- By Leon Stafford The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The economic benefits of hosting this year’s college football national championship was supposed to be a boon for Atlanta, but for some it was also a little bit of a letdown.
The problem: Big majorities of Georgia Bulldogs and Alabama Crimson Tide fans were within easy driving distance of the city, eliminating the need for long hotel stays, cab rides and eating out for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“The championship didn’t have the pop that it would have had had the teams come from far way,” said Mark Woodworth, senior managing director for hospitality analytics group CBRE Hotel’s Americas Research. “There wasn’t as great a need to pay for the convenience of a hotel stay.”
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It also meant hotel rooms outside of downtown’s core didn’t fill up as easily as they have during past sporting events, such as the Final Four or Super Bowl. While downtown lodgers such as the Hyatt Regency — which was the host hotel for the Bulldogs — were full the entire weekend, hotels from the airport to the Perimeter area didn’t feel the impact as much, said Mark Vaughan, executive vice president and chief sales officer at the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“If the teams had come from states farther away, there would have been more need for rooms, which would have pushed a lot of business to other parts of the city,” he said.
Filling those hotel rooms and packing in crowds at restaurants is important to Atlanta’s $15 billion tourism industry. The money goes in the pockets of waiters and maids as well as florists who provide arrangements for events, tour guides shuttling visitors around and entertainment destinations such as the World of Coca-Cola.
Atlanta Checker Cab Company President Rick Hewatt said his business was down 50 percent compared to what had been expected.
“We normally do 800 calls a day and even more when we have a big event like that,” said Hewatt, who added the company may have lost some of the business because of a transportation partnership between Mercedes-Benz Stadium and ridesharing company Lyft. “But we were well below what we expected.”
That’s not to say that the event was a bust, hospitality leaders said. Fans bought thousands of T-shirts from vendors, Fan Central at the Georgia World Congress Center did brisk business and downtown attractions such as the Georgia Aquarium and the College Football Hall of Fame bustled with activity. Free concerts at Centennial Olympic Park — including a headlining set by Kendrick Lamar — dumped tons of cash in city coffers through sponsorships.
And Atlanta reaped millions in free advertising from broadcasts of game activities, they said. The more the nation gets to see Atlanta hosting a big marquee event — other upcoming title games include the Super Bowl in 2019 and the Men’s Final Four in 2020 — the more money the hospitality industry can count on in the future.
“Atlanta really is one of the go-to cities for these kinds of events,” said Tim Calkins, a branding guru at Northwestern University. “This also helps Atlanta do what is really important in branding: stay in the center of attention. One big event doesn’t have lasting impact, but hosting a number of them has tremendous benefits.”
Originally, boosters had anticipatedthe championship weekend would have an $85 million economic impact on the city. But after Georgia and Alabama won the right to compete for the title, Georgia State University economist Bruce Seaman, who conducted the impact study, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was revising the number down to $65 million because a lot of fans could simply drive to the city on game day instead of spending money on hotels.
“They are unlikely to stay as many nights as if they came in from Texas or California or the state of Washington,” he said.
Kevin Richards, chief operating officer for Legacy Ventures, which owns The Glenn, Embassy Suites and Hilton Garden Inn among other downtown hotels, said business was strong on Sunday and Monday. It was Friday and Saturday — two days that would have otherwise been packed to the gills — that were disappointing.
“We were down 25 percent on Saturday,” he said. “There wasn’t the compression throughout the market that we’ve seen in the past where it benefitted everybody.”
Marsha Middleton, a spokeswoman for Four Seasons Atlanta and Phipps Plaza’s Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse, said both did strong business during the weekend, with the hotel full every night.
Gerry Klaskala, owner of Aria, took advantage of enthusiasm for the game by opening the doors of his Buckhead restaurant on Sunday, a day it is usually closed. Fans and sponsors of the game — who learned about the rare Sunday opening through social media — poured in, he said.
“We had a tremendous night,” he said. “It was a good business decision. And selfishly, I admit part of it was because we wanted to be home to watch the game on Monday.”
-- Staff writer Matt Kempner contributed to this article.
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