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Atlanta Tourism Chief Talks World Cup, Deal With Michelin

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FIFA World Cup fans are going to need a home base as they follow their favorite teams across North America in 2026. A top contender is Atlanta, said Discover Atlanta CEO and President William Pate, who sits on the city’s hosting committee.

“Fans could end up staying in Atlanta, but traveling to different cities for other games,” said Pate.

Pate spoke with Skift about why Atlanta could be the home base for World Cup fans, the city’s $1 million investment deal with the Michelin Guide, its new 1,000 convention room hotel downtown, and more.

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This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Getting into the Michelin Guide

Skift: Discover Atlanta recently paid to have Michelin rate its restaurants— an expensive endeavor for tourism boards. What has been the return on investment?

William Pate:  We did a three-year deal with them. It’s basically a million-dollar deal in order to be a part of the Michelin Guide. We’re the seventh city in the United States to be selected.

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We have a lot of chefs and chef-driven restaurants and 23 different cuisine types, but we really didn’t feel like we were getting credit for that. We thought that associating our culinary theme with the Michelin brand would really be the opportunity that we were looking for to elevate the entire city’s restaurant industry. 

We began discussions with Michelin before Covid. Interestingly enough, they were exploring Atlanta already as a potential Michelin city. As we came out of Covid, those conversations heated up again very quickly.

They’ve announced their first year and our restaurant community did really well. We had 45 total restaurants in the guide. Five got Michelin stars. 

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The ancillary benefit that we were looking for, which is to get the community talking about all the great restaurants that we have really had, I’ll be honest, exceeded our expectations, and we had high expectations. 

I usually like to do quantitative numbers, but I can tell you qualitatively, I’ve been told that of the restaurants that were selected this first year, their business is up about 30%. But I can also tell you, talking to restaurants that weren’t selected in the guide, their business is up about 10%. 

The other value that it created not only with visitors but also locally is it re-energized our culinary scene.  The people who were coming out of Covid re-energized this desire to eat out and not have the food delivered to your house, but really get out and have a restaurant experience. 

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Atlanta’s Potential as World Cup Home Base for Fans

Atlanta is going to host eight matches, three of which are knockout ones. How is Atlanta preparing for the tournament?

We’re in planning mode right now. It’s an interesting situation with the World Cup in that you don’t know what countries are going to be coming until next year.

We’re expecting very big crowds and we’re very excited. The good news for Atlanta is we’ve got almost 15,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of the of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. By the way, it was built with the anticipation that we would perhaps have the opportunity to host the World Cup.

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We certainly are going to have fan fest somewhere downtown where it’ll be walking distance [from the stadium]. We haven’t gotten that far in the preparations because frankly, we’re looking to FIFA to outline for us exactly the kinds of things that they’re looking for.

Given the all the flights that pass through its airport, Atlanta could also be a home base for World Cup fans.

We’re in a unique position because of the access that we have. We have nonstop flights to every World Cup city, including in Canada and Mexico.  We’ve got the busiest airport in the world, 70 nonstop international nonstops, and then we have 150 domestic nonstops every day. 

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If you were a fan of one of the teams expected to go far, you could choose to make Atlanta your home base for your hotel stay, and then as your team advances, travel to the different cities as you follow them. Fans could end up just staying in Atlanta, but traveling to different cities for other games, which would be an added benefit to our hoteliers. 

And Atlanta is really becoming a soccer hub. We’re going to be hosting Copa America games this year. USA Soccer has just relocated their headquarters to Atlanta, which will spur another set of growth for the city.

Atlanta Adds 1,000 Room Convention Hotel

Hilton opened its Signia brand this year. There seems to be a lot of development going on in downtown Atlanta.

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We just opened the Signia Hilton Hotel, which is our second convention hotel, and it’s in between Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the Convention center. We were the first Signia built from the ground up.

That’ll be great access for both sporting events as well as conventions. That’s almost a thousand rooms convention product. It’s doing extremely well.

Another big one is in the space, the area that we used to call the Gulch, which is kind of between Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Convention center and State Farm Arena. It’s about 50 acres, and it’s now called Centennial Yards. Their first phase, which they’re already working on, includes a hotel that’s going to be across the street from CNN Center, which now is no longer CNN Center.

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The second phase of development there is going to include some residential and some nightlife, a music venue, more restaurants, all within walking distance to the convention center. They’re hoping to have most of the buildings completed by the World Cup and then get everything occupied.

Even during Covid, people missed the fact that we opened eight new hotels. As I tell folks, while everybody was in their basement, we were building as usual.

Speaking of the CNN Center, it used to be the global media company’s headquarters in Atlanta. It was also a major tourist attraction. What’s going to replace it?

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They’re trying to figure out exactly what ultimately they’re going to do there. It’s obviously a very attractive location, setup for businesses. And the first floor, there’s obviously great opportunity for more restaurants and things like that. So we’re pretty excited about what the potential could be there, but it hasn’t been announced yet exactly how they’re going to repurpose that building.

Atlanta’s Convention Calendar in 2024

Atlanta’s tourism primarily comes from conventions and large events. How is the conventions calendar looking for 2024? The city got some help from Georgia remaining open during the pandemic.

Our convention business is very strong. In fact, 2024 will probably be the best year in the history of the city. A lot of that’s driven by the fact that we have, not only do we have a lot of conventions, 21 major city-wde, but they’re really big conventions. 

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We’re hosting three big industry events. The Global Business Travel Association, Georgia Tourism Conference and Travel South, a huge regional international show, which is the second largest logistics show in the country, is here this year. 

We had an advantage, to be fair, because our governor kept the state open. So even during Covid, folks that still wanted to have meetings could have them. And even though attendance obviously was severely hampered during Covid, we were able to still host some convention activity, which then gave us a headstart as Covid got in the rear-view mirror.

And Atlanta is a very attractive convention city because it’s easy to access. We’re third in the country in terms of Fortune 500 companies, the Center for Disease Control is headquartered here, and we have almost 15,000 hotel rooms within walking distance to the convention center. 

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More Targeted Marketing

How has Discover Atlanta’s marketing strategy changed in the last few years? 

We’re trying to cater more of our communication to the specific needs of the different groups that come to Atlanta and make sure that they can find the experiences that they’re going to be interested in.

We developed a Black tourism experience called ATL Unguided, and it’s specifically targeted to the African-American market. We expanded this now and we’ve got it specific for Black travelers.

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And so it’s cultural experiences that amplify Black voices, businesses that cater to Black travelers, folks that are interested in not only civil rights, but just other things around that Black travelers are interested in.

We started that about four years ago now. It’s been so successful now we’re doing one for the Hispanic population.

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