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Major Spring Atlanta Events To Proceed Despite Coronavirus, But Hotels Brace For Lost Business

So far, some of Atlanta's biggest upcoming conventions and events — including the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament next month — are expected to be held despite the threat posed by a possible coronavirus pandemic.

But with fear spreading faster than the pathogen, the possibility remains that events could be canceled.

A crowd of data center experts and professionals gather for Bisnow's DICE event March 5 at the St. Regis in Buckhead, despite the concerns around coronavirus

“I haven't heard of any large group cancellations. [But] I like the way you phrased it: fear vs. reality,” Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association Executive Director Jim Sprouse said.

More than 130,000 people are expected to attend four major citywide events over the next two months in Atlanta, including the Final Four April 3-6, the Thomas P. Hinman Dental Meeting March 19-21 and the MODEX logistics conference at the Georgia World Congress Center March 9-12. The optometrist convention SECO 2020 — with an estimated 5,000 attendees — is occurring this week.

“The city has a full convention calendar in 2020, and currently no conventions have canceled or postponed meetings in Atlanta,” Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau spokesperson Heather Kirksey told Bisnow in an email.

The response was the same from the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, which runs the GWCC, the city's largest convention destination.

“Thankfully, there are no negative business impacts related to COVID-19 to report,” GWCCA Chief Administrative Officer Jennifer LeMaster said in an email. “GWCCA is committed to sharing facts, not fear, and will continue to monitor the situation closely and follow the recommendations of our partners at the CDC and the Georgia Department of Public Health.”

The convention business is a huge part of Atlanta's economy. The city hosted more than 750 meetings and conventions in 2018, with 56 million visitors who spent $16B, according to the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. The agency also reported that 1.6 million hotel rooms were booked at the end of 2018 for future events.

“Definitely, Atlanta is a convention town,” Sprouse said.

Thus far, the region's hotels have weathered the effects of coronavirus in terms of business. The number of rooms booked during the week ending Feb. 29 was up by 3.2% compared to the same week the year before, according to data provided by hotel research firm STR. Atlanta was one of the few major cities that saw a slight climb in hotel stays, STR Senior Vice President Jan Freitag said.

There were major drops in hotel bookings near airports in Denver, San Francisco and Newark, New Jersey, which saw a decrease of 12%. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Orlando's hotel stays near its airport grew by 8.5%.

A computer graphic of the coronavirus, produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Freitag said the theme is whether the market has a major international airport: Those that do, save for Atlanta, saw drops in hotel stays. That could mean leisure travel has yet to be impacted by coronavirus fears.

“You could think about the story here is international gateway airports being hit, or not growing minimally, and a more domestically centered airport like Orlando still doing pretty well,” he said.

But Freitag cautioned that leisure travel is the most sensitive to economic and geopolitical conditions. It is the easiest to get boosted, but at the same time, the easiest for travelers to cancel or postpone. Early signs of that may be rearing its head: Over the weekend, revenue per available hotel room — a key hotel industry performance metric — declined in all hotel classes across the nation, according to STR.

“Is that the consumer voting with their wallet and saying, 'Hey, let me stay home for a while before I travel'?” Freitag said. “We don't know that, but it is something to wonder.”

Conventions are much harder to cancel. But when they are, the impact runs much deeper to the local economy, Freitag said. Big conventions typically do not get postponed, but instead are canceled. Since many also rotate among cities each year, the host city likely will not be getting the benefit again the following year, he said.

“If you have some sort of association meeting with 20,000, 30,000 [coming] into the market, you can't just push that out two weeks,” Freitag said. “That's just gone."

Major tech companies like Facebook and Google have canceled major annual events, but international real estate conference MIPIM, originally scheduled for next week in Cannes, France, has been postponed until June

“To date, we aren’t seeing any material impact in our Atlanta area hotels. It’s still very early and there will most certainly be some drop-off in travel as a few conferences get postponed and nonessential travel is briefly curtailed,” Noble Investment Group founder Mit Shah said in an email. “That said, the industry has been through a number of economic and health-related black swan events over the past 30 years, and in every scenario, demand has bounced back strong.”

Legacy Ventures founder David Marvin said he has yet to feel any impact from coronavirus fears. Legacy owns a host of hotels in Atlanta, including The American Hotel Downtown Atlanta, the Hyatt House Atlanta Perimeter Center and the Embassy Suites By Hilton Atlanta next to Centennial Olympic Park. 

“I think we're trying to anticipate and be prepared, but I don't think we've seen a lot of cancelations,” Marvin said. “And we hope we don't, but it certainly can happen.”

Calls to the NCAA and MODEX were not returned as of press time. The NCAA has established a committee to evaluate the health risks by the time the Final Four debuts in Atlanta next month, NCAA Chief Operating Officer Donald Remy said.

“Today we are planning to conduct our championships as planned, however, we are evaluating the COVID-19 situation daily and will make decisions accordingly,” Remy said in a press release. “We are in daily contact with the CDC and are advising leadership on the Association’s response to this outbreak.”

MODEX is already seeing some effects on its pending event, which was expected to host 30,000 attendees.

“We are proceeding as planned to hold a safe and successful MODEX 2020 in Atlanta,” organization officials said on its website. “When it comes to MODEX attendance, we anticipate reduced international registrants especially from those in the most affected countries of China, Italy and South Korea due to travel restrictions. Overall, the expected cancellations of attendees will have a very limited impact on the show.”

CORRECTION, MARCH 6, 12:26 P.M. ETAn earlier version of this story said there were drops in hotel bookings in select cities, according to STR. Those were hotel bookings near the major airports in those cities only. The story has been updated.