Be ready to look across the sea for customers

Posted May 08, 2009, at 6:37 p.m.

“Beautiful, wild state with plenty of cultural charm seeks well-heeled travelers from across the sea. Must have a sense of independence and own transportation; ability to speak foreign languages a plus. The more the merrier.”

If Maine’s tourism industry could place a personals ad, this might be how it would read.

Foreign, independent travelers are a growing and lucrative segment of the industry — and that’s no small thing. According to the Maine Office of Planning, tourism supported about one in six Maine jobs in 2006 and generated $10 billion in sales.

But the recession and major changes in the industry mean that Maine’s hoteliers, restaurateurs and others may have to work harder this season to make a profit.

Tourists from Massachusetts and New York have been making shorter visits more spontaneously. If Maine looks cold and rainy, they’ll find another destination. That is why foreign travelers are becoming even more important, experts say.

“There has been a tremendous increase in international travelers,” said Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association. “The thing about them is that they don’t cancel their vacation because of bad weather. The value of their visit is pretty great.”

Dugal recently attended the Discover New England tourism summit at Sunday River in Newry, where he had the chance to sell Maine’s charms to more than 60 international tour operators from the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Ireland and the Netherlands.

“I thought it went great,” Dugal said Friday. “Everything was wonderful. The hotel did a fantastic job, and the turnout as far as tour operators was the best they’d ever had.”

Dugal said that he helped to “match-make” between tour operators and the properties that belong to his association. “The [foreign, independent traveler] market, we’re glad to have them come,” he said. “We’re going to need everybody this year.”

The summit made good business sense, said Sue Norrington-Davies, the managing director of Discover New England.

“International tourism is just a very smart way to conduct your tourism travel business,” she said. “International travelers can’t book very late, and they are not weekend-dependent. They come for two weeks, and they travel around.”

Europeans also like New England, and they definitely like Maine, Norrington-Davies said.

“It’s the old-fashioned America,” she said. “They want outdoors adventures, they want good food, they want culture, they want wholesome lodging. Maine has that, definitely.”

What a lot of these travelers don’t want — especially the baby boom generation — is to be bundled up on a bus along with 50 other members of a package tour, said Don Haggett, director of sales for Bangor-based Lafayette Hotels.

“The people from Europe want to see the country, but they don’t want to be locked in to a tour,” Haggett said.

Instead, the independent travelers use a combination of overseas tour operators and American-receptive operators to cobble together an individualized package that might include airfare, a rental car, hotels and suggested itineraries. The tourists aren’t stuck on a bus traveling from one quaint seaside community to the next — but they’re not completely on their own, either.

It’s a combination that has been good for business, Haggett said.

“It’s a wonderful, growing market,” he said. “It’s been growing by 100 or 200 percent every year for the last few years for us.”

Though Haggett said he thinks it is inevitable that this market, too, will decline this year due to the economy, it will continue to grow in importance to Maine.

“When they come into the waterfront properties we have in Boothbay, Bar Harbor, they’ll stay multiple nights,” he said. “They literally love to buy everything. Shopping, eating and sightseeing are why they come.”

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