BRUNSWICK, Maine — Maxwell Payne works quickly through the stacks of dirty dishes piled high after the lunchtime rush at the Tavern at Brunswick Station.
His dishwasher job is one of the lowest rungs in the tourism jobs ladder.
For many, it’s what comes to mind for the types of jobs offered in tourism, from busing tables to cleaning hotel rooms — low-end, go-nowhere.
Payne’s making a living in this position — it’s hard, but in this economy, he reasons, what’s easy? But he doesn’t plan on washing dishes forever. He’s got a passion for food service, and he hopes to move into preparation, and on to culinary arts.
“There’s always room for improvement, progress in the kitchen,” said Payne, 26, of Lisbon Falls. “As long as you’re willing to work at a fast pace, there’s always room at the ladder.”
That’s the facet of the tourism trade that insiders say many just don’t see — the upward mobility for those willing to work at it, regardless of education level. And while many scoff at a career in tourism, it is Maine’s largest economic sector and offers opportunities for advancement.
Statistically speaking, there is no real “tourism” category in Maine, said Glenn Mills, director of economic research at the Maine Department of Labor. It’s an amalgam of sectors including retail, hospitality, leisure and others.
“There are some good paying skilled jobs in management and ownership and so forth, but the bulk of them are jobs that are not high-skill and therefore not high-wage jobs. Wait staff, dishwasher, maid would be the bulk,” said Mills.
Steve Hewins, president of Hewins Travel Consultants and AAA Northern New England in Portland suggested that tourism jobs in Maine tend to be viewed in a poor light.
It’s a vestige of the past, Hewins said, without a clear view of how things have changed. Labor Day Weekend is no longer the end of the tourism season, and winter tourism is getting bigger, for example.
In many parts of the country, said Hewins, tourism is an important part of the economy, and is embraced as such. He pointed to spots such as Las Vegas and Orlando as examples.
“Here, it’s an afterthought,” said Hewins. “It’s not seen to be a driver of the economy.”
Rick Martin, general manager of the Inn at Brunswick Station, where the Tavern is located, agreed, noting that “in general, people do not view tourism as a positive thing.”
“Tourism is the No. 1 job and revenue resource we have — like it or not,” he said. “People take for granted the service industry in general.”
Martin opened the Inn at Brunswick Station in late June. Just down the street from Bowdoin College, the upper-end hotel has 52 rooms ranging from $150 to $300 a night, and he had to hire an entire staff, from top chef to dishwasher, director of sales to front desk clerks, interviewing well over 100 people for the 54 positions he would fill.
His management team makes good wages, said Martin. And the workers he hired for other positions, from entry-level to more experienced posts, were all told that they could move up if they wanted to, and worked at it.
There are a number of examples in the industry of people starting at the bottom and working their way up, from former dishwashers who now own top restaurants in Portland to folks such as Martin running hotels.
Martin left Maine years ago on a cold winter day, heading to Florida. He got a job at Disney World, slinging french fries and other snacks at Epcot. Contacts he made at that job led to work at a hotel in Hawaii. Job by job, he made his way through the ranks, from bellman, to executive housekeeper, to assistant hotel manager, to assistant hotel director with Norwegian Cruise Ships, helping direct a staff of 1,200 on a ship with 3,000 passengers.
He headed home several years ago, opening a hotel in Wilton before taking the job in Brunswick.
Leaving Maine to rise through the ranks isn’t even necessary in a state that has a range of options, from small motor inns to expansive resorts that have been catering to the world’s rich and famous well back into the last century.
Take Bob Smith, owner of the Sebasco Harbor Resort in Phippsburg.
He started in the industry 35 years ago, a biology major at what’s now the University of Southern Maine, working nights at what today is the Holiday Inn By The Bay as a porter, cleaning up the public areas and helping guests.
He enjoyed the interaction with customers and the team sort of atmosphere. The next summer he worked as a desk clerk, and part-time auditor. His next move was to Florida, where he helped open a hotel, and then back to USM for a degree in business. He helped reopen the Eastland Park Hotel in Portland, then the Bethel Inn, getting into sales, marketing and other parts of the business — but washing dishes and making beds as needed along the way.
Fifteen years ago, the family that owned the Sebasco was looking to sell the 550-acre ocean-side resort. He found an investment partner, and in 1997, bought the resort.
The Sebasco is seasonal, a sprawling resort that includes a golf course, tennis, spa and several water-based adventures. Smith keeps 12 full-time employees on year-round, then adds another 140 to 160 each summer to help deal with the average 225 guests per night.
Many of those seasonal workers are college or high school students, making money over the summer. Maybe a quarter of those workers stay in the industry, working their way up. The others go into their chosen fields, becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers. All of them learn basic skills at the Sebasco, said Smith, from punctuality to working on a team, how to look guests in the eye with a smile and the importance of customer service.
Smith holds with a tenet that many in the industry repeat: take care of your employees, they’ll take care of your guests, and your guests will take care of your company.
Smith said entry-level jobs start at $8-plus, above Maine’s minimum wage of $7.50. The tipped staff — waiters, waitresses, etc. — make between $14 and $20 an hour, counting tips.
He has five salaried chefs, said Smith, and all make “excellent money.”
Another aspect of the tourism industry is the ability for entrepreneurs to come at the business from a different angle to make a living.
One good example of this is in Portland, where a number of tours have sprung up in recent years, with Segway and lobster boat tours joining traditional harbor cruises and duck boat tours.
Pamela Laskey started an innovative tour business three years ago, tapping into Portland’s growing culinary reputation. Laskey grew up in Old Town, and had a 23-year career in academic publishing in Boston. Several years ago she wanted to return to Maine and start a business and looked to the tourism sector, which she knew to be robust in her home state.
She fell in love with Portland’s food scene. Though she had no formal training in hospitality or in culinary arts, she began to focus on a tour that would feature some of Portland’s food establishments — from retail to restaurants.
And Maine Foodie Tours was born.
On a recent August day, 10 people from around the country followed Foodie Tours guide Ginger Lawson into Vervacious, a retail store on Congress Street that sells gourmet spices and salts packaged in distinct glass bottles. Each tour ticket is $41, and the walking tours run for two-and-a-half hours. Maine Foodie runs the tours every day through the summer season, scaling back in the off-season to weekends.
Laskey met the group, talked some about Portland’s food scene and about Vervacious, before turning the floor over to store co-owner Heidi Stanvick. Stanvick talked about the various goodies in the store, as Laskey brought out samples, from lobster on crackers to blueberries in a yogurt, paired with a perfect wine. There were appreciative murmurs as the tour-takers sampled the goods, and then browsed the store.
Afterward, Lawson took the tour up past Wharf Street, touching on the restaurants lining the street, then up to Monument Square, where she brought the tourists into the Public Market House and K. Horton Specialty Foods for a course of Maine cheeses.
Along the way, Lawson, a trained Portland history docent, talked about the city’s rich past. She, like the other tour guides, are contract employees, doing the tours for fun and extra money. Lawson’s full-time job is in medical devices — she travels up and down the East Coast, working on the software that makes hospital equipment work.
She makes good money on the tours, said Lawson, “if it were year-round, it’d be quite livable.”
The first year was tough, said Laskey — she had to mostly live off her savings. But she has since expanded the tours to Freeport, and plans to add tours in Kennebunkport this October. She is looking to expand to Bar Harbor and perhaps Portsmouth, N.H.
That will require taking on full-time employees, but business is good, even during tough economic times. This year, Laskey is drawing a salary. And, given the success of her business so far, she sees that continuing and improving.
“I fully expect to have a very good life,” she said.