Conventions hit metro Atlanta again, even as delta variant does, too

Exhibitor Riley Kufta with Williams & White Equipment speaks to a group of people about a temperature monitoring system during the Forest Products Machinery & Equipment Expo in the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta on Wednesday. The exposition featured equipment manufacturers in the wood processing industry. Due to COVID-19, attendees are required to complete a health survey before entering the convention. Masks are optional. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Exhibitor Riley Kufta with Williams & White Equipment speaks to a group of people about a temperature monitoring system during the Forest Products Machinery & Equipment Expo in the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta on Wednesday. The exposition featured equipment manufacturers in the wood processing industry. Due to COVID-19, attendees are required to complete a health survey before entering the convention. Masks are optional. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Conventions and trade shows are making a comeback in metro Atlanta, even as the delta variant spreads and other businesses rethink plans.

Organizers have recently begun booking and holding as many events as before the pandemic. And the area’s largest venue operators say they haven’t had any recent cancellations tied to COVID-19 concerns.

It’s not back to normal, though.

Many events are drawing only about half as many people as they had in earlier years, according to the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. And plenty of events have added virtual options for people wary of in-person visits because of health safety concerns or cost and schedule issues.

Before COVID-19 hit, the meetings business was a dependable jobs generator, boosting corners of the local economy, from restaurants, hotels and watering holes to Uber rides and set-up crews. Hotel bookings in the city of Atlanta are still far off what they were for the same months before the pandemic, according to figures from data firm STR provided by the ACVB. But they are well above what they were a year ago, when the convention and tradeshow industry was decimated.

The spread of the highly transmissible delta variant and lagging vaccinations raise safety issues. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms recently ordered that people in the city, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask when indoors in a public place, including private businesses. But the state’s giant convention center downtown is leaving mask decisions up to event organizers, who are bringing in hundreds or thousands of visitors.

“We have and will continue to follow the lead of our customers regarding COVID-19 protocols in place for events on our campus,” Randy Lieberman, a spokesman for the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The state authority follows executive orders from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, he said. Convention centers in Cobb and Gwinnett also leave attendee mask policy up to organizers of individual events. None of the large local venues have vaccination mandates in place for visitors.

But some safety steps could change, given rising COVID-19 cases and increased hospitalizations, overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated.

A recent gathering of hundreds of people for the International Association of Venue Managers added a last-minute mask requirement for all its attendees at the GWCC. A similar step was mandated by the American Chemical Society for its big event there later this month.

“It’s unclear at this point if the current spike in COVID cases will impact our projected attendance,” LaTrease Garrison, the chemical society’s executive vice president, wrote in an email.

As of recently, only about 2,000 people had registered to attend the event in person. Another 5,000 signed up for a virtual version. More than 12,400 people attended the 2019 event in San Diego.

People who rely on hosting big events in metro Atlanta say they are hopeful that the industry’s momentum won’t stall. But they also point out the pandemic’s confounding track record.

“The future is so uncertain,” said Stan Hall, the chief operating officer of Gwinnett County’s Gas South District. “Things could change, but as of today we feel good about where we are moving forward.”

High school graduations over the summer brought in thousands of people to the site formerly known as the Infinite Energy Center. Tradeshows and consumer events have picked up and a wave of big concerts starts this month and rolls into the fall, Hall said. People and events have returned months sooner than Hall had expected.

Exhibitors and attendees mingle at the Taylor Machine Works, Inc. booth during the Forest Products Machinery & Equipment Expo in the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta on Wednesday. The exposition featured equipment manufacturers in the wood processing industry. Due to COVID-19, attendees are required to complete a health survey before entering the convention. Masks are optional. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The city of Atlanta’s mask mandate set off grumbling among some people who planned to attend the Forest Products Machinery & Equipment Expo this week at the Georgia World Congress Center.

“We were hearing people say ‘If I have to wear a mask, I don’t want to go,’” said Julia Milrod, a spokeswoman for event organizer Southern Forest Products Association, which is “strongly recommending” face coverings.

She said most people she saw recently were not wearing them. There were about 1,450 people there, halfway through the event, several hundred less than the event had in 2019.

This year, the metro area is on target for 25 so-called “citywide” events — those that at their peak account for at least 2,500 nightly hotel room bookings, according to the ACVB. The bulk of them, 16, are slated for the last few months of the year. There were 34 citywides in 2019 and only 10 last year, most before the pandemic took hold.

Different events have seen different levels of rebounds. Youth athletic events early in the year drew big crowds. And at AmericasMart Atlanta, traffic at apparel shows and smaller home and gift shows hit 2019 levels. The mart’s Major Atlanta Market in July reached about 85% of its previous mark, a spokeswoman said.

At the Cobb Galleria Centre, gatherings for individual corporations have been slow to return, especially as many employers have yet to open their own offices, said John Hill, the sales and marketing vice president. But overall recent bookings have nearly reached 2019 levels, boosted by events aimed at the general public as well as private industry trade shows.

“There’s more things to bid on,” Hill said. “People are wanting to get back into the business of meeting.”

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