Who: Barbara Whitten
What: President and Chief Executive Officer of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Portland
Why: After 26 years, Whitten steps down as head of the area’s tourism and convention organization this week. From Portland to Freeport, to Cape Elizabeth, the Bangor native has helped make Casco Bay a destination.
What major changes have you’ve noticed in Portland since you took this post in 1987?
When I started, the tourism district was just starting to emerge around Exchange Street. The storefronts on Commercial Street were boarded up warehouses, which is now the heart of the tourism district. It’s spread out in every direction, hotels are being built anchoring High Street to past the Ocean Gateway. None of that was there then.
Also, the quality and the number of our restaurants in the region have grown. We’ve always had great restaurants, but now we have great restaurants with philosophies about buying local. As they grow they stay true to their Maine roots and sustainability.
Speaking of restaurants, how did Portland become such a food city and did you have anything to do with it?
Harvest on the Harbor has been able to bring attention on a worldwide scale. We like to promote the shoulder season and the off-season travel. When you are looking at whale watches, you have to be creative. What will draw people here in the off season?
Why not market the culinary talent? I’m always amazed at the media coverage this gets. We had people from Singapore this year.
There’s a lot of movement going on for Maine wine and Maine beer, there are a lot of talented chefs. It makes it easy for me to promote it. I can’t take credit for it happening. All I do is tell the story. The more I do that, the more people come and it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy and it spirals.
What was your biggest challenge getting people to visit Portland in the late ’80s?
Nobody knew who we were on the scene. In the early days it was kind of hit or miss. I would go to trade shows and talk up why people should bring conventions here. One time I was standing in Washington, D.C. and the sign behind me said Portland. A man came up and said he is having a convention in Portland and I’m wracking my brain to remember … They were talking about Portland, Oregon.
They had never heard of Portland, Maine? No.
How about now? Since Portland, Maine has come on the scene we’ve seen them add the word Oregon to their booth.
Now it’s grown from Washington to New York to the UK and France, inviting marketing people here. For Harvest on the Harbor, we’ve grown from the Northeast region to leveraging out to invite the international market here. Big changes. Five countries and 38 states attend that event.
When did Portland start defining itself as a food city? It was more of a change of the warehouse district into a shopping district. Getting locally owned businesses to open unusual shops that you might not have at a mall or an outlet.
The local owners were in the stores, coming up with creative products. Ladies dress clothing stores, more shopping boutiques and galleries, which springboarded into a bigger restaurant scene, clearly.
Has that made your job easier?
Our job is to go out and promote the entire region. We don’t have a lot of money to do that.
We have Cape Elizabeth and lighthouses, South Freeport, all of that with a waterfront and mountains as the backdrop. It becomes a more challenging job if I don’t have all those attractions. It is a destination that has a lot to talk about. People go where they are invited to go. We have to compete with Cape Cod, Newport and the Outer Banks, all these people are asking conventions to come to their destinations. I’m fortunate that I have a destination where I can get travelers to come. We have a great story to tell.
Was the recession that started in 2008 the worst financial tumult during your tenure?
The most challenging time for travel overall was immediately following 9/11. That’s when we saw people really thinking, “do I want to travel?” That happened around the world, but particularly with U.S. citizens. There was a real lull. We felt it overall. The wave hit, we were the backlash of that. But tourism is a recession-proof industry, we have seen tourism grow every single year despite the economy and recession, tourism continues to grow ever so slowly.
We were saying flat is the new normal. But you work hard all year long, at some point you are going to take a vacation. You might not eat in a four-star restaurant, but we are still, as Americans and human beings, in need of relaxation. It’s not something you can get on the Internet.
What were the hardest fought battles over your career that are in place now that you feel especially proud of?
The challenge is for the business community in Maine to give credit to the hospitality industry that is due. We are an economic engine. I see tremendous growth with all my colleagues, from innkeepers to restaurateurs. But people look at us as an industry that’s low-wage paying and doesn’t make a difference in our economy. They are not all low-paying jobs. Chefs, sales and marketing manager, hotel managers do well. I really think that over the years I’ve made some strides. They think of us as burger flippers and sheet slappers and we are so much more. Tourisms is our number one industry. Why is that so hard to grasp?
Our officials need to realize and respect this industry for what it means to our state and economy.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Just this year we were recognized as a certified convention and visitor’s bureau by Destination Marketing Association International. This little organization in Portland, Maine is keeping to the same standards as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Milan and is doing as well.
Now that you have your life back for the first time in decades, what will you be doing next week?
I’m moving to a 5-acre farm in North Yarmouth, settling into a new home. I”ll be a grandmother in the spring and I’m taking a master gardening class.