How Atlanta Keeps Its Convention Industry Booming

Right now, the big new project on the horizon to attract tourists is a revamp of Centennial Olympic Park.

David Goldman / Associated Press

When Joe Glionna was looking for a place to host the first-ever North American Commercial Vehicle show, the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta stood out.

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“A lot of the upgrades in the city – the restaurant life, the bars, the access around the GWCC, the thousands of hotel rooms within walking distance – all of that made Atlanta a good spot,” he said.

Glionna’s show full of shiny new semi-trucks is one of the hundreds that come to the city each year.

According to the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, 52 million people visited Atlanta in 2016, generating $15 billion and supporting 280,000 jobs in the hospitality industry.

“We’ve had a series of really good growth years, and we expect that to continue in the future,” said William Pate, who runs the organization.

He attributes that growth to Atlanta’s busy international airport, large event spaces and extensive hotel inventory.

On top of that, there are lots to do and see: the World of Coca-Cola, Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“Of course the hardest thing is to keep it going,” Pate said. “We’ve had several record years. But it’s not about what you did yesterday, it’s about what we’re going to do tomorrow.”

So there’s a reason why some of the city feel so touristy: those parts are largely meant to attract tourists.

Right now, the big new project on the horizon is a revamp of Centennial Olympic Park. The Georgia World Congress Center is also adding 100,000 square feet of additional exhibition space.

“We talk a lot in our industry about the user experience. Everybody wants an experience. They want to be engaged,” said Cathy Breden, CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research.

Breden said when people get invited to conventions they ask two questions: “Do I have to go?” and “Do I want to go?”

Atlanta can make the answer to that second question a “yes” if it keeps offering new experiences to visitors.

That’s just the thing Joe Glionna’s got his eye on. He’s working to book his truck show at the Georgia World Congress Center through 2025.

“Fortunately, we’re every other year, so we’re not going to burn out of locations too soon,” he said. “But in eight years, if the College Football Hall of Fame and the Aquarium are still the only things here to do, that’s a problem.”

Glionna said, if that happens, he’s not afraid to roll his truck show on down the road to some other town.

Atlanta voters are preparing to elect a new mayor and replace nearly half the City Council. In this moment of transition, WABE is exploring “The Future of Atlanta.”