World Cup shows international tourism opportunity is real

Andy Shepard, Special to The County
8 years ago

When the Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC) built the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle and the 10th Mountain Center in Fort Kent it was with a belief that world-class skiing infrastructure could give Aroostook County some resources to shine on the international stage.

We believed that infrastructure, combined with Aroostook County’s unique sense of community, the resourcefulness, the ability to come together when there was a chance to help one another, were just the attributes necessary to bring life to new a new layer of economic opportunity. We also believed if those facilities focused on biathlon — the #1 televised winter sport in Europe, with a viewership of over 1 billion — it could help shine a powerful spotlight on the people and beauty of Aroostook County.

When that vision was presented to the Libra Foundation of Portland they embraced the vision as well, funded our vision and construction of the venues.

Although the MWSC no longer owns the two venues, the world-class abilities of the volunteers who run the facilities, and who put on such incredible events, continue to be a powerful source of pride. Never more so than recently when over 500 volunteers from Aroostook County once again hosted the world at the Nordic Heritage Center (NHC).

This was the fourth Biathlon World Cup between the NHC and the 10th Mountain Center, (the NHC has also hosted two World Junior Biathlon Championships.) All have been exceedingly successful, with the 2011 World Cups in Presque Isle and Fort Kent generating over 140 million combined TV viewers worldwide, and the Men’s Mass Start race in Fort Kent generating the highest TV ratings ever for a single World Cup event.

Because of a shortage of housing in Fort Kent, the second World Cup in this year’s North American segment of the World Cup was held at 1988 Olympic site, Canmore, Alberta, with Presque Isle occurring the following weekend. I was honored to be a guest of the NHC Organizing Committee for the Feb. 13 relay events and I came away with two profound impressions:

Aroostook County’s Organizing Committee, which is universally considered by the European biathlon world as one of the best in the world, is the only one made up of volunteers. Because of the size of the sport around the world and the national and regional pride that comes with being chosen to host a world cup, all the other organizing committees are made up of armies of full-time, paid staff, supported by their national and/or state governments.

From the time I arrived in Presque Isle Friday afternoon until we left Sunday it was clear that Europe had found Presque Isle. In past event there were always a few international visitors, but Russian, Polish, German and Canadian fans dominated the restaurant I was at on Friday night, and the stands on Saturday were filled with all those, plus Ukrainians, Swedes and Norwegians who had traveled halfway around the world to check out this new center of biathlon in America.

I see the latter as a real breakthrough in the effort to generate international tourism opportunities for The County. When the County World Cup’s are shown on TV they get exceptional ratings in Europe. People are tuning in to watch the races, but they are also interested in seeing what this new location is all about.

The growing international audience makes it clear they like what they see. The next layer of opportunity is to now fully leverage their interest, and any visits to the area, with a marketing effort to tell them all the things they can do in the spring, summer and fall.

In the words of World Cup point’s leaders, France’s Simon Fourcade, who uncharacteristically reached out to the media to tell them how exceptional this World Cup was, “This world cup was perfect. The crowds of children, all cheering for everyone who raced, not just American’s, was special. The track was perfect. The organizing committee was perfect. This is a good reminder to the world why we should come to America.”

Andy Shepard of Yarmouth is president and CEO of Maine Winter Sports Center, which is a company dedicated to outdoor education, through sport and adventure.