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Atlanta's Convention Industry Takes a Hit from Storms; Damage to the
 Georgia World Congress Center Could Be in the Millions
By Leon Stafford, The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

March 15, 2008 - A day after one of the worst storm systems to ever hit the city ravaged downtown Atlanta, hospitality leaders scrambled Saturday to begin rebuilding confidence in the $11 billion tourism industry here.

Convention leaders were calling trade show representatives to reassure them that Atlanta was still a great place to hold meetings while hoteliers were calming the frayed nerves of guests who had come looking for a different type of excitement.

Damage to the Georgia World Congress Center — the city's biggest convention center — could be in the millions. The facility, the fourth largest in the country, was hit hard by high winds that ripped the roof off in many parts of the building, rain that raced down steps like a river, and busted sprinklers and pipes that made carpets a soggy mess.

"We're communicating with our customers because a lot of what they are seeing is on the news," said Lauren Jarrell, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, the city's main tourism organization.

She said a handful of customers had contacted hospitality officials by early Saturday, but the ACVB plans to get out information to a greater number in the days come to be proactive.

Conventions and tourism is important to Atlanta, which gets billions in revenue annually from visitors staying in hotels, eating at restaurants and buying tickets to baseball games and the Georgia Aquarium.

The inclement weather came at a time when Atlanta was enjoying a hospitality community's dream weekend — more than 65,000 people in town for the Southeastern basketball tournament, the Atlanta Home Show and Hinman Dental convention. Hotels were sold out, streets were packed and restaurants were busy.

The GWCC closed its doors at least through today to assess damage and to conduct safety inspections, said spokeswoman Katy Pando. She said officials were still evaluating when it would re-open.

The closing canceled the home show and dental convention.

"We are working very closely with show management to make sure they are aware of what is going on," she said.

The next big convention is expected Wednesday when 38,000 volleyball players will be in town for Big South Qualifier. What effect the damages will have on that show is unknown.

Officials with the GWCC, which oversees operation of the convention center, the Georgia Dome and Centennial Olympic Park, posted a message to customers on its Web site, www.gwcc.com, alerting them to damage it suffered during the storm. In addition to damage at the GWCC, parts of the dome's roof was pulled from the structure and two of the park's "Hermes Towers," the 65-foot lighted structures that resemble Olympic torches, were blown over.

Leaders with the Hinman convention were helping attendees get out of town Saturday. Kim Ryan, a spokeswoman with the group, said about 23,000 people were in Atlanta to attend the meeting. It was the organization's 96th annual show, all but one of which has been held in Atlanta.

"We had more than 60 speakers that we brought in," she said. "We are helping them to make arrangements for them to get out early."

She said the group did not know how much money it would lose by closing the convention early. Hinman is insured, she said.

The meeting generates about $26 million in revenue for Atlanta, she said.

Exhibitors were forced to leave equipment and exhibits on the show floor of Building A, Ryan said. It is unclear when they will be able to retrieve their belongings.

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

Copyright (c) 2008, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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