They came, they saw and they ate seared marinated tofu and espresso-rubbed filet mignon.
They were New York parents dropping kids off to summer camp and visitors just passing through — people generally from away stopping into the upscale Oxford House Inn on Main Street in Fryeburg.
Its menu is heavy on local foods — honey gathered from a field out back, grass-fed beef from down the road.
Its business was up more than 18 percent this summer.
“This whole area is tourism-driven with the economy here,” said owner and chef Jonathan Spak. “Everybody who we’ve spoken with in this business has had an increase over last year, which is absolutely fantastic.”
It wasn’t just a fluke in Fryeburg. Restaurant sales were up as much as 7 percent across western Maine, up 3.65 percent across the state as a whole. Visits were up 5.3 percent at Acadia National Park from July and August 2012. Hotel nights throughout Maine were up 3 percent in August, according to Smith Travel Research.
Signs look good that this summer will go down in the books as a success for one of Maine’s largest industries, with optimism for fall — Maine’s second-largest tourist season — and for winter beyond.
Local ski resorts have invested millions the last few months, with Sunday River and Sugarloaf coming off record sales years.
In the long-term forecast: Snow and a giant, 30-person hot tub.
‘Making people happy’
Tourism is a $7.5 billion business in Maine, responsible for 86,000 jobs and $416 million a year in sales tax, according to Maine Office of Tourism Director Carolann Ouellette.
Her office has a $9.7 million budget; the bulk of which spent spreading the word about Maine. An ad campaign the past two years featured scenic photos, soft retro fonts and residents biking, surfing and relaxing with the tag line:
“Be inspired. Be adventurous. Be yourself. Discover your Maine Thing.”
Ads ran this summer in periodicals like National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Boston Globe, and on New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts subways and trains.
They’re targeting what Ouellette calls a “younger demographic,” early 30s to early 40s, and first-time visitors.
“Maine produces a great experience, so our industry is really good at making people happy,” she said. “We have an 85 to 86 percent return on our visitors. If we can bump up that first-time a little bit, we’re pretty assured they’re going to jump into the returning category.”
At the end of 2012, out-of-state visitors were up 8.5 percent over 2011.
She’s been watching state park numbers (up 6 percent this July and August over last) turnpike stats, and restaurant and lodging sales, and even her own office website hits (up 25 percent this July and August over last) with care.
June and July were on the wet side. She’s heard August helped make up for it.
“I do think the campaign is hitting the mark,” Ouellette said. “I do also think that we watch nationally the trends in leisure travel and they were positive all the way through, so I think that that is critically important.”
Robin Zinchuk, executive director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, said she’s heard positive summer feedback from members, many of whom have gone after another market to weather-proof themselves: the destination wedding.
“That really helps to offset the individual traveler that might not come if they see a cloudy forecast for the weekend,” she said. “I think September and October are two of our busier months when it comes to weddings. Weddings touch just about everyone.”
Business spreads to officiants, florists, caterers, landscapers and daytime excursion operators. Wedding guests all add to the summer drive-bys.
“People are coming from far and wide,” Zinchuk said. “We are seeing a lot of international visitors, which is hats off to all the people here in New England who are marketing overseas. These aren’t just people who are coming to Maine and . . . just coming to Bethel. They’re spending three, four weeks vacationing here in New England, flying into Boston and doing the big loop up through the mountains and then doing something out on the coast.”
At NorthEast Charter & Tour Co. in Lewiston, Scott Riccio said tour companies were busy this summer bringing summer camp kids all over the state, meeting cruise ships and being chartered for events like weddings.
“I would say business is slightly up,” said Riccio, who is also chairman of the board of directors for the Maine Tourism Association. “It’s been a good summer for us. We’ve aggressively marketed and done some promotional pieces to go after new business. That’s part of the reason why business is up.”
Vaughn Stinson, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association, said visitor counts through July were down 6 percent at the seven visitor centers the MTA contracts to run for the Office of Tourism.
One of his theories: A last-minute $16 million ad campaign from New York this summer may have sidetracked some would-be tourists.
“The reality is, you start pumping money into a campaign, people pay attention to it,” he said. Ads highlighted rafting, golfing and fishing, “oddly enough, all the things we offer in Maine.”
His members were reporting a good but not great start to fall, with visitors maybe distracted, he said, by fuel costs, a “mad dash” to buy a home before interest rates rise and an after-effect of that New York blitz.
“The other New England states in the Northeast, I think from what I’ve seen over the years, have watched carefully what we’ve done up here,” Stinson said.
Fall has become the second-most popular tourist season in Maine, drawing 4.6 million overnight visitors last year to summer’s 8.7 million and winter’s 2.5 million.
“Fall really continues to grow,” Ouellette said. “Between the colors and a little bit slower pace than the summer, a few less crowds, and then there’s a lot of activity in the fall.”
Like the Wife Carrying Contest at Sunday River in Newry, the Dempsey Challenge in Lewiston, Crossroads International Celtic Festival in Western Maine and Harvest on the Harbor in Portland.
“What I’m hearing moving forward for advance reservations for the fall, again, all anecdotal, but seemingly things look positive, so we’re anticipating an increase for the fall over last year as well,” Ouellette said. Looking further ahead, “Last winter we were fortunate; it was a great winter. If all of these predictors hold true as far as snow and anticipation thereof, we think that this winter will again be strong.”
So does Sugarloaf, which spent almost $3 million on recent improvements that include a 30-person hot tub that it’s pretty sure is going to be dipped in a time or two.
Spak, who recently celebrated six years running The Oxford House Inn with his wife, sees good signs ahead. His four B&B guest rooms are booked through the third week of October.
“That typically is a good indication of what the restaurant business is going to be like,” he said.
Prior to this summer, the inn had one full-time staffer. It’s up to four. He doesn’t have to limit reservations anymore to keep things flowing in the kitchen.
“Now, pretty much as fast as they can throw them at us, we can handle them,” Spak said.
“On the shoulders of the leaf peepers we get a lot of European travelers, they tend to not make reservations in advance, that’s just how people travel in Europe,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a tremendous fall.”