Georgia lawmakers back on summer beach convention circuit

But COVID has left its mark
The Cloister on Sea Island. Contributed by Sea Island Company



The Cloister on Sea Island. Contributed by Sea Island Company

After missing out last year because of COVID-19, state lawmakers headed back to the resort conventions this summer along the Georgia, Florida and South Carolina coasts, most of it paid for by lobbyists who bend their ear at the Capitol each winter during General Assembly sessions.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review found lobbyists reported spending about $100,000 on legislators during the June-August convention season for the events, with associations representing groups ranging from car dealers and pharmacists to grocery stores and insurance agents.

The associations — mostly business groups with Capitol lobbyists who work with legislators during the annual session from January to late March — canceled their conventions last year because of COVID-19.

This season they returned with the optimism that vaccines would make the get-togethers safer for the hundreds and occasionally thousands of people who attend them. Most of them got in under the wire before the delta variant began filling hospitals across the state in August with COVID-19 victims, and none of the conventions, according to organizers, became a superspreader event.

“If our convention had been two weeks later, things would have been done differently,” said Kathy Kuzava, president of the Georgia Food Industry Association, a grocery store lobby that held its convention in mid-July at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate in central Florida with at least eight lawmakers in attendance.

Although the variant hadn’t hit hard yet, groups adapted their conventions to the pandemic world. Even before the delta variant arrived, Georgia had one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

Some groups canceled events, such as the annual bagging contest at the Georgia Food Industry Association convention, or golf tournaments and indoor receptions. Some limited the number of people at tables or in meeting rooms. Some handed out masks to participants. Others held mostly virtual programs.

“As health care providers on the front line dealing with COVID, we are committed to complying with (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommendations and providing a safe learning environment for our members,” said Haley Queen, president of the Georgia Association of Physician Assistants, which held its event in mid-July on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. “As such, in 2020 and 2021, we streamed all of our sessions online, allowing our members to participate: in person, in the comfort of their room, their home, the beach or pool.

“The overwhelming majority of our members took advantage of this online learning option.”

Several groups said attendance was down, way down in some cases. But dozens of lawmakers attended.

“I saw a sizable crop of legislators this year because we missed everything last year,” said House Regulated Industries Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell. “A lot of folks take their wives and kids and treat it like a vacation. I’m there to get business done.”

icon to expand image

Long history of beach conventions

Summer resort conventions are a tradition for lawmakers and the people who lobby them. The season generally begins in May and runs through mid-August. Legislators prominent and not-so-prominent are invited to speak to groups, sit on panels or just meet and greet association members. Some stay for three or four days. Some pop in, eat dinner, make a speech and head back home or on to the next convention.

Sometimes they’re a family affair.

In the late 1990s, one lawmaker, Rep. Robin Williams, was criticized for letting health care lobbyists pay for his wife, mother, father, two teenage daughters and even his great-aunt to attend beach conventions. Williams was later sent to prison for 10 years after being convicted in an unrelated scheme to siphon millions from a local mental health center.

Powell said he turns down some offers, but he usually attends conventions put on by groups that might have issues before his committee. His committee handles a wide range of business legislation, so he is very busy each session and summer.

“They like me on the convention podium because I say things other politicians won’t say,” said Powell, who is known at the Capitol for his “colorful” use of language.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, said the conferences are an important way for the business associations that lobby the General Assembly to “connect with their members.” The lobbyists who often run the associations say their members also get a lot out of hearing from lawmakers.

Other types of lobbyist spending have declined dramatically since lawmakers capped or banned gifts to lawmakers in 2013.

But lawmakers carefully preserved the summer convention season, saying these events provide them an opportunity to mingle with “job creators” and hear their concerns. When they passed the spending caps, legislators exempted “educational, informational, charitable, or civic meetings or conferences that ... directly relate to the official duties of that public officer.”

William Perry, a longtime ethics watchdog, said everybody from the Capitol gets something out of the conferences.

“The lobbyists are buying access, and representatives are getting a beach weekend and likely golf for free,” Perry said. “This is a loophole in the (ethics) law. It’s basically done nothing to slow any of this down.”

Typically, such events have plenty of downtime activities: cocktail receptions, time at the pool or beach, golf tournaments.

When the economy was booming before the Great Recession, some groups held conventions at places such as the Ritz-Carlton on Grand Cayman Island, in Hawaii or in the Canadian Rockies.

The conventions are still held in nice locales, only the Ritz-Carlton hosting the event is more likely to be on Amelia Island than on Grand Cayman.

Lawmakers aren’t the only ones who bring families. For some, such as those who work in the grocery or convenience store industries, days off are hard to come by. So families have planned their vacations around the conventions.

According to lobbyist reports, the priciest convention, as always, was the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s get-together at the King and Prince on St. Simons Island in June. Lobbyist for the chamber, the state’s powerful business lobby, reported spending about $23,000 on hotel stays and meals for more than 30 lawmakers. That figure does not include meals paid for by dozens of other Capitol lobbyists who attend the event and take lawmakers out for dinners and drinks.

While lobbyists spend their days hanging around the Capitol during the session, they often travel in the offseason. One of the biggest tabs this convention season was picked up by lobbyists who paid for meals and events for Georgia legislators attending the Southern Legislative Conference’s annual meeting in mid-July in Nashville, Tennessee, where they spent more than $10,000 on meals and drinks.

The AJC’s analysis of what lobbyists spent may be incomplete. Lobbyists file spending reports every month, but sometimes they don’t disclose anything until later, when they get all the bills from hotels. The AJC called some groups that hadn’t yet reported spending to the state ethics commission to get their information. Other groups that had conferences traditionally attended by lawmakers reported spending nothing on lawmakers.

The figures also don’t fully include the cost of meals and drinks paid for by some lobbyists while attending one of the group’s conventions.

Groups take precautions

A majority of the conventions are over by mid-July.

The following month, new confirmed and probable COVID-19 infections in Georgia increased to levels very close to the January surge, which left hospitals across the state flooded with seriously ill patients.

Dugan, who went to a half-dozen conventions, said he noticed attendance was down, but the groups putting them on took precautions.

“Even though they had a smaller turnout, they tended to be in larger rooms,” Dugan said. “A lot of the traditional sideshow activities were greatly reduced.”

Dugan, who had COVID-19 in January, said at most of the events he attended, lawmakers giving speeches or taking part in panels stayed the night at the hotel, did their thing in the morning and left, rather than turning it into a mini-vacation.

Powell, an early proponent of mask-wearing, saw the same thing. “There were smaller crowds. I noticed the dinners and board meetings were small assemblages,” he said. “A lot of people went out to eat on their own rather than going to group dinners.”

The State Bar of Georgia held its annual meeting — typically one of the nicer events — at the Wild Dunes Resort on Isle of Palms, South Carolina, in June.

“We had the most perfect window of opportunity in the COVID landscape we could have,” said Damon Elmore, executive director of the State Bar.

Nonetheless, it was a hybrid meeting, with livestreams available to those who didn’t feel safe coming to a live event and significant spacing in rooms where live gatherings occurred.

“We had an opening-night reception and closing-night event that was either outside or in a space that was huge and accommodating to the size of group we had,” he said. Masks were required on the property, he added, and no COVID-19 cases came out of the meeting.

The nursing home lobby, the Georgia Health Care Association, was especially mindful of COVID-19 when it held its June convention at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island in Florida. More than 3,500 Georgia nursing home residents have died of COVID-19, and occupancy rates have dropped as facilities struggle with financial losses. The industry recently asked the state for $347 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid.

Tony Marshall, the association’s president, said COVID-19 cases were way down at facilities when his group was planning the convention. But he sent his vice president of member services to a course on meeting planning during a pandemic to learn how to do safe get-togethers.

As with the State Bar, the convention was livestreamed. Attendance at live events was limited, as was the number of people sitting at each table. Hands-free registration was used, and those attending events had their temperatures checked and filled out a health screening. They asked for attendees to voluntarily show documentation of vaccination, he said, and requested the unvaccinated to wear masks. Group activities, such as dinners with live entertainment, were eliminated.

“We had absolutely no reports of COVID cases (afterward),” Marshall said. “Thankfully not a single case.”

Kuvaza said about 500 people came to dinners at the grocery store convention. Some events were canceled to avoid crowds in close proximity. Because the delta variant hadn’t yet kicked up, few wore masks. Kuzava said nobody reported getting COVID-19 from the convention.

With the spike in cases statewide, she said the group has canceled a planned “casino party” set for this fall.

The Georgia Municipal Association — which represents cities — held its meeting in Savannah at the convention center in August. The GMA’s get-together is typically one of the largest, with more than 2,000 people attending some years. About a dozen lawmakers took part this year.

Masks were mandatory among GMA staff. Among attendees, mask-wearing broke down along partisan lines — with Democrats more likely to wear them than Republicans — one person who was there said. COVID-19 vaccinations were offered, but few were given. As in the case of some other conventions, a few cases of COVID-19 were reported later, but it’s unclear whether they were related to the event.

Dugan said in general, the conventions were “more reserved” than in the past, and that the groups worked to make them as safe as they could.

“They were responsible,” Dugan said. “There was always a concern it (COVID-19) would take off again. But they did it right.”

Season of spending

Top lobby reported* spenders on lawmakers and state officials in 2021 summer convention season

Georgia Chamber of Commerce (general business lobby)

The King and Prince Breach Resort, St. Simons Island


Georgia Installment Lenders Association (small loans)

One Ocean Resort & Spa in Atlantic Beach, Fla.


Various Capitol lobbyists at the Southern Legislative Conference

Grand Hyatt, Nashville, Tennessee


Food Industry Association (grocery stories, food suppliers and wholesalers)

Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, Four Corners, Florida


Georgia Dental Association

Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, Fernandina Beach, Florida.


Georgia Association of Convenience Stores

Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, Fernandina Beach, Florida


Georgia Bankers Association

The Cloister at Sea Island, Sea Island


Biggest recipients

Top 5 recipients of lobbyist spending from June 1 to Aug. 15, the heart of the convention season

Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, R-Gainesville


Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton


Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell


Sen. John F. Kennedy, R-Macon


Rep. Don Parsons, R-Marietta



Source: Lobbyist disclosure reports

*Some lobby organization have yet to report their expenses for the June-August convention season