Tourism Challenges

Posted Feb. 13, 2009, at 5:57 p.m.

Those who work in Maine’s tourism industry must have some sympathy for Sisyphus. Sisyphus, a character from Greek mythology, is condemned for eternity to repeat the same task over and over, pushing a boulder to the top of a mountain only to see it roll back to the bottom. Maine’s tourism industry, which is the state’s largest in terms of dollars and jobs, is rarely able to rest on its laurels from year to year. Rather, it must start over each spring to reinvent itself, connect with new people and reconnect with old friends.

And each year, it seems, there is a new challenge. In recent years, it has been bad weather and high gas prices. This year, it is the gloomy economy.

Of course, in past years, Maine’s tourism businesses have been able to spin some of these negatives to lure visitors here. High gas prices? Well, Maine is just a couple of fill-ups or less from its core markets, southern New England and New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Bad economy? Well, Maine is still a good value, with lodging and meals costing far less here than in other tourist hotspots.

At the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism earlier this month, keynote speaker Reed Woodworth, vice president of PKF Consulting Inc., urged those attending to continue focusing on what Maine does well. Specifically, he said, owners and managers of lodging facilities should work to ensure visitors have a great time.

Surveys of tourists show that Maine has high ratings when it comes to value. As Steve Lyons, marketing manager of the Maine Tourism Office explains, value is not necessarily a discount on price. It may be a complimentary bottle of wine given to the guests on their arrival, or a coupon for a free massage given to repeat visitors. Value is also imparted, Mr. Lyons says, when hosts offer packages for guests, with kayak tours, tickets to shows and museums or restaurant discounts.

It all comes down to customer service.

As much as those in Maine lodging businesses may identify with Sisyphus, making that long climb each summer, Mr. Lyons points out two bright spots: 95 percent of visitors say they enjoyed their stay, would recommend it to others, and want to come back; and Maine does not have a glut of new hotel rooms, as do other states.

The state has contracted with Davidson-Peterson Associates of Kennebunk to gather more data from visitors, but a new survey approach could lead to Maine tapping a huge potential for tourists. For the first time, Mr. Lyons said, people who have not visited Maine in the last three or four years will be questioned. Where are they going instead? Elsewhere in New England, or the Maritimes? Why? Davidson-Peterson also will survey people from Maine’s core markets who have never traveled to New England, asking them why.

As lodging property owners know, there is very little margin for error this summer, so they must roll out the red carpet for our visitors. Mainers not employed in tourism-related businesses also should be gracious — no giving directions from Bangor to Bar Harbor by way of Dexter. The dollars those tourists spend here may be in your paycheck next winter.

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