|By Leon Stafford, The Atlanta
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Dec. 9, 2005 - Boosted by an increase in convention and business travelers and hotel stays of some Hurricane Katrina evacuees, Atlanta's hoteliers are on track to end this year in the best shape since 2000.
It's a sea change from 2003, when the industry was mired in the deepest slump it had seen in a decade.
Occupancy at the metro area's 93,000 or so hotel rooms was at a healthy 65.2 percent though October, according to Smith Travel Research, a Henderson, Tenn.-based collector of industry performance data.
That's just a hair shy of the 65.5 percent occupancy in 2000, which was one of the strongest occupancy years in Atlanta's history.
By comparison, occupancy was 56.7 percent in 2003. Atlanta's highest occupancy rate was 76 percent in 1979.
"This really has been an outstanding year for the hospitality industry in Atlanta," said Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau President and CEO Spurgeon Richardson.
Part of the uptick in business came from bookings by hundreds of people who fled to the metro area in September and October after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, said the ACVB, Atlanta's main tourism and convention promoter.
But the biggest bump came from an increase in business travel and bigger attendance numbers at conventions at the Georgia World Congress Center, said Gregory Pierce, ACVB senior vice president and chief financial officer.
Collections from Atlanta-Fulton County hotel taxes -- which add 15 percent to the price of a hotel stay -- were well above projections in October, Pierce said. ACVB gets 7 percent of the tax collections, which make up most of its operating revenue. The bureau had expected to get about $843,000 in October. Instead, it received $971,000.
"Actually, we had budgeted to receive less this October than we got last year because of what little we had on the books," Pierce said, explaining that the number of conventions and trade shows generally decline as the holidays approach.
Not so this year. Because of Katrina, Atlanta added a large convention in October -- the American Society of Anesthesiologists -- that brought in 11,500 visitors and had an estimated economic impact of $57 million.
And other conventions from the Big Easy -- including this weekend's meeting of the American Society of Hematology -- are expected to bring in more visitors.
"The hematologists are saying that their numbers are up and that they may exceed 18,000," said GWCC General Manager Mark Zimmerman.
Atlanta also plays host to big back-to-back football matchups with the Peach and Sugar bowls, which are expected to contribute to hoteliers' bottom lines.
Next year will be even bigger, predicted Mark Woodworth, executive vice president of PKF Consulting, an Atlanta firm that tracks the health of the hotel industry. The city will play host to several more conventions displaced from New Orleans, and business travel and attendance at conventions are expected to continue to be strong, he said.
"In terms of occupancy, we should get back to the watermark we set in 2000," he said.
Said Zimmerman, "Atlanta is back on the map."
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Copyright (c) 2005, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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