With COVID-19 keeping the masses at home, the Athens hospitality and tourism industry has come to a stand still. Stay-at-home orders and bans on large gatherings have led to the cancellation of all events, leaving hotels empty and businesses scrambling to adapt.
On March 16, Athens-Clarke County introduced a ban on gatherings larger than 10 people. Places like The Classic Center were hit particularly hard by this. The space hosts over 700 events per year, bringing in thousands of visitors and millions in revenue.
The Classic Center began preparing for some event cancellations on March 13, but by March 16, the situation had become far more dire. That was the day that Athens-Clarke County introduced the ban.
This city-wide ban required us to postpone and cancel all events through the end of the month; in that day alone, we lost $1.2 million dollars of business,” said director of The Classic Center Paul Cramer.
As it became clear that the pandemic would last beyond the end of March, the losses started piling up and Cramer was faced with a difficult decision: he was going to have to lay off a number of employees.
“My entire leadership team, myself included, took a significant cut in pay and most full-time, salaried employees were reduced to a four-day work week,” said Cramer.
“We have a number of our largest meetings and conventions that come during these months,” said Hannah Smith, the director of marketing and communications for the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The cancelation and postponement of events has “a huge economic impact on the local community,” according to Smith. She added that the agency has yet to determine the exact figures.
Cramer turned his focus to trying to make the best of the situation with what was left. The Classic Center agreed to a deal with ByoPlanet International to use the Grand Hall as a space to produce sanitation stations. This deal made it possible to hire back 40 staff members who had been laid off.
“My immediate instinct was to see how we could utilize this large community building, projected to sit empty through this outbreak, so that it could instead be an asset,” he said.
Leadership also came up with the idea of Band Together, a weekly virtual concert series that will gather donations for various relief efforts, such as United Way of Northeast Georgia’s COVID-19 relief fund.
However, as long as events are virtual, the hotels in town will continue to struggle. James Lalanne, the general manager of the Homewood Suites in downtown Athens, said his hotel is operating at about 30 to 50 percent occupancy.
Lalanne’s ownership group also operates the Hampton Inn, which has temporarily closed from lack of demand. Other hotels, like Graduate Athens, have followed suit.
With no end in sight, the tourism industry is forced to sit and wait. Until it is safe to gather again, they will have to rely on creative solutions like Band Together to keep things going.
Patrick Wickson is a junior majoring in journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
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