Cost of COVID: Macon hospitality industry recovery may take years


Liz Fabian

Macon’s Marriott City Center served as a COVID-19 “bubble” for TBS’ production staff recently working on the Go-Big Show. Visit Macon expects it will be a few years before tourism fully rebounds.

COVID-19 lockdowns decimated the travel industry and there is little hope it will bounce back any time soon.

Visit Macon, the local convention and visitors bureau, is seeing some signs of recovery but it is clear it will take time to reach the level of business enjoyed before the pandemic.

Gary Wheat, president and CEO of the county’s tourism arm, said the numbers are improving gradually.

“Hotel-motel tax collection continued to return slowly, though everything we’re hearing from the travel industry, it will be 2023 before we see the levels of 2019,” Wheat told board members at their September meeting. “It’s going to take patience. It’s going to be a bit of a marathon.”

Collections are down 19 percent from fiscal year 2019, but Wheat said conservative budgeting, that anticipated a downturn even before the pandemic, means the bureau is only 2 percent off its mark for this year.

“We were conservative… budgeted less growth,” Wheat said. “The staff did a great job of putting the brakes on the budget.”

The 2008 recession gave clues on what to expect in terms of recovery as the industry didn’t begin to climb back out until 2010.

Wheat likens the travel industry to surfing. Last year was the big kahuna.

“We were riding a pretty big wave and everyone was saying it was going to crest a little bit and even some of the economists were talking about the economy slowing down a bit,” Wheat explained. “(Budgeting conservatively) kinda helped us stay a little bit head above water coming out of the COVID.”

July 1 marked the start of Visit Macon’s fiscal 2010 budget which includes a 10 percent reduction in revenue projections, Wheat said.

When the pandemic forced folks to shelter at home in March, Visit Macon furloughed four workers as the Visitor Center closed. They opened back up in June but shut down again when numbers started to spike in mid-summer.

After reopening Sept. 1, they are ramping up efforts and have rehired two of those laid off, hired another staff member and are looking for a fourth worker, Wheat said.

Next month, the bureau plans to reopen the Interstate 75 Welcome Center, which was closed for more than a year due to problems with the HVAC system and questions over whether the state or Visit Macon was responsible for repairs.

In the spring when travelers stopped hitting the road, Visit Macon marketed the community’s hotels to truckers and healthcare workers to put additional heads in beds.

Smith Travel Research tracks hotel occupancy and room rates across the country.

August’s report for Macon showed signs of progress.

“We were up over 50 percent (occupancy) for the first time since February,” Wheat reported.

Room rates plunged in the height of the pandemic, but Macon’s 9 percent drop over last year outperformed comparable communities that were down double-digits, Wheat said.

Film industry, conventions, guests making a comeback

The new coronavirus abruptly halted conventions, canceled major events like the Cherry Blossom Festival and paused potential productions filming in Macon.

The recent success of TBS’s Go-Big Show filming at the Macon Coliseum gives hope to Aaron Buzza, Visit Macon’s camera-ready liaison.

The production paid a live drive-in audience in the parking lot during three nights of filming on the new reality talent show hosted by Bert Kreischer and judged by Snoop Dogg, Jennifer Nettles, Rosario Dawson and AEW’s Cody Rhodes.

The show’s website touts strict COVID-19 safety protocols and isolation of crew along with TV’s “first-ever, interactive drive-in audience.”

“It’s really interesting for us because they created a bubble with the Marriott, convention center and the Coliseum,” Buzza said. “The way that everything is set up and protected is maybe a new model for going forward for at least the foreseeable future until there is more widespread treatment for COVID, so hopefully that will lead to more projects there.”

Buzza also has two very strong possibilities for longer-term film projects which could begin production by the end of this year.

Visit Macon’s director of sales and services, Trish Whitley also got a boost this month.

“We did something… convention and sales staff, we actually had a site visit and it felt really good,” Whitley said.

The National Bikers Roundup out of Riverdale plans to rally in Perry next August with about 20,000 motorcycle and camping enthusiasts. Many of them will be staying in Macon.

The roundup’s planning committee toured Macon hotels, restaurants and attractions.

“That’s really exciting and they were promoting heavily live on their social media as we were doing it, tagging Visit Macon, and that was really, really, fun. They were a great group of people,” Whitley said.

Her team also is going after major sporting events to try to lure teams and fans to town.

Marketing vice president Valerie Bradley not only is pushing the Macon It Safe campaign where local businesses pledge to keep their workplaces safe by following COVID-19 safety guidelines, she proudly announced the third year for Macon Burger Week the first week in November.

The event presented by Visit Macon and the Georgia Beef Board will feature $7 specialty burgers at a variety of local restaurants. The price has gone up from recent years to help local businesses that have been hit hard by the effects of the virus.

During the presidential election week from Nov. 2-8, patrons also will vote for the best burger in town.

Bradley also is marketing events and attractions that can bring in visitors from across the Southeast.

Early next month, the staff will film a “Discover the South” brand video that will showcase the city and be regionally distributed.

“We’re really excited about that,” Bradley told the board. “Knowing with tourism research, the drive market is really what we’re trying to focus on right now based on the research, so we think this will be a great avenue for us to be able to capitalize on that traffic.”

Recent consumer travel sentiments indicate about 78 percent of those surveyed have tentative plans to travel this fall and 37 percent of those say they will definitely travel, Wheat said.

Although there is hope things are turning around, he still hears “horror stories” everyday about similar tourism organizations having to close.

“Everybody is still in rough shape. I’m just thankful we’re able to show that positive movement and keep the needle moving in the right direction.”

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976.