Tourism official says Macon ‘weathering the storm’

The economy is hurting the once “recession-proof” travel industry, but Macon seems to be faring better than most, the president of the Southeast Tourism Society said Monday.

“Macon is weathering the storm well, in fact much better than most of its competitors,” Bill Hardman told the Macon Rotary Club. In December, when hotel bookings across the state were down 13.6 percent, bookings in Macon were up 4 percent, he said.

Hardman predicted a tough year ahead for tourism, with business down significantly in hot spots such as Hawaii and Las Vegas. Tourism in theme-park haven Orlando could drop by as much as 15 percent, he said, which would likely impact Macon because it draws heavily from Interstate 75 travelers bound for Florida.

That does not mean Americans, who view leisure travel as “almost a birthright,” plan to stay home, Hardman said.

“Long-haul trips may be replaced by shorter, more frequent trips, and I think that’s good for Macon.”

Traveler expenditures contributed $268 million to Macon’s economy in 2007, according to the latest numbers available from the Macon-Bibb County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Hardman heaped praise on the visitors bureau for its “diversified sales effort” that markets the city to I-75 travelers, meetings and conventions, and motorcoach groups.

“Simply put, Macon doesn’t put all of its eggs in the same basket,” he said.

The addition this year of the Marriott hotel at the Wilson Convention Center, the Allman Brothers Museum and more than 1,000 motel rooms along I-75 should help Macon through the down times, Hardman said.

Janice Marshall, president and CEO of the local visitors bureau, called the gloomy forecast for Orlando “disturbing” because so many tourists stop in Macon on their way.

She said the hope is that business generated from the convention center hotel will offset some of those lost traveler dollars. The hotel is set to open this fall.

“It couldn’t have happened at a better time,” said Marshall.

Hardman had high praise for the Macon-Bibb visitors bureau, which twice has been named “CVB of the Year” by the Southeast Tourism Society. He called the bureau’s interactive welcome center “magnificent” and “a model” for other CVBs. He also credited the bureau’s “consumer-friendly” Web site and the branding of Macon as the “Song and Soul of the South” with having “really paid dividends.”

He was less enthusiastic about the federal effort made to lure international tourists. While neighboring Mexico and Canada annually spend $149 million and $58 million, respectively, on attracting foreign travelers, the United States spends nothing, Hardman said.

A federal investment “will do an awful lot to stimulate the economy,” he said. “Tourism is a growth industry.”

To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.