Country singer Jamey Johnson clearly had Macon, Georgia, on his mind eight years ago when he recorded and released “Macon.”

“I gotta get back to Macon,” he sang, ending the chorus with “Look out, Macon, here I come.”

That’s a hook that local tourism and convention leaders like to hear, particularly from meeting planners who are looking to do business with the central Georgia city.

Over the past couple of years, Macon has ramped up its marketing efforts to lure more meetings, conventions and visitors while also revitalizing downtown to make it a key selling point.

The most visible change came last September when the Macon-Bibb County CVB rebranded to “Visit Macon.”

“We changed it to bring it more in line with industry standards,” says Visit Macon President and CEO Gary Wheat, who took the helm of the CVB in January 2017. “Plus, it is an easier call to action and engagement for the consumer.”

The work has been paying off. Room nights have increased, which is reflected in higher hotel/motel tax collections. With roughly 5,500 hotel rooms, occupancy is about 64 percent on average, according to Wheat.

“Over the past two years, we’re at about eight percent growth in occupancy,” Wheat says. “Last year was a record year for collections; 2018 is trending to be another record year.”

Centreplex and the 102,000-sq.-ft. Edgar H. Wilson Convention Center serve as the focal point for Macon’s meeting business, across the river from downtown. A 220-room Marriott is connected to Centreplex.

“For overflow, we don’t have that downtown hotel,” Wheat said.

That is changing. Four years ago, Toronto businessman Rupinder Sangha bought the vacant Ramada Plaza and now is renovating the 297-room hotel. Sangha plans to reopen with a Wyndham flag next year.

Beyond the name change, Visit Macon has focused primarily on the state market for meetings. “We worked very hard on ensuring that we maintain the state presence,” Wheat says.

That has meant attracting meetings and events that had been held elsewhere in the state. The Georgia Library Association recently selected Macon for its annual meeting next year and again in 2020.

Late last spring, Macon hosted the Georgia Society of Association Executives’ milestone 100th annual meeting. The association hadn’t held its annual meeting in Macon since the 1990s.

Another approach to attracting more meetings capitalizes on two daily flights to Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport that Contour Airlines added last year.

Wheat says the goal is to convince contractors with the federal government and nearby Robins Air Force Base to shift their meetings to Macon.

Macon Sings a New Tune
As with any pitch, it’s not just about the facilities. It’s about selling the area and the extracurricular activities available to business travelers looking for fun in their free time.

The CVB leverages the city’s rich musical heritage and talent, along with its local food and beer scene. That has helped burnish its reputation as a place to see and experience music. In May, Fodor’s Travel ranked Macon No. 2 on its “12 Best American ‘Music Cities’ That Aren’t Nashville.”

While Visit Macon’s motto is “Where soul lives,” the city has broad musical roots. Little Richard, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member who helped build the rock ’n’ roll genre, was born and raised in Macon. Otis Redding grew up in Macon and got his musical start there.

Later, the Allman Brothers called Macon home and worked with Capricorn Records, a label created by Phil Walden, Redding’s manager. The label made Macon the heart of Southern Rock for a time. From the country genre, there’s Jason Aldean, who, like Little Richard, was born and raised in Macon and got his start performing locally.

The city is building attractions that focus on this heritage. The downtown Tubman Museum, which features African-American art, history and culture, is creating an interactive exhibit on soul music.

Meanwhile, Mercer University is working with partners to restore the historic Capricorn Studio downtown. The studio eventually will have an interactive component to it. Mercer manages the historic Grand Opera House downtown, as well.

Visit Macon has been working with local social media influencers. In particular, the CVB just finished filming a third marketing film with Robert Grant, a local video blogger.

The short films focus on selling Macon’s leisure activities. Downtown gets big billing.

“A lot of visitors want that cool downtown vibe,” Wheat says.

The vibe is what drew GSAE back last year and what will draw the association back again.

“The downtown revitalization made a huge difference in the feel of the city,” said Wendy Kavanagh, GSAE’s president. “We love Macon.”

The association had made its decision on Macon in 2015. Even in the short time since, a lot has changed downtown, Kavanagh said, noting the visible investment the city has made in improving downtown. Her association rotates its annual meeting around the Southeast, and Macon hadn’t been on their list for a long time.

“Macon is right back on the rotation,” Kavanagh says.