Atlanta convention venues expect slow rebound despite guidelines

Despite Gov. Brian Kemp’s new rules for conventions to start up again in Georgia, it will take a while for metro Atlanta’s once mighty and lucrative meetings industry to rebuild, experts say.

Venue and visitor officials are grateful for the governor's Thursday executive order that eased restrictions on a variety of businesses and offered clarity on how to go forward. But leaders say it could take a year for the nation's fourth-largest convention market to regain its footing after the industry came to a nationwide standstill amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Just this week, the Georgia World Congress Center learned it lost two more big events. The International Woodworking Fair, which normally attracts 20,000 to 30,000 people, canceled its August gathering. And Big South Volleyball, which initially had planned a June event for thousands of young players, also dropped a replacement event slated for July, according to the GWCC.

Hospitality and convention industries were pummeled by the pandemic. Travel ground to a halt. Hotels closed floors or entire buildings. Airlines saw interest in flying collapse. Amenities closed. Huge waves of affected workers lost hours and, often, their jobs.

“This was a global catastrophe that hit hospitality,” said Jennifer LeMaster, the GWCC’s chief administrative officer.

In Atlanta, nearly 240 conventions scheduled for this year or early 2021 were canceled, according to the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. And the NCAA's Final Four was called off.

“We kind of got hit from all sides,” said William Pate, the ACVB’s chief executive officer.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, for the economy to make up the lost business traveler spending or for state and local coffers to make up foregone tax revenue, he said. Many conventions lock in locations five or 10 years in advance.

Now, he said, he’s expecting a slow build as other parts of the economy grow, from reopened attractions to sit-down dining in restaurants. “It’s going to be driven by how comfortable people are traveling.”

And whether they are OK being near others.

Venue officials say initially conventions that do go forward are likely to have lower attendance than normal and require more space to enforce social distancing. The relative costs of putting on events and abiding by new rules, including special steps for more sanitizing, are likely to drive up costs, they said.

Said Pate, “If we can attract 25 to 35% attendance at our conventions as we go through the summer, and can build back attendance to 50% or more as we get into the fall and at the end of the year, that would be a great start to rebuilding our industry.”

Under the governor’s new rules, conventions aren’t allowed until July 1, at which point they will need to follow 21 mandates, such as requiring employees to wear masks in most cases if they have frequent contact with patrons, making aisles one way and, to the extent practicable, screening all individuals at entrances to prevent those showing symptoms of COVID-19 from coming in.

The rules ease some of the anxiety of meeting planners, GWCC’s LeMaster said. They feel supported by the governor and have clear guidelines for going forward.

Previously, Georgia had shifting guidelines for large gatherings, though not an outright ban on conventions, venue manager said.

They said the mandates haven’t been the dominant constraint. Instead, they cite concerns of potential attendees, the availability of flights, international travel limitations, the interest level of exhibitors, and convention organizers’ willingness to hold events that might be lightly attended.

A major test for the local industry could be the AmericasMart's summer market, Pate said. The event was pushed from July to mid-August. And scheduled for September is Dragon Con, which normally draws 60,000 attendees.

“At this time, we have no plans to cancel or reschedule,” spokesman Dan Carroll wrote in an email Friday to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The plain fact is that Dragon Con is in September, and it is too soon to know whether COVID-19 will still be a concern that late in the year. That said, the safety and health of our fans, our guests and the community at large will always be our top priority.”

In Gwinnett, most of the scheduled events at the Infinite Energy Center were postponed rather than canceled, said chief operating officer Stan Hall.

He’s hoping that means the financial benefits will come later rather than not at all. For nearly four months, the facility — with its theater, exhibit space and more than 13,000-seat arena — has gone unused. It did, however, serve as a polling place during the primary election earlier this week.

The campus has about 400 workers, most of whom are part-timers employed only when events are scheduled.

One crucial part of the governor’s recent executive order was to lay out guidelines for live performance venues to reopen in the state, also starting July 1, Hall said.

While he said he doesn’t expect an immediate pick up in business, the change at least makes it possible for the Gwinnett venue and others to have meaningful conversations with promoters.

The Fox Theatre, Infinite Energy Center, Cobb Performing Arts Center and Lakewood Amphitheatre did not have decisions on reopening dates when contacted Friday. The Cobb Galleria Centre, which largely hosts conferences, plans to reopen July 13. Ameris Bank Amphitheatre has concerts on its schedule starting Aug. 1, but Live Nation, which manages the venue, says its reopening plan is not yet fully developed.

Kemp’s order lays out 30 requirements that venues must meet in order to reopen, including social distancing measures, regular sanitation and requiring workers to wear masks when interacting with patrons. Venues also must have designated entry and exit points and stagger times when people come and go in order to manage crowd size.

Eddie’s Attic, a music venue in downtown Decatur, likely will not reopen on July 1, co-owner and talent buyer Andrew Hingley said. He’s not sure the venue would be able to make enough of a profit with the state’s restrictions and reduced seating requirements.

“I just really hope we get back to normal soon,” Hingley said.