County tourism specialists see opportunities

Scott Mitchell Johnson, Special to The County
10 years ago

    While Maine’s coastal beauty undoubtedly brings some visitors to Vacationland, officials in Aroostook County are hoping the state’s four seasons will become an even bigger draw for tourists.

    The annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism, which was held March 19 in Bangor, brought together lodging property owners/managers, hotel staff, transportation executives, chamber of commerce officials, and regional tourism organizations.

    Jon Gulliver, tourism developer for Aroostook County Tourism (ACT), said the conference was worthwhile and he was pleased to learn that tourism in Maine is growing.

    “The state experienced a nearly 7 percent increase in visitors in 2013 — drawing 29.8 million, up from 27.9 million the previous year. Direct tourism expenditures climbed from about $4.91 billion to more than $5.23 billion — a 6.5 percent increase,” he said. “But the most encouraging aspect as far as Aroostook County is concerned is the Maine Office of Tourism is going to work to encourage more four-season visits in Maine and will highlight fall scenery and winter recreation opportunities.”

    Gulliver said he learned a lot while attending the conference and will do what he can to implement the strategies presented.

    “Tourism businesses in Aroostook County need to be as up-to-date as possible with the latest in social media, collaborate with others to attract businesses, and tourism marketing has to be a shared imperative for not only state and local officials, but everyone who has a vested interest in the economic development of Maine,” he said. “Of value to marketing Aroostook County is information on the changing demographics of tourists. More millenials, 18- to 35-year-olds, are seeking adventure-based tourism. And tourists now, compared with those 20 years ago, want to learn something when they go on vacation. Research has indicated the majority of tourists are no longer satisfied with just sitting on a beach.”

    Recognizing that The County has huge potential to be a major player in the state’s tourism efforts, Gulliver said the region needs to continue to promote the great things Aroostook has.
    “Aroostook County is currently a small player in the tourism efforts of Maine,” he said, “but we have big potential with our abundant winter recreation opportunities, some of the best fall scenery in New England, true wilderness experiences in the North Maine Woods, exceptional hunting and fishing, cultural events like the upcoming World Acadian Congress, and many other examples.”

    Theresa Fowler, executive director of the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce, attended the recent conference.

    “I think it’s important for people from Aroostook County to attend these so we have some influence and knowledge about the direction that the state Tourism Office is taking in terms of advertising and promotion of the state,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to be informed and to network.”

    Keynote speaker Mark Orwoll, international editor of Travel+Leisure, addressed “Marketing Maine in the New World of Travel,” while management consultant/author Dr. Trish Gorman discussed “Unlocking New Sources of Growth.”

    The conference also included a panel discussion on “Sharing Your Story in a Changing Digital Landscape,” a wrap-up session, trade show and networking opportunities for Maine’s tourism professionals.

    “It was an interesting and diverse group of people who presented. I think the big message was that we have a changing audience, so we need to be aware of how to best to contact them and communicate with them,” said Fowler. “There was a large push by one of the presenters to use Twitter because people want an instant reaction to their questions and queries. It’s something that I’ve been watching for the last number of years, but I don’t think we’re ready to do it; we just don’t have the manpower to do that.

    “A lot of the presenters were professional communicators or professional advertisers and that’s their job. When we asked them how much time needed to be spent on social media, they said at least an hour a day, and that you need to respond to tweets instantly,” she said. “For us at the chamber, it’s a manpower issue and it was for probably 99 percent of the people in the room. Having the capacity to manage the social media the way that we were encouraged to is certainly a challenge.”

    Despite the social media push, Fowler said it’s always good to have “a room full of like-minded people all looking to promote the state of Maine, encouraging people to come visit and stay longer, and see and experience more.”

    “One of the things that I did take away was that if you’re going to use a communication tool — whether it’s a video, Twitter or Facebook — you have to ask yourself why you’re doing that … if it’s serving a purpose,” she said. “Just because someone says we should all use Twitter, is Twitter really something that the clients who are coming to our website really want? At the chamber we don’t see a big need for Twitter accounts. If we had an account operating we might receive traffic on it, but I don’t think it’s a big issue here.”

    Steve Dobson is on the board of directors for ACT and is the Regional Assistance Committee (RAC) representative to the Maine Office of Tourism.

    “I’ve been to these types of conferences, but never this particular one,” he said. “I’m glad I went. While I was asked to do a short presentation at the Maine Woods Consortium on the training we get through the Consortium, I also found the conference to be educational and informative.

    “What I found to be most helpful was the social media information that was presented,” said Dobson, who owns the Aroostook Hospitality Inns in Washburn and Van Buren. “Being a small business owner, some of it I couldn’t apply, but some of it I can.”

    Dobson said he’s starting to use Facebook and learned a few tips at the conference.

    “I was surprised to learn that there are certain times when it’s better to post things on Facebook,” he said. “The presenters said, for example, between 10-11 a.m. is a good time because people might be taking a break from their work so they’ll go to their Facebook page and look at things. I also learned about Yext.”

    Yext is a technology company that allows businesses to update location-related information on multiple websites from one place.

    “I definitely got a lot out of the tourism conference,” said Dobson, noting that the Tourism Office’s 5-year marketing strategy was also unveiled.

    “They were talking about the European traveler, which I believe is our market in Aroostook County,” he said. “I see a lot of Europeans at my Van Buren facility, and I have a tour guide company from France that I work with that comes three times a year to my Washburn facility. I think our growth is the European market, and from what I’ve seen — plus with the biathlon — I see that as a very large growth market for Aroostook County and it’s something we should be working harder on.”

    The conference, which was attended by more than 400 members of the tourism industry, also featured remarks by Gov. Paul R. LePage.     Anyone interested in joining the ACT network, which is designed to connect those people interested in the tourism industry, should contact Gulliver at jgulliver@nmdc.org.