OK, so it turns out we really are Vacationland. While Maine’s job growth has lagged the nation’s, we matched the national rate of growth in leisure and hospitality.
Still, Maine has recovered only 10 percent of the jobs lost in the recession, far short of the two-thirds recovered nationwide.
That makes the Fourth of July weekend and the rest of the summer and fall even more important, as we ramp up the lobster bakes, turn on the lighthouses, move the moose to the sides of the roads and welcome tourists from near and far. Yes, you can be a tourist too, although in most surveys you won’t be counted as one.
I learned a lot about what drives the tourism economy these days at a recent conference of the Maine Woods Consortium, a bunch of people trying to expand the tourist economy in eastern, western and northern Maine (better known as the other Maine, the poor cousins of the prosperous people in southern Maine).
Life in these areas is falling just a wee bit short of our “as it should be” slogan.
A presentation on the rebranding and marketing efforts of our neighbors in Coos County, New Hampshire, was particularly fascinating. Here’s some of what I learned.
Today’s tourists search first for experiences, then a location where they can enjoy those experiences and finally for lodging and meals and secondary activities. “The days of marketing geography, or places, has officially ended, and we’ve now entered the experience economy,” reports Roger Brooks, CEO of Destination Development International. “We’re in the ‘age of experiences’ — things to do, not things to look at.”
Maine’s “Bold Coast.” Forget about it. “Come see our lighthouses.” Nope. “Shoot a trophy bull moose.” Yep. “Bike and bird the coast.” Advertise that, and they will come.
Branding is a critical component of today’s tourism economy. Coos County had two primary things that distinguished the region: its four historic grand resorts and a half-dozen grand adventures, including the Mt. Washington auto road, the Bretton Woods zip-line and a Baja-style back road driving school.
Believe it or not, they built their entire initiative by positioning themselves as “New Hampshire Grand. Grand Resorts. Grand Adventure.”
Once they’d grabbed the attention of potential visitors with all things grand, they knocked it home by adding “the No. 1 secondary activity of visitors in the world: shopping, dining and entertainment in a pedestrian-friendly, intimate setting.” Turns out that 80 percent of the money spent outside of lodging goes to these activities.
So Coos came up with a list of the “Best of New Hampshire Grand,” with a set of criteria including a requirement that that the participating businesses offer something unique (creative cuisine, local crafts and art). They’re also working to add dog sledding tours to their grand adventures.
Hey, we have those!
Brooks also offered insight into the “three killers of any project like this: local politics, lack of champions and lack of money.” Renewable funding that keeps the promotion going is especially critical.
Brooks has worked in more than 800 communities in 42 states and across Canada. He knows what he’s talking about. And his “grand” plan for Coos County is working. So, et tu Maine?
Well, my bet is on Carolanne Ouelette, our outstanding Tourism Commission director, who once owned a restaurant in Jackman (and how many of you have been there?), and understands the inland economy. I’m also impressed with the folks involved in the Maine Woods Consortium. They understand all of this. But it’s a long way from here to Coos County.
Well, it’s actually not far to Coos County, but we seem to be a long way from its Grand Adventure. There is hope, however. The top writer for Lonely Planet’s travel guides, Robert Reid, spoke at the conference, after spending a few days in Aroostook County, cited as one of the Planet’s top 10 destinations in 2013. Boy, does he get us.
The County’s French culture, ploys, fiddleheads (he was carrying a bag home with him), safety, rivers, islands, woods — he even got our Maine humor. By the time he finished his slide show, much of it very, very funny, I wanted to visit that place! And it was right here in Maine!
After writing our Travelin’ Maine(rs) column for this newspaper for 21/2 years, Linda and I are able to report that Maine has many grand places, grand restaurants, grand inns and (definitely) grand experiences.
Now, we just have to inspire potential Maine tourists to share in our grandness.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352, or georgesmith firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.