Originally created 06/03/04

City has plans to woo nonprofits



Barry White, the area's top tourism official, knows that even a moderate-size event can serve up a mighty economic wallop.

Take the annual conference for the Georgia Society of Association Executives, which kicks off today. The 250 people attending the two-day conference makes it a modest draw when viewed next to the likes of the Masters Tournament or the Augusta Futurity.

Even the $104,500 Mr. White expects will be spent on hotels, transportation, food and drink doesn't come close to the many millions of dollars that course through the economy when more notable events come to town.

That said, Mr. White calls the grouping of state professional associations probably the "single best business potential" that his Augusta Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau has the chance to work with.

He should know. As past president of the executive society, Mr. White is well aware that the individual nonprofit groups belonging to the association spend a combined $35 million a year in Georgia on annual meetings, quarterly conferences and all types of planned get-togethers.

His tourism bureau's goal is to woo some of that money this way. And a good showing over these couple of days could mean groups such as the Georgia Bankers Association or the American College of Rheumatology, both association members, will consider holding their meetings in the metro area.

That's big business. Tourism is the state's second-biggest industry after agriculture, and accounts for $11 million in taxes for Richmond and Columbia counties. According to the latest figures, it also supports about 5,000 jobs in both counties.

"We'll try to make this conference sales-oriented, but also a lot of fun," said Mr. White, who described an opening reception at the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame Botanical Gardens, a canoe trip on the Augusta Canal and nighttime dining downtown. "All these people are potential clients, so our efforts have to be the best of the best."

The bulk of the conference centers on a series of seminars at the Radisson Riverfront Hotel Augusta, where the attendees are staying, and a trade show at the Savannah Rapids Pavilion in Columbia County.

There, vendors ranging from accountants and lawyers specializing in nonprofits to hotel owners and tourism agencies will run booths and try to sell their future services.

Association members make up about half those at the conference, while such vendors make up the rest.

Jim Moody, the association's executive director, said the conference will feature educational sessions aimed at helping its members with issues such as financial reporting and how to grow, in addition to the usual networking opportunities.

Mr. Moody pointed out that Augusta competed regionally for the plumb event against cities both in-state and out. Others to hold the conference in the past include Savannah and Macon, Ga.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Biloxi, Miss.

"They have added the Golf Hall of Fame, the Radisson Riverfront has expanded its meeting space and now there's the Augusta Canal Interpretive Center," said Mr. Moody, spelling out the differences between Augusta today and the last time the city played host to the event in 1997.

"The perceptions of Augusta have improved dramatically over the years."

Reach Matthew Mogul at (706) 823-3352 or matthew.mogul@augustachronicle.com.