|By Leon Stafford, The Atlanta
Journal-ConstitutionMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
December 31, 2009 - WHILE CONVENTIONEERS AND BUSINESS PEOPLE -- the meat and potatoes of hospitality -- have pulled back on their travels to Atlanta because of the economy, sports fans have turned out in full force.
PKF Hospitality Research, which analyzes the hotel industry, reports that sports-related hotel occupancy for two big Atlanta games in particular --the SEC championship and the Chick-fil-A Bowl --will be up this year over historical averages.
That's good news for metro Atlanta's $11 billion hospitality industry, which has seen visitation decline in 2009. Convention attendance has been sluggish and fewer business travelers have come to the city because of corporate budget cuts.
PKF is forecasting hotel occcupancy in 2009 to be about 53 percent, the city's lowest level ever, the organization said.
"That's the worse average we've recorded since we began tracking the industry in the 1950s," said Mark Woodworth, PKF's president.
Historically about 10.7 percent of hotel revenue in late November and December is associated with SEC and Chick-fil-A Bowl sports fans, Woodworth said. But this year, early estimates suggest that number will increase to about 12.7 percent.
"Anecdotally we are hearing hotels are looking good going into the Chick-fil-A Bowl," he said.
The Tennessee Vols will square off against the Virginia Tech Hokies today in the Chick-fil-A Bowl at the Georgia Dome. The sold-out game continues the Bowl's streak -- now up to 13 years -- of filling every seat.
That follows the SEC championship that was played earlier in the month at the Georgia Dome. That game, which pitted the then No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams against each other in what many saw as a national championship of sorts, ended with Alabama defeating Florida 32-13.
"Sports is a vital component to the tourism industry in this town," said Gary Stokan, president of the Atlanta Sports Council.
He said in addition to the Chick-fil-A Bowl and SEC championship, 2009 also brought Atlanta the Bank of America Atlanta Football Classic, the 2009 ACC Basketball Tournament and the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
"Not only is (sports) a consistent performer, but when you take into account viewership, it promotes Atlanta better than anything else," Stokan said.
Dan Normandin, general manager of the Four Seasons Atlanta, said the sports traveler has definitely turned out this year. While the hotel's primary clients are corporate visitors, sports fans have filled more rooms than in the past. And they have expanded their reach to the luxury property's restaurant, bar and spa.
"It's definitely been an economic boost for us," he said.
To take advantage of the sports travel dollar, the Atlanta Hilton has created sports-themed packages with tickets and overnight accommodations, said Edd Karlan, director of sales and marketing for the hotel. The hotel plans to continue the offers next year.
"We have seen a drastic increase in leisure bookings over Atlanta's major sporting events," Karlan said. "The SEC Championship and upcoming Chick fil-A Bowl have helped the hotel sell out all of our rooms. The Atlanta Falcons visiting teams, such as Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, have all contributed a 10-15 percent spike in business over those particular weekends."
So why so much support for sports?
Robert Mandelbaum, PKF's director of research information, said it's one of those "once-in-a-lifetime" experiences that people treat themselves to, even when the economy is sour.
"It's that special event that creates travel," he said.
Woodworth said he and his son, Harry, are going Tuesday to the FedEx Orange Bowl for just that reason. Georgia Tech faces the Iowa Hawkeyes in that matchup.
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