Atlanta gets first and last major trade show of 2020 pandemic

September 03, 2020

Atlanta’s once mighty convention and trade show industry has been shredded by the pandemic. But it’s getting a glimmer of what once was.  And a hint of what might be.  Delayed by the pandemic and limited by economic concerns, the Atlanta Market trade show finishes a six-day run downtown Tuesday, with just one fifth of its normal 50,000 attendance.  The wholesale home decor and gift event is the only major convention or trade show to be held in metro Atlanta since March after dozens of others were canceled. And it’s likely to be the last for the year, according to the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. Even much smaller events, such as the recent World of Prom trade show, have been uncommon and lightly attended.

The industry of conventions, trade shows, meetings and national sporting events normally adds to Atlanta’s economy and fuels a host of jobs, from restaurant servers and hotel housekeepers to shuttle bus drivers and exhibit designers.  Even the reduced Atlanta Market “is a significant piece of business to be coming in the middle of a pandemic for us,” said William Pate, the ACVB’s chief executive officer.  Heather Kimbrough, the owner of a home and gift shop in Muscle Shoals, Ala., scanned the few people in a hallway in AmericasMart at what should have been the height of the show, a time when many exhibitors’ shops normally would be packed. “It’s really sad,” she said. Gone were the usual parties, celebrity chef appearances, fancy catered meals, pounding music and temporary exhibitors. With fewer attendees and staggered sessions to help with social distancing, there was no longer a need for elevator operators who, in the past, held crowds back from packed cars.  Yet thousands still made the trek to Atlanta.  “It is a baby step back into the core business of putting buyers and sellers together,” said Bob Maricich, the chief executive of AmericasMart’s parent, International Market Centers.

The trade show attracts a bevy of retailers, interior designers and others from throughout the East Coast and beyond. They come to connect with wholesalers offering home decor itemsAtlanta trade shows or gifts that could end up in stores or designers’ spaces in coming months. All are trying to gauge the buying appetites of American consumers. Some home decor sellers say their businesses overall have been doing better than normal as people turn to home beautification projects during the pandemic.  Even so, many people were reluctant to brave crowds to come to the trade show. And some of those who did were wary of spending.  “They are afraid. They don’t see an end to this,” said Mark Weinstein, who owns the Golden Oldies Antiques shop. He predicted he wouldn’t make enough from the event to cover even one month’s rent in AmericasMart. That’s a problem since sellers like him typically rely on just two major events held there each year.

Many shop owners focused on partial workarounds to attract people who didn’t make it to Atlanta this year.  Two-person teams used cellphones and tablets to show Sagebrook Home’s merchandise and take orders from individual buyers, including ones in Florida and Barbados.  Stacy Borocz, the founder of Roswell-based etúHOME, said she held a tour on Zoom for 100 customers and had a lineup of virtual appointments scheduled with major retailers. But she needed less than a third as many staffers compared to a typical summer show.  With growing online options even before the pandemic, some buyers were already starting to limit the number of trade shows they attend each year. And while Borocz said she continues to see value from the shows, she expects the pandemic will speed up the trend toward online.

What that might mean for trade shows in Atlanta is an open question. The metro area was the nation’s fourth largest convention and trade show market before the pandemic.  The year started with 39 scheduled events that would have pulled in enough visitors to fill thousands of hotel rooms from downtown and Buckhead to the Perimeter. Seven of the events were held before the pandemic. Of the remaining 32, 29 were canceled.  About 300 events and meetings of all sizes were dropped. A million hotel nights were lost, according to the ACVB.  In addition to the Atlanta Market, two other big sports events are still booked: the SEC college football championship and the New Year’s Day Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, which includes lead-up events before the games. But it’s unclear whether the college football season will really happen.

In the meantime, hospitality businesses have been clobbered in metro Atlanta and around the nation. Hotel occupancy rates have been far below normal, according to ACVB’s Pate. Many sit-down restaurants are still struggling, even as some diners have returned to tables.  “We are blessed to have anybody in our seats right now,” said Faith Vaughan, an executive at Ray’s in the City, as Atlanta Market attendees filtered into the restaurant.  Traffic from meetings and gatherings throughout downtown normally account for half the restaurant’s sales.  Bill Groff figured his family’s Kennesaw-based small business, Team One Display Services, which makes exhibits, couldn’t survive waiting for the trade show industry to rebound. The 52-year-old and his wife cashed in some retirement savings, borrowed money, sold a house and pivoted to start Modshed, promising quick-to-assemble modular structures that can be used as backyard studios or home offices. “I have to save my company and the people that work for me,” Groff said.

For the moment, most of metro Atlanta’s convention calendar for 2021 is intact, but it’s survival likely hinges on improved medical treatment for COVID-19, a vaccine and trust from travelers, according to the ACVB’s Pate. The next two citywide conventions or trade shows in metro Atlanta are scheduled for January: another Atlanta Market at AmericasMart and the International Production & Processing Expo.  But rebuilding the industry to full attendance won’t be immediate, said Pate. “It will take a couple of years — the end of ’22 — before we get back to where we were prior to COVID.”

Guest blogger:  By Matt Kempner, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution -

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