Phill McIntyre has been like a patient gardener cultivating the seed of an idea that came to him about a decade ago at the Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.
He started travelling there in 2000 — initially, he says, as a fan of Celtic music and then as a cultural tourist who appreciated the festival’s mix of concerts, workshops, community square dances, hiking and biking tours, art exhibitions and community meals.
Now in its 17th year, the nine-day festival in October attracts thousands of visitors eager to take in performances held all over the island featuring Celtic musicians, singers, dancers and storytellers from Cape Breton and around the world. In 2012, the festival estimated its audiences spent more than $8.1 million (Canadian) in the region, with its total economic impact pegged at more than $15 million.
“Why not in western Maine?” McIntyre recalls thinking during one of his early Cape Breton sojourns.
Since then, McIntyre has cultivated a strong audience base for Celtic music in the region. He started by building the 250-seat Skye Theatre Performing Arts Center atop a hill in South Carthage near the Wilson Lake Inn. Dozens of concerts are held there each year.
McIntyre also partners with other venues throughout Maine and New England, which has helped him build a far-reaching network of contacts in the world of Celtic music. The partnership also capitalizes on the state’s geographic location as a stopover for musicians traveling between gigs in Boston and Canada.
All that careful cultivation is now coming to fruition with this September’s launch of the five-day Crossroads International Celtic Festival in Oxford and Franklin counties.
“This is our heritage, too, and the festival’s basic model is tried and true,” says McIntyre, noting that Irish, Scottish, Scottish-Irish, Acadian and Franco-American immigrants worked in the mills and populated the towns of western Maine. That cultural heritage makes a Celtic festival a natural fit for the region.
But there’s an opportunity beyond appreciating the lively music and dance that defines Celtic heritage. The festival’s partners, which include Greater Franklin Development Corp., the Western Maine Economic Development Council, the Maine Office of Tourism and Maine Community Foundation, see the five-day event as a focal point for tourism and an opportunity to develop the two western Maine counties into destinations for cultural tourism.
“How does it lead to economic development?” McIntyre asks. “In Cape Breton, people have come back year after year after year to attend the Celtic Colours International Festival. I think we’ll see — long-term — some of that happening here.”
Cultural heritage tourism
A 2013 study conducted by Mandala Research and Consulting — commissioned by the U.S. Cultural and Heritage Tourism Marketing Council as a follow-up to its 2009 study — gives credence to McIntyre’s optimism. Nationwide, the new study reports that 60 percent of leisure travelers say they are likely to take a cultural/heritage trip, up from 51 percent in 2009. They are also spending more. Total spending in 2013 is $1,319 per trip versus $994 per trip in 2009.
“The ‘cultural’ and ‘heritage’ tourist is the most lucrative segment of the travel industry,” says Sheila Armstrong, the council’s president, pointing out that while 78 percent of all domestic leisure travelers participate in cultural and heritage activities, that segment generates more than 90 percent of the economic benefit of that larger travel group.
“Their stays are longer and they spend more,” Armstrong says. “It’s a very lucrative travel segment that is generating more and more economic benefit.”
Armstrong says the model pursued by the Crossroads International Celtic Festival — namely, providing cultural experiences that are varied, unique and memorable within a region offering ample opportunities for outdoor recreation — is exactly what cultural and heritage tourists are seeking wherever they travel.
“One of the magic words is ‘authentic,'” she says.
McIntyre says that’s exactly what festival organizers have in mind for the 18 shows lined up for the Sept. 11-15 festival. Artists from Canada’s Maritime Provinces, Quebec, the United Kingdom, Maine and the United States will perform at venues in the Franklin county towns of Rangeley, Stratton, Carrabassett Valley, Kingfield, Phillips, Farmington and South Carthage and the Oxford county towns of Rumford, Oxford, Lovell, South Paris, Fryeburg and Bethel. By design, Maine performers are paired with international acts at many of the venues.
For example, he says, the Belgrade-based Gawler Family plans to sing work songs of the 1800s, while their counterparts from Nova Scotia, the rising Celtic duo Cassie and Maggie MacDonald, perform. Likewise, the Portland-based Squid Jiggers will join acclaimed Irish accordionist David Munnelly and Irish fiddler Mick Conneely in Phillips Area Community Center. Doing so also helps local residents appreciate better the state’s own authentic and vibrant music culture.
“Everyone rises to the occasion and opportunities happen,” he says. “That’s another spin-off: A lot of Maine artists will be on stage with acclaimed international artists.”
He expects the same benefit will happen for the region’s cafés and restaurants, motels and inns, galleries and pottery shops, as festival tourists spend time sightseeing, hiking and canoeing during the daytime hours.
“What we’re attempting to do is highlight the nooks and crannies of western Maine — all the features that are available here for tourists to enjoy,” he says, noting that festival will highlight lots of local community events and will feature a nightly after-hours Festival Club at Sunday River in Bethel.
Deborah Sutton, the festival’s executive director, brings to the assignment 25 years of experience in event management for corporate, government and nonprofit clients in New York, Toronto, Montreal and Maine, most recently at Kingfield POPS.
A native of Canada, she shares McIntyre’s belief that the Cape Breton festival provides a useful model to emulate. Its organizers have freely shared lessons learned over 17 years, she says, about what works and what doesn’t.
“Our starting point is 10 degrees higher than it would have been,” she says. “That’s been a huge help to us.”
McIntyre’s many years of promoting the Celtic Colours festival and its performers in Maine, she says, created good will with the Cape Breton organizers, who are now returning the favor by promoting the western Maine festival. The Crossroads festival takes place during a “soft spot” between the summer and fall foliage seasons and therefore isn’t in direct competition with Celtic Colours, which takes place in mid-October.
Given its shared heritage with Maine, Canada is an obvious focus of the festival’s marketing efforts.
Sutton says a bilingual marketing effort that includes the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter is under way, targeting Celtic and Acadian music lovers in the region extending from Montreal to Prince Edward Island.
“We’re looking at doing radio interviews in French,” she says. “Very soon a portion of our website will be up in French. We want our local communities to enjoy the festival, but that’s not what it will take to make it a success. We’re reaching out to people who already have a demonstrated interest in Celtic music.”
Carolann Ouellette, director of Maine’s Office of Tourism, says festivals have a long history as an important driver of tourist visits, generating on average about 10 percent of the yearly visitors to Maine.
Citing the three-day American Folk Festival in Bangor as a shining example — it generated $15.37 million in revenues and drew 100,000 people in 2011, according to a Maine Arts Commission report — Ouellette says the Crossroads festival has the potential of accomplishing a similar economic boost to western Maine’s economy.
“We certainly hope it will be a success,” says Mia Purcell, program manager for the Western Maine Economic Development Council. “It’s a lot of hard work. Collaboration is really a key ingredient. People have been willing to work together and not just go it alone.”
Purcell says the five-day Crossroads festival ties in with the Western Maine Passport to the Arts, an initiative launched last year that offers a coupon book, called a passport, for $20 and provides $300 in discounts to restaurants, inns, B&Bs, and art and cultural groups in Oxford and Franklin counties. Both the festival and the passport, she says, share a goal of putting western Maine on the map as a destination for cultural and heritage tourists, not just those seeking outdoor adventures.
Alison Hagerstrom, executive director of the Greater Franklin Development Corp. in Farmington, says her organization is an enthusiastic supporter of the Crossroads festival — even if it seems well outside her organization’s core mission of helping businesses expand or relocate to Franklin County.
“It’s a different way of looking at business development,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity to bring new people into our area and it strengthens the ties between our communities.”