Frank Poe has one foot in the business world and the other in the political arena. And these days, both feet are firmly planted in negotiations with the Atlanta Falcons over a new stadium for the team.
Poe, a 40-year veteran of the convention business, became executive director of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority two-and-a-half years ago. The authority, created by the state, operates the current Falcons nest, the Georgia Dome, as well as the Georgia World Congress Center and Centennial Olympic Park. Together, the three downtown venues accounted for $113 million in revenue and $14.9 million in net income in the authority’s latest fiscal year. The College Football Hall of Fame, scheduled to open in 2014, will be on authority-owned land.
Poe, 62, talks about the controversial stadium project and what he learned while working in the convention business in Dallas, Orlando, Birmingham and here.
Q: Many Atlantans do not believe that public funds should be used to build a facility for a privately owned team, especially with today’s other pressing needs. Why should some $300 million in hotel-motel taxes be put toward a $1 billion stadium for the Falcons?
A: It would be financed by a portion of a 7 percent tax on visitors who use hotel rooms. That tax cannot be used to fund roads or schools in its current form. The General Assembly would have to change the current law.
That tax is buying a $1 billion asset, with about 70 percent of the cost coming from the private sector. For 30 cents on the dollar, the public is going to get a new facility that will be sustainable for the next 30 or 35 years. If you want to have NFL football in the marketplace, public-private financing is the way these deals are structured for the most part these days.
You also have to consider that it’s not just for the Falcons. We also do a significant number of college athletic events, conventions and other activities within the Dome that will move into that facility.
It will also allow Atlanta to be competitive in the marketplace for college bowls, the World Cup and other events.
Q: You’ve been juggling two important projects — the stadium and the College Football Hall of Fame, an $80 million project including about $15 million in public money. What’s your approach been?
A: Be patient and tenacious, and don’t let your ego get in the way of the outcome. You try to craft the best deal that you can in negotiations by stating your case and standing by it, without letting your ego get involved.
The same thing applies when you’re taking care of a client. Sometimes, when you’re involved in customer service discussions, it can quickly devolve into my way is the right way. You forget to listen to what your customer is really telling you. There are always situations that you look back on that were really dumb because you let your ego stand in the way.
Q: What else have you learned from four decades in the convention business?
A: Don’t expect instant gratification. Have a goal, be methodical and patient. There are opportunities that will pull you off of your path. There was instances when I was sidetracked. Tolerate them, and then have the fortitude to work your way through them by keeping the goal in sight.
Also, in business there are structures and processes in place to create a consistent delivery system. But if you let those structures always guide the outcome, then you’re not always going to be taking care of your customer. You’ll be paying homage to the process, as opposed to accomplishing what your client needs.
Q: Atlanta is the nation’s fourth largest convention city, behind Las Vegas, Chicago and Orlando. How did the recession impact your business? Are you trying to add new revenue streams?
A: During the recession, the number of shows and the amount of space exhibitors had been taking fell, as did the amount of money they spent on food and beverages. As we’re beginning to creep out of the recession, we’re beginning to see exhibitors take on more space. Attendance for some shows is beginning to come back.
To increase revenue at the Congress Center, we’re leasing space and expanding our advertising offerings. We’re also using our facilities and unique campus to get involved in motion picture and TV filming projects here.
At Centennial Olympic Park, which is the front door to the Congress Center, we’re looking at other revenue generating opportunities by expanding our food offerings to attract some of the transient traffic that moves through there. Can we introduce a more permanent restaurant component in the park?
Q: How did you get involved in the convention business?
A: My father was a police officer and then a homicide detective in Dallas. My mom worked in a doctor’s office. I learned a work ethic from them. I started doing part-time work in junior high school, mowing yards and throwing newspapers. In high school, I cleaned a doctor’s office after school.
During the summer after my senior year, I got a part-time job as a janitor at the old Memorial Auditorium in Dallas, which later became the convention center. I also worked the parking lots. I continued to work there while going to college. After graduating, I went to work full time as an accounts payable clerk. One thing built on another. I got to work as an events coordinator and then moved to management level positions.
When hiring today, I tell applicants that if you’re not concerned about having a personal life in the first part of your career, then this may be the business you want to be in. But if you want a personal life, then this is not necessarily for you because of the long hours.
It’s a leisure business. You work when others are playing.
Each week, Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation, called “5 Questions for the Boss,” with a top executive in Georgia. Some remarks are edited for length and style.