Maine’s tourism boss brings ‘insider’ perspective

Posted Nov. 12, 2012, at 2:23 p.m.
Carolann Ouellette
Nancy Marshall Communications
Carolann Ouellette

AUGUSTA, Maine — Motel, campground, inn and gift store owners may have been reflecting last week on the summer tourism season that just ended, perhaps looking forward to a little down time.

But Carolann Ouellette, director of the Maine Office of Tourism, was in high gear in London, hustling from appointment to appointment, working to persuade tour operators from the United Kingdom to book trips to New England and include visits to Maine on their itineraries.

“We work under the banner of the six states as ‘Discover New England,’” she said by telephone from the London World Travel Market, “one of the largest trade shows targeting the UK market.” New England is the second or third choice of U.S. places to visit for U.K. residents, Ouellette said, with Boston as the gateway.

Those tour operators saw bookings grow by as much as 10 percent in 2012, she said.

And this year, for the first time since the Great Recession began, Maine’s tourism numbers looked good. Through August, the last month for which statistics were available, taxable lodging sales were up 7.15 percent over the same period last year. Taxable restaurant sales were up 6.15 percent over that period in 2011.

Ouellette, who took over running the state’s tourism office in March 2011, was hardly resting on that success. The state’s pitch to potential visitors is continually tweaked and demographic data analyzed to hone that pitch for the maximum economic benefit.

The current marketing campaign is called “Maine Insiders.” There’s a video of surfer and snowboarder Barry Tripp talking about how Maine snowboarders left their California counterparts flabbergasted when they didn’t hesitate to hit the slopes at Sugarloaf in the midst of a blizzard.

Another clip features Maine guide Steve Vose relating the joys of bringing people to fly-fishing spots and hunting haunts. A third features Seren Huus, a “farm to table” grower, with shots of her working on her farm interspersed with appetizing images from restaurant kitchens, aimed at the growing “foodie” market.

Two of the three subjects appear to be under 40 years old, as do the others who appear in the clips, which is no accident. Ouellette says the 28- to 45-year-old population is a key market. Not only do they spend money, but they represent an opportunity for growth.

“Maine is really fortunate. We have an incredible repeat visitation rate” of 86 percent, Ouellette said. Though she doesn’t want to ignore the core market of New England and eastern Canada, if marketing can lure first-time visitors from mid-Atlantic states and beyond, the likelihood is that they will become loyal to Maine.

Outdoorsy recreation, hip and fun restaurants and pubs, and what Ouellette said is the growth in vibrant downtowns — with Bangor, Waterville and Lewiston joining Portland in that group — are valued by the 28- to 45-year-old cohort.

“Our new campaign is focused on creating a sort of emotional connection,” she said. National data show that safe, low-risk, low-stress vacations bestowing “contentment” are trending with many travelers — and Maine has those attributes.

The “Maine insider” approach also is appropriate because Ouellette, 50, is an insider herself. She has been working at the tourism office since 2007. Even more important, say some in the tourism industry, is the fact that Ouellette has been on the front lines.

After graduating from Cornell University’s hotel administration program, the California native worked for Matt Polstein’s New England Outdoors Center in the Millinocket area, including filling in as a whitewater raft guide, managed the Sugarloaf Inn for 18 months and in 1997 bought the Moose Point Tavern in Jackman, a restaurant with cabins, which she ran for 10 years.

Greg Dugal, director of the Maine Innkeepers Association, called Ouellette “the glue that bound the [tourism] office together” even before she got the top job. He also valued her experience in private tourism business.

“She’s done the boots-on-the-ground thing,” he said.

Dugal also said he likes the new marketing campaign, and praises Ouellette for the outreach her office is doing each month, meeting with local business booster groups to explain strategy and the importance of tourism to Maine’s economy.

The numbers from the summer were good, but Ouellette stressed that another important goal is to grow visitation throughout the year, and grow it inland.

“Our ultimate aim is to have it be a world-class four-season destination,” she said.

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