Few projects were more vulnerable to the pandemic than the plan to build downtown Atlanta’s tallest hotel since the mid-1980s.

On the site of the old Georgia Dome, the 42-story Signia hotel on the Georgia World Congress Center campus, was pitched as a sure bet for conventioneers, sports fans and concert-goers. Then COVID-19 hit, cancelling conventions and upending business travel and sports.

“We were on pins and needles to whether this project was going to happen,” said Scott Cannon, executive vice president of the hotel’s general contractor, Skanska USA.

On Tuesday, the GWCC and Hilton officials will hold a “topping out” ceremony marking the end of vertical construction as crews hustle to complete the luxury hotel in time for a January opening.

This is a photo of one of the rooms within the Signia by Hilton Atlanta hotel, which features a rendering of Mercedes-Benz Stadium to reflect how the room will look when complete.

Credit: Gensler

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Credit: Gensler

When construction started in April 2021, the same month all adults became eligible for COVID-19 vaccines nationwide, it was hoped conventions and large events would recover and the Signia hotel would still be a defining feature of downtown’s evolving entertainment and meeting district.

“We had faith in the project, and we were committed to doing it,” GWCC Executive Director Frank Poe said. “... Our industry has always been resilient.”

‘Travel is an unstoppable force’

The idea for a hotel tied to the 1.5-million-square-foot convention center began to take shape in late 2015.

Poe said GWCC’s competitors in other large markets, such as Chicago, Dallas and New Orleans, had hotels attached to their convention centers. Though downtown’s Omni Atlanta Hotel is steps away, officials said Atlanta needed one to match. GWCC opted to publicly finance the proposal via $450 million in revenue bonds.

GWCC invested $55 million in the project, and Hilton also contributed $25 million once it agreed to manage the hotel’s operations.

Poe said the pandemic prompted his team to reconsider the size of the hotel, but their internal research affirmed that there was a need for 976 rooms near the GWCC, Mercedes-Benz Stadium and State Farm Arena. Signia by Hilton Atlanta will rank as the city’s sixth-largest hotel when completed, and it’s the tallest hotel built downtown since the Marriott Marquis in 1985.

The Signia adds to the rush of downtown revitalization projects aimed at returning life to the streets at all hours. Those projects include CIM Group’s Centennial Yards, Newport’s South Downtown and Underground Atlanta’s reimaging under new ownership.

“You’ll have a package there that is going to be unrivaled,” Poe said.

Danny Hughes, Hilton’s executive vice president and president of Americas, said the Atlanta location will be the first newly-constructed Signia, joining converted hotels in Orlando and San Jose.

The hotel will include 100,000 square feet of meeting space, which Hughes said allows for isolated events within the hotel or extra space for convention travelers. He said the hotel and GWCC are intertwined.

“We cannot and will never look at this purely as an island,” Hughes said. “Our hotel is completely aligned with what’s going on with the convention center.”

The hospitality sector was among the hardest hit by the pandemic. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that hotel occupancy rates fell to 25% in April 2020, a 64% decline from a year prior. Hughes said leisure travel was quick to rebound in 2021, but business and convention travel has lagged, especially in urban centers.

Those struggles contributed to the 763-room Sheraton Atlanta Hotel’s impending foreclosure.

Hughes said the future Signia hotel will benefit next year from recovering business travel and convention crowds that are forecast to match pre-pandemic levels.

“The bet that the GWCC made on this project before the pandemic was a very, very sound bet,” he said. “Travel is an unstoppable force.”

A central location

Cannon, Skanska’s vice president, said the hotel reuses the dome’s foundation, even though its implosion — which went viral after a MARTA bus blocked live video of its destruction — prompted some alterations to tie the new building into it.

Poe said the building’s design was meant to capture the area’s roots while adding some flair.

“When they enter it, the sense of arrival will be dramatic,” he said.

This is a rendering of the entrance to the Signia by Hilton Atlanta hotel.

Credit: Gensler

icon to expand image

Credit: Gensler

The hotel will feature five restaurants, varying from high-end Italian food to casual bar bites. Hughes said the hotel will have a staff of about 850 employees once open.

Cannon said Skanska’s strategic procurement group helped them navigate strained supply chains and spiking construction material costs.

More than 600 workers continue to build the hotel. Even though vertical construction is done and a giant peach was hoisted to give the hotel some local flair, Cannon said it will take months for the building’s drywall, tile and other finishes to be installed. Construction, which has cost about $328 million so far, is slated to finish Dec. 18.

Hilton is already booking groups for the hotel’s Jan. 4 opening. Poe said the International Production and Processing Expo, which usually draws about 28,000 attendees, will be the first large convention to use the new hotel.

“Why would you want to go any other place for your meeting?” he asked. “You’ve got everything you need within walking distance of your hotels, and it’s a thriving, energetic area.”