly below the 79.3% in 2019.

After getting through the delta variant, “we were looking at a really good fourth quarter and a great 2022. And, of course, omicron came,” once again shrinking convention attendance, Pate said.

The omicron variant has fueled a record number of infections in the U.S.

“Hopefully, things are going to pick up,” he said, referencing airline forecasts that predict improvements in travel after President’s Day in February. “If we can pick up some momentum as we go into the spring, that’s really going to help us.”

Visitors bureau officials said they hope to see business recover to 2019 levels in late 2023.

ACVB officials were disappointed last week to lose a major convention booked for March. Organizers of the Pittcon Conference & Expo announced the cancellation on a website for the event, saying they were hearing from attendees, presenters and exhibitors who were concerned about the increase in COVID-19 cases internationally over the past month. The scientific conference would have brought thousands of people to Atlanta.

Credit: Screenshot

Credit: Screenshot

Other major bookings for Atlanta this year include youth sports events, a woodworking show in August and a metal fabrication show in November.

ACVB’s goal is to bring 20 major conventions to Atlanta a year. It had only 12 in 2021, but has 20 scheduled for this year, 21 for 2023 and 20 for 2024.

In a January poll of travel managers and others in the business travel industry, 70% of those surveyed say omicron will have a very negative or moderately negative impact on their business travel revenue. About 35% of travel managers in North America said their companies have canceled all or most business trips.

While hotel bookings from business travelers are still down, Atlanta hotels report that leisure travel is fully recovered, ACVB figures show.

Leisure has “really been carrying us in a lot of ways, to get our occupancy back,” Pate said. The visitors bureau is trying to capitalize on that with marketing focusing on Atlanta’s diversity and its restaurant scene.

Another survey — this one conducted early last month by travel marketing company MMGY — showed vaccinated people are more likely to be concerned about traveling due to the omicron variant than unvaccinated people. More than 70% of the unvaccinated said news of the variant did not affect their likelihood to travel, while 39% of those who are vaccinated said omicron had no impact on their likelihood to travel.