|By Leon Stafford, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jul. 27, 2005 - Long a top destination for black tourists, Atlanta is fast-becoming a top draw for African-American conventions.
Over the next eight weeks, the city plays host to five such conventions -- including the stadium-packing MegaFest by the hugely popular T.D. Jakes Ministries -- that are expected to draw thousands with money to spend.
That's welcome news for the city's struggling convention industry. The Georgia World Congress Center, the nation's fourth-largest convention facility and chief beneficiary of MegaFest, has had trouble filling its halls and Tuesday reported a fiscal 2005 loss of $1.96 million.
In April, the city's largest convention, the National Association of Home Builders, pulled out of Atlanta for 2006 and 2007. More than 100,000 conventioneers had been expected for each year of that show, and direct spending was estimated to be about $119 million annually.
Against that backdrop, news that the city is attracting many more black conferences than in years past is welcome. By summer's end, more than 320,000 African-Americans will have visited Atlanta for conventions and events and will pump $325 million in direct spending into Atlanta's economy.
And boosters say there are more African-American conventions to come.
Recently booked gatherings include the National Urban League in July 2006, the National Black MBA Association in October 2006, and FraserNet, a networking seminar for African-Americans that comes here next June. The latter show holds additional importance and promise because Atlanta lured it away from another city.
FraserNet founder George Fraser said he is moving his show to Atlanta from Cleveland because he is convinced he can increase attendance here. He believes Atlanta is more accessible to attendees, especially international participants, because of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, has a bigger pool of black entrepreneurs, and has a slew of attractions that can draw more registrants.
After four years in Cleveland, where Fraser is headquartered, FraserNet needed to spread its wings, he said. It will have a four-year run here.
"It is absolutely the right mix to take our conference to the next level," Fraser said.
Members of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives had many reasons to pick Atlanta for its 2,500-attendee convention, said member Vanessa L. McLemore, but it didn't hurt that Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington will be sworn in as the group's next president this week and that former Fulton County Sheriff Jackie Barrett was the group's first female president. Also, civil rights icon Coretta Scott King is set to speak at the convention.
But even if the city didn't have that kind of firepower, Atlanta would still be tops on the group's list of convention destinations, said McLemore, special agent in charge of the Atlanta field division of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
"Atlanta has been one of the most popular locations for us," McLemore said. "It's the cultural history of Atlanta. This is the beginning of progress for African-Americans. Everybody wants to come back for the flavor of where it all begins."
Visitors come for the King Center, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the traditional black colleges and Atlanta's cultural fare, like African-American plays, jazz and festivals.
Following the law enforcement executives meeting is MegaFest, a four-day, three-night event that wraps together three conferences promoting family, fellowship and fun. It is spread over Atlanta's Georgia Dome, the World Congress Center, Philips Arena and the International Plaza.
Other upcoming gatherings include the National Association of Black Journalists, Bronner Brothers International Beauty Show and the National Baptist Convention.
"This is a huge segment for us," said Spurgeon Richardson, president of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We've worked hard to get here. We're finally getting the national recognition as a great work, live and play city for African-Americans."
Once a rock-steady player in the convention industry -- hosting monster shows like SuperComm, Comdex and Super Show -- Atlanta saw business drop dramatically after the tech bust and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The rebound has been anemic at best.
History a strong draw
The Georgia World Congress Center added 420,000 square feet of meeting space in 2003, only to see large swaths of it go vacant. In reporting its most recent fiscal loss, convention center officials blamed it on soft parking revenues, the canceled National Hockey League season and big events that moved to the Georgia Dome and Centennial Olympic Park.
To lure black conventions, the visitors bureau has created promotional videos specifically designed for African-Americans and an Atlanta Web site for black visitors, and played up the city's reputation as the cradle of the civil rights movement.
Spelling out the cultural benefits of a city is crucial to landing African-American meeting and tourism business, said Charlotte Haymore, president of Travel Professionals of Color in Denver. To be competitive, a city must offer a package that includes the right price, facilities, transportation and attractions of interest to bring members out.
"Cultural history is very important," Haymore said. "African-Americans want to learn more about themselves. They want to go places that tell them more about blacks than slavery. They want to hear about the progress they made after slavery."
African-Americans are not the only group the visitors bureau is making specific appeals to. The agency also is pushing for Atlanta to be a meeting and tourism hot spot for Hispanics, gays, Asian-Americans and women. And like most cities with major league sports, it also pitches itself to sports marketers.
But it is the African-American community that it has most successfully wooed.
"This is a great niche market for us," Richardson said. "We will continue to be very aggressive in this area."
Total attendance in Atlanta
SOURCE: Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau
--WHO: National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives
--WHO: National Association of Black Journalists
--WHEN: Aug. 3-6
--WHO: T.D. Jakes Ministries' "MegaFest"
--WHEN: Aug. 3-6
--WHO: Bronner Brothers International Beauty Show
--WHEN: Aug. 20-22
--WHO: National Baptist Convention
--WHEN: Sept. 5-9
SOURCE: Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau
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
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. For information on republishing this content, contact us at (800) 661-2511 (U.S.), (213) 237-4914 (worldwide), fax (213) 237-6515, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.