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Atlanta's Georgia World Congress Center On the Verge
 of Losing its Biggest Trade Show, the National
Assoc. of Home Builders in 2007 and 2008
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Apr. 16, 2005 - Metro Atlanta is on the verge of losing its biggest trade show, the National Association of Home Builders' annual gathering, which was expected to draw 100,000 visitors in 2007 and again in 2008.

Officially, the chairwoman of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, Vicki Escarra, said the home builders group was considering pulling out over concerns about whether the city has enough convention space.

But others familiar with the situation say the home builders are upset over what they consider to be sleight of hand by city convention leaders.

The builders association asked Escarra's group to pay it $2 million to keep the show in town, those people say. The ACVB agreed, but then suggested to local hotels that they raise their rates during the show and use the extra money to reimburse the bureau.

The home builders group got upset when it learned of the plan, which would cost its members more to stay in the Atlanta hotels, people familiar with the situation say.

The show's departure would be a significant blow to the convention business in Atlanta, which last hosted the convention in 2002. Each of the future shows is expected to generate $119 million in direct spending. Leaders of the builders association might decide as early as today whether the show will stay or go.

The city has lost at least three big trade shows in recent years: technology shows SuperComm and Comdex and the Super Show, which was a mega-event for the sporting goods industry. Atlanta's loss of the technology events was attributed in part to the nation's struggling economy at the time and to competition from more specialized trade shows that drained attendees from the bigger conventions.

Atlanta's prime convention complex, the Georgia World Congress Center, has begun to rebound after a three-year slowdown in trade show bookings. The center, which added about 420,000 square feet of exhibit space in 2002 to attract supersized conventions, has struggled to fill its 1.4 million square feet of exhibit space.

The home builders show accounts for 9 percent of Atlanta convention business booked for 2007. The next biggest convention, the AmericasMart retail show, is expected to draw 71,000 visitors.

People close to the situation said hotels were asked to increase rates during the builders' convention in an e-mail from an ACVB employee. While Escarra declined to discuss the content of the e-mail, she said it was a mistake for the employee to send it.

She said the employee -- whom she declined to identify -- had since resigned. The e-mail, which she said included "an inappropriateness and unprofessionalness in the way it was written," was rescinded immediately, she said.

Escarra said the ACVB's executive committee had asked a local law firm to conduct a review over the next three or four weeks "to ensure this doesn't happen again." They will "review in a very quick way what occurred to make sure from a policy and procedure perspective we are handling things" appropriately.

National Association of Home Builders officials did not return calls from reporters seeking comment.

Escarra said she and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin flew to Washington on Friday to talk to association leaders, who were meeting there. Escarra said the home builders told her "they currently have not made a decision to leave Atlanta."

She said the NAHB also asked her not to speculate publicly about the future of the show locally. "There is no way of getting around that this is not a good thing," said Mark Woodworth, executive managing director of the Atlanta-based Hospitality Research Group, a research arm of PKF Consulting.

With almost 93,000 rooms, Atlanta has one of the highest concentrations of hotel space in the country. A convention the size of the home builders' requires rooms in every part of the city.

"It would be a real shame if they decided to leave Atlanta," said Tim Dahlen, general manager of the Westin Buckhead Atlanta.

This isn't the first time leaders of the home builders group have pursued the idea of dropping out of Atlanta.

"We had a great big bloody fight about a year ago" to try to keep the show in Atlanta, despite the wishes of national leaders of the association, said Ed Phillips, the executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Georgia.

National executives "were saying, financially, they couldn't make as much money in Atlanta because of the floor space," Phillips said.

But local builders were able to get enough support to kill the move, he said. "We are going to fight tooth and nail to try to keep it here," Phillips said.

NAHB leaders already have made plans to rotate the annual builders show between Orlando and Las Vegas after 2008, the trade publication Tradeshow Week reported. Only a handful of cities have enough convention space to accommodate the show.

Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau President Spurgeon Richardson said that if the builders show continued to grow as projected, it would exceed the Georgia World Congress Center's capacity "a little bit," but that steps could be taken to accommodate it.

By Matt Kempner, Maria Saporta And Leon Stafford. Staff writer Kathy Brister contributed to this article.

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To see more of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.ajc.com.

Copyright (c) 2005, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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