The Classic Center Arena in Athens, Georgia, is scheduled to open in Fall 2023.
In Georgia, Safe Meetings Experience Pays Off
Georgia communities are front-runners in welcoming the return of meetings safely.
In Georgia, meetings mean business, but when meetings and conventions began canceling due to COVID-19 in March 2020, businesses suffered. That’s why as soon as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Georgia Department of Public Health issued guidelines for resuming meetings safely, communities around the state jumped into action. By implementing measures that allow for social distancing, incorporate virtual as well as in-person participation, and offer creative solutions for event spaces and meals, Georgia communities have led the way in hosting safe meetings.
The Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC), located in the heart of downtown Atlanta, was the first convention center in the United States to achieve GBAC STAR Facility Accreditation for cleaning, disinfection, and infectious disease prevention. GBAC STAR enables facilities to maintain an effective approach to control risks associated with infectious agents. As the fourth largest convention center in the country, with 1.5 million square feet of exhibit space, that was no small feat.
GWCC’s safety measures were in full effect for the American Society of Hematology (ASH) 63rd Annual Meeting and Exposition in December 2021. To keep attendees and staff safe, ASH used both Clear and Safe Expo technologies to verify vaccination status when welcoming guests to the convention.
“As one of the top convention destinations in the country, we are thrilled meetings and events continue to return to Atlanta,” says Mark Vaughan, executive vice president and chief sales officer, Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Meeting planners continue to implement innovative procedures to keep everyone safe, serving as a true testament to the resiliency of our industry.”
The Andrew Young International Mall and Terminal is the latest addition to the GWCC campus, featuring pedestrian-friendly open spaces, seating areas and tiered decks. A new headquarter hotel, Signia by Hilton Atlanta, broke ground in 2020 and will connect directly to GWCC. With nearly 1,000 rooms, event spaces, restaurants and bars, the hotel is poised to boost convention attendance and add new options for meeting planners when it opens in late 2023.
Another GBAC STAR-certified facility, The Classic Center in downtown Athens, has safely hosted groups by following continuously changing guidelines for health and safety. Managers at the center keep a close eye on federal and state guidance, and update information about their safety practices online so meeting planners and attendees can plan accordingly. The center also has an app through which it can offer virtual content for attendees who are unable to attend in-person.
In December 2020, the center successfully hosted the Georgia School Superintendents Association Bootstrap Conference and received encouraging feedback from attendees. ”Your staff did an excellent job preparing your facility for this event,” wrote Dr. Sherrie Gibney-Sherman, superintendent of Foothills Education Charter High School. “Everything was clearly spaced out and marked. Everything was clean. Food preparations and service honored CDC recommendations. Well done. You have many reasons to be proud. Thanks for making my first ‘return to in-person’ event safe. I am certain others feel the same way.”
Building on the successful history of hosting a wide variety of events and meetings in Athens, The Classic Center is breaking ground on construction of The Classic Center Arena this spring. The venue is scheduled to open in early 2024 and will host concerts, conventions, sporting events and more.
In fall 2020, Augusta began returning to hosting meetings, albeit with drastically reduced attendees. As those small events proved they could be conducted safely, a greater number of association conferences were held in the city in 2021, including a large military/cybersecurity conference and the annual Augusta Ironman 70.3. In certain months in 2021, the city even exceeded its 2019 average daily rate at hotels because of meetings.
Augusta’s conference hotels provided safe experiences to attendees by using many outdoor spaces as venues, as well as offering creative food and beverage options. Technology and A/V options also were critically important as meeting professionals sought to extend participation to those who could not attend in-person.
“We’ve all been through a tough time, but meetings are finally rebounding,” says Michelle Bovian, director of group business development for Destination Augusta. “Everyone – hotels, restaurants, and attractions – looks forward to their return. We are all still cautious but want to get together and network in-person.”
Since November 2020, Cartersville has been hosting safe events at the Clarence Brown Conference Center by following guidelines and policies that make attendees feel comfortable. Steps have included offering health screenings for attendees at facility entrances, placing hand sanitizer stands throughout meeting areas, and distributing “swag bags” that include masks, hand sanitizers and snacks.
Event organizers have adjusted schedules to include extra time between sessions to allow for room cleaning and sanitizing, and they are using outdoor spaces for general sessions, breakouts and meal services. Food and beverage service has been adjusted to allow for staff-served meals and packaged food, such as boxed lunches and salads in closed containers.
Cartersville recently completed the finishing touches on an outdoor event space between the conference center and a newly opened Courtyard by Marriott on the conference center campus. The outdoor pavilion can seat up to 250 guests and provides a safe place to host weddings, receptions, meal services and corporate outings. “We have several conferences and wedding parties booked in this space for spring and summer events for that reason,” says Penny Davis, general manager for the conference center.
In early 2022, Columbus hosted the Georgia Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus’ Annual Meeting following the latest safety protocols, including requiring attendees to provide proof of vaccination and booster or a negative COVID test result before the meeting. Among other precautions, masks were required in common areas, seating in all meeting rooms was arranged to allow social distancing, and hand sanitizing stations were placed throughout the Columbus Georgia Convention & Trade Center.
Communication was one of the keys to hosting the safe conference in Columbus. Event organizers highlighted information about the safety protocols on the conference website and in registration materials, and signage and video messages were placed in prominent locations in the conference center to emphasize safety during the conference. Event organizers heard from some attendees that they decided to attend because of the precautions.
"As meetings and conventions are returning, we all understand that the risks caused by the pandemic are not and should not be ignored," says Peter Bowden, president & CEO of VisitColumbusGa. "We felt it is important, and will remain so, to offer the meeting planner safety protocol options based on the 'science' to avoid complications, while making the conference the best experience possible so that attendees can focus on the business of doing business, professional development, networking, etc. Based on the survey responses from that meeting, Columbus scored high marks in every possible category."
The Jekyll Island Convention Center has followed stringent safety protocols since it opened in 2012, but it added medical-grade sanitizing systems from Ecolab to provide an extra level of safety in 2020. The staff continues to recommend flexible seating arrangements with ample space, and work with groups to implement additional safety measures to meet their requirements for in-person meetings.
The convention center’s state-of-the-art audio/visual capabilities became even more important during the pandemic to offer hybrid virtual/in-person meeting options. “The pandemic has shown us that hybrid meetings are here to stay because of their flexibility of attendance and participation,” says Alexa Hawkins, director of marketing & communications for Jekyll Island. “Groups feel more confident booking simply knowing they have remote options in place for attendees or speakers who may not be able to attend.”
Since summer 2021, Jekyll Island has experienced a strong resurgence in group bookings. From July 1, 2021, to Feb. 28, 2022, the convention center welcomed more than 42 groups, with more than 21,000 attendees. And in the first two months of 2022, more than 30 groups have signed contracts for meetings over the next few years. “Current pacing shows we are on target for a record year for group business on Jekyll Island,” Hawkins says.
To further extend the island’s appeal for meetings and conventions, in June 2021, Jekyll Island welcomed its newest lodging property, the 209-room, dual-branded Courtyard & Residence Inn, which offers an additional 2,000 square feet of meeting space and sweeping ocean views. Guests of the property also get to enjoy Jekyll’s largest heated pool, including a hot tub and splash pad, a small bistro offering coffee and grab-and-go snacks, as well as an on-site restaurant.
In summer 2021, all tourism industry eyes were on Macon when it hosted the annual Southeast Tourism Society’s Marketing College, a week-long marketing bootcamp for tourism and hospitality professionals. As all of the attendees - many of whom are event planners themselves - knew about the importance of implementing safety protocols, preparations were detailed and extensive. Safety measures during the week included conducting temperature checks, giving attendees wristbands to indicate comfort levels, and providing hand sanitizing stations and gloves.
“It took many conversations and a lot of planning on everyone’s part, and we were able to create a successful event for the Southeast Tourism Society and for Macon-Bibb County,” says Steven Fulbright, vice president of sales and services at Visit Macon. “All of our restaurants and attractions were so grateful to have new faces in their businesses.”
Confident in the full return of successful meetings and travel in general, Macon recently celebrated the opening of its first new downtown hotel in more than 50 years. Hotel Forty Five is a 94-room boutique hotel with event and meeting rooms conveniently located in the city’s historic central business district. Guestrooms reflect the city’s history with vintage design elements, and three on-site dining destinations, including a rooftop bar with stunning views, appeal to locals as well as visitors.
The Savannah Convention Center also was one of the first in the nation to earn the GBAC STAR Facility Accreditation. In addition, more than 600 businesses adopted the Savannah Safe Pledge in the first week it was introduced in 2020, indicating their commitment to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
As a result of those safety commitments, in 2021, Savannah hosted 30 large groups, accounting for more than 100,000 hotel rooms sold. In fact, several groups canceled their events in other states and relocated them to Savannah because of the city’s commitment to conducting safe meetings.
“Savannah stood out as a beacon of hope to organizations across the nation who wanted to continue to meet in a responsible manner,” says Jeff Hewitt, executive vice president for Visit Savannah and Visit Tybee Island. “This kept many people working and minimized the negative impact of the pandemic on our community.”
Through experiences in communities from Atlanta to Savannah, Augusta to Athens, meeting planners have learned that they can count on Georgia to successfully host meetings safely. Confident in their abilities to continue to host safe meetings, communities are expanding their facilities and event offerings to host groups of all sizes immediately and well into the future.