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African-American Conventions in Atlanta

ED GORDON, host:

The National Association of Black Journalists isn't the biggest convention in Atlanta this week. That distinction goes to Pastor T.D. Jakes' Mega Fest, a Christian gathering so big it occupies four major conference facilities. Both events reflect Atlanta's extra efforts to generate African-American convention and tourism business. Joshua Levs reports those efforts are paying off.

JOSHUA LEVS reporting:

Throughout this week, thousands of people have been pouring in to downtown Atlanta for Mega Fest, a huge four-day religious event. About 150,000 people registered for it last year and organizers expect at least that many this year. Pastor Anthony Meyers, with Potter's House ministries in Dallas, says the event returns to Atlanta for its second year because the arenas and hotels it uses are all close to each other. And Meyers says there's another big draw.

Pastor ANTHONY MEYERS (Potter's House Ministries): Atlanta's a mecca, not just for African-Americans, but for people. The Olympics were here, Super Bowl was here. It's an icon city. People come from around the world here. So it's a great place.

LEVS: That's the message city tourism officials have been working to drill into the minds of convention organizers all over the country. While they want all the conventions they can get, they've made special efforts to attract African-American groups since the early 1990s.

Ms. KATHLEEN BERTRAND (Vice President, Community and Government Affairs, Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau): We gave ourselves a real push to really concentrate salespeople effort, time on this particular market segment.

LEVS: Kathleen Bertrand is vice president of Community and Government Affairs for the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. She says the city faces tough competition for this niche market from New Orleans or Orlando and Washington, DC.

Ms. BERTRAND; And if we find that a convention has not met here in the past five, 10 years or so, then we go after them. We start attending their meetings and we start making it known that Atlanta would like to bid for your business.

LEVS: Atlanta's ambassadors come armed with materials, including a video with Jesse Jackson, Magic Johnson, Spike Lee and many others heaping praise on Atlanta.

(Soundbite of videotape)

Unidentified Man: Atlanta does a great job as a city of handling tremendous activities.

Group of People #1: (In unison) We love Atlanta!

Group of People #2: (In unison) We love Atlanta!

Group of People #3: (In unison) We love Atlanta!

LEVS: All that love seems to be working. City officials predict more than 300,000 African-American conventioneers will gather here this summer. The estimated economic impact: $320 million. Next year's bookings include the National Urban League, the National Black MBA Association and the business convention FraserNet. They'll help fill a big hole from the loss of the city's biggest annual convention: National Association of Home Builders. Although African-American conventions look for most of the same things as any other conventions, the Convention & Visitors Bureau distributes special materials, emphasizing the city's civil rights history and cultural diversity. Vice President Kathleen Bertrand says she wants to erase images of the Old South.

Ms. BERTRAND: We try to position Atlanta as it is today--very vibrant, with an African-American population that's quite empowered, with a young, growing population here, that 25- to 45-year-old group, and so we try to use all of those things to position Atlanta positively.

LEVS: There are some things the bureau can't control, including what Mega Fest organizer Anthony Meyers calls the biggest disadvantage.

Pastor MEYERS: Traffic. Traffic.

LEVS: He says it's a good thing all the Mega Fest venues are within walking distance. For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.