We all know how important the tourism industry is to Maine. It supports more than 88,500 jobs. It’s responsible for more than $5.2 billion in direct spending in the state. And the industry has grown over the last five years, boosting employment. Certainly Maine has lots to offer visitors: agricultural attractions, outdoor activities, the arts, music, quality dining, shopping, excursions on the water and many events.
But if Maine is going to continue to grow and improve this vital industry, it must know what its future visitors want — and provide it.
What do consumer trends show? How can Maine reach those consumers and market to them in a way that draws them here — and north of Freeport? There’s an incredible number of things to do in Maine, but other states have many similar attractions. How can Maine connect emotionally with potential visitors to get them to pack their car or hop a flight and head to the Black Mountain Ski Resort in Rumford, Winter Harbor Lobster Festival or Allagash Wilderness Waterway?
As the Maine Office of Tourism’s recently released five-year strategic plan points out, the tourists of today and tomorrow are different. More and more, tourists are traveling for a purpose. They want interactive learning experiences. They want authentic experiences and are open to physical or psychological challenges.
“Consumers desire unique experiences that offer social value and enhance their self-concept,” says the plan, which is based on market research and input from the industry.
That means businesses that benefit from tourism must ensure they are differentiating themselves based on what consumers want and use research to continue to guide their decision-making, particularly when it comes to marketing. The industry and state government can link travelers’ motivations to the alluring qualities of Maine. That doesn’t mean they forget about the traditional travelers who stick with the familiar. It means they expand their reach and become relevant for more people.
Maine is in a strong position to provide the “experiential travel” that many tourists want with its many cultural and environmental offerings, from skiing or hiking the Maine Huts and Trails system in Franklin County to interpretive tours in Lubec. But, as the plan makes clear, the tourism sector still has weaknesses. Visitation is still largely seasonal. There is minimal collaboration between private and public sectors for tourism marketing. The threat of the Legislature reallocating the tourism budget to other priorities is real. Wireless connectivity is still a problem in parts of the state. And there is increased competition from destinations all over the world.
It is as important as ever to pinpoint travelers with the greatest potential value, improve marketing efforts for off-season experiences, emphasize the importance of niche markets like weddings and ecotourism, communicate the need for basic infrastructure, and expand research into market trends. The statewide plan makes that clear.
But a good plan’s strength lies in whether and in how well it’s followed.