The new president/CEO of the Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau has been on the job about three weeks, but he may have already visited as many of Macon’s well-known sites as people who have lived here a long time.
Gary Wheat, 46, who has been in the tourism industry about 18 years, moved here from Aurora, Colorado, where he served as president/CEO of Visit Aurora, a destination marketing organization he founded in 2010. He has led four CVBs, two of which he launched.
He began his job in Macon on Jan. 3, and has spent the past three weeks going to several of Macon’s visitor destinations, such as the Hay House, the Cannonball House and the Ocmulgee National Monument. He has met with some civic, government and education leaders and plans to not only market Macon to more visitors, but he wants to get involved in local organizations and serve on local boards. He is still learning what the Cherry Blossom Festival means to the area and is planning to add some pink to his wardrobe.
We sat down with Wheat for a Q&A this week to get to know him better and learn what drew him to Macon.
Q: Can you tell us about life growing up in Prentiss, Mississippi?
A: My father was in U.S. Marine Corps ... when he got out we moved back to Mississippi ... and we settled on a small patch of my grandfather’s farm. That’s where I learned my work ethic. He raised poultry … he had beef cattle as well and raised everything from soy beans to sorghum and sugar cane. … So, he taught me the values of farm life, work ethic. ... I always tell people my first job was when I was 9 years old. I was picking cucumbers on halves, which meant I gave half the money to him and I got half. We used to take them to the Vaslac pickle plant down the road.
We learned you don’t work until you’re tired, you worked until you’re finished. That’s kind of how we were taught.
We were taught work ethic. You showed initiative. You always worked hard. We learned you don’t work until you’re tired, you worked until you’re finished. That’s kind of how we were taught.
I wanted to be a football coach. … I started my career at University of Southern Mississippi as a graduate assistant in the athletic department, then I went to Virginia Tech in the same role. … Then moved into the athletic administration side there and worked in a full time capacity about four years. Then the opportunity to get into tourism came along.
My first job in tourism was director of sports development at the Tupelo Conventions and Visitors Bureau in Tupelo, Mississippi. It was a chance to go back home closely to family. It kind of kicked me off. I was in that capacity for about five years.
I grew to love all aspects of the industry and was doing a lot more than the sports side of things, and then the opportunity presented itself for my first director’s job in Waterloo, Iowa.
Q: What is it that attracted you to the tourism/visitor industry?
A: For me, quite honestly, initially, it was to be closer to my parents and that’s what got me into it. But what drew me to stay in it ... was the ability ... to help people have a good experience.
Travel is one of those things, I would hope like me, everyone enjoys to a certain degree, whether it’s for your job, with your family or just a group of friends getting away for the weekend. ... Being in this industry allows me to help people make those memories. ... And also it allows me to be an ambassador for a community, for a destination and I enjoy that. … It’s one of those things we want people to enjoy themselves, we want people to create memories. If we can be a small part of that by helping the consumer or from the standpoint of what we can do for economic development, we are also helping our local citizens. We are storytellers for cities and destinations.
Q: Why did you choose Macon?
A: What drew me to Macon, I saw the posting and looked at it from a couple of components. One, it was in the heart of the area I love. I’m very much a homebody and very much love my roots and my history of being from the South. It’s in closer proximity to my parents and my family so it’s very easy for me to take a weekend and go see them.
But also the more I read and the more I did my homework, Macon is truly a destination city and county that has so much vibrancy, so much flavor, so much culture and it’s very infectious. Everyone I’ve met through this process, each one to their own credit, sold me that this was really a place I could see myself. And this was a place, after listening to people and talking to people, that I wanted to be part of. Not only because of the history of the area but also the future of the area.
I tell people, I’m a Mississippian by birth but I chose to come to Macon and be a resident. It was a combination of a lot of different factors that really, at the end of the day I said this is a place I want to live; this is a place I want to work and help grow.
Q: So you’ve been in Macon since Jan. 3, what are your first impressions?
A: History is very important to me. … The history and culture of Macon you can almost reach out and touch it. And the people I’ve met cherish that. ... I enjoy listening to the stories because it helps me become that Macon storyteller as well.
It’s the flavor of Macon … that soul is very much alive and well in Macon from the history and culture and art that comes from Otis Redding and Little Richard and the Allman Brothers, even to modern day artists. … I don’t have a musical bone in my body, but I do enjoy embracing that. …. It’s very much a town in the heart of the state, a regional center. I like to say to people, tourism is not just a family loading up the car for a trip. Tourism is everything from government and military travel, to educational tourism … and it’s health care tourism.
I’m a huge movie fan, and Macon has been a huge draw for making movies and there is real opportunity there. These film crews come in and they leave a footprint as far as their spending. I was real excited to learn of all the films that I have seen and didn’t realize they were shot in Macon.
Q: What are some of the first things you would like to do here?
A: My first 60 to 90 days I plan to learn by listening, so the more stakeholders and partners and leaders and businesses in the community I engage with, the more I learn. So that allows me to formulate what I think the direction of the organization should go. My predecessor left this organization in pristine condition and on very firm footing. And those that came before made my job just a little bit easier.
Going forward, it’s looking at the strengths of our destination, establishing other elements where we can assist those strengths for a little more growth. Are there ways we can introduce programs or marketing or sales opportunities to help them grow? Where are some areas we can assist our community? … I went to a Main Street Macon reception last night held at (a brew pub) … so beer tourism is another element. I know that Macon is starting to get more and more of that, so there is opportunity there. Our bike-share program is another opportunity.
I was at the Hay House yesterday, and the Cannonball House the day before and Ocmulgee (National Monument), these are treasures that sometimes we don’t realize we have. A lot of destinations would love to have places like that. So, we have to work with these different partners to grow their visitorship. And we want to serve our local businesses, whether that’s a hotelier, a restaurant, a retailer, because we want to get visitors through the door to them.
Also, I’ve been meeting with our education leaders because education is a huge component whether it’s creating that workforce and what we hope to be our neighbors through our educational systems, but it’s also a draw. For every event, or graduation or when we have students come to our institutes of higher education, we have people coming to visit … from moving-in day … to homecoming. It comes back to that economic impact footprint.
Q: In recent years, Macon and Bibb County has made improvements to its downtown — more restaurants and clubs, more residents, new hotels, brew pubs. Do you have some ideas about how to get the word out some of these things in Macon to attract more visitors?
A: That’s a large part of what we will do. We look at our marketing footprint in about a five-hour range – reaching out to consumers within a five-hour drive. ... What we have to do is tell Macon’s story because we want the consumer to picture themselves there. … create that picture … what does their experience look like? ... So we have to capture those unique components of our destination and put them in front of the consumer.
Q: Have you gotten an idea of what the Cherry Blossom Festival means to Macon?
A: With every passing day, I’m getting a little bit better idea of what that’s going to look like. I’m very excited to experience my first Cherry Blossom Festival. I was talking to our team the other day about finding my pink attire for the festival. … I understand city leaders have pink blazers and ties. So, I’m looking forward to getting on that train.
We’ve already have over 30 groups coming from somewhere else to experience it. ... I’m excited to see the blossoms.
Q: Anything else to add?
A: I’m excited to be here and everyone I’ve encountered has been very welcoming. I ask for patience, but I also appreciate the opportunity to be a part of this.
I would encourage anyone, if you think there is an opportunity where I can assist or this organization can assist, to please reach out to me. Right now I’m only as good as the information I get, so I welcome that engagement.
Getting to know
Gary Wheat, president/CEO, Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Age and birth place: 46, Prentiss, Mississippi.
Education: Bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in science in sports administration, University of Southern Mississippi, 1992 and 1994.
Hobbies: I enjoy the outdoors ... from fishing to hiking, being in the woods… I love movies and enjoy listening to music. I enjoy history and reading book about history. I read a lot and enjoy traveling to historic sites. I enjoy fitness and being active. I have been known to do a mean Elvis impersonation. I used to do some play by play for sports.
Favorite type of movies: I like historical, factual movies. ... I’m a big fan of westerns.
Favorite type of books: I love to read about military history.
What is your favorite thing to cook? While learning farm skills … my mom made sure me and my brother learned to cook and iron. I’m pretty good at making seafood gumbo and my grandmother’s chicken and dumpling and fried chicken.
What is your favorite way to unwind? My favorite way to unwind is to go to a local brewpub or restaurant and have conversation with people. … I enjoy going fishing with my dad. ... I like getting out in nature or sitting on the porch watching people go by.