KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Just as the last of the summer tourists packed up their beach gear and headed back home for the season in early September, the tour bus season kicked into high gear, bringing thousands of leaf-peepers and day-trippers to parts of town already weary and stretched thin from a busy summer season.
“There really isn’t a break anymore. It really doesn’t get quiet around here until after Prelude,” Kennebunkport Police Chief Craig Sanford said.
That can be a good thing for business owners like Ashley Padget, general manager of Alisson’s Restaurant in the heart of Dock Square. She employs 70 local people, and just a few years ago she had to start layoffs right after Labor Day. Today she’s able to maintain her staff right through Christmas Prelude in December.
“We have seen such a huge difference in the last five years, it’s really like summer straight through the end of October. We used to be somewhat seasonal, so from that perspective it’s very beneficial,” Padget said.
“I get the impact on the traffic,” said Padget who lives in Kennebunk and finds herself fighting traffic just like everyone else. “But people that are depending on this traffic are local residents too. They need their jobs, so it’s a big impact on local people who work in hospitality.”
Lauren Guptill learned quickly that the artisanal flavors she’s known for at Rococo Ice Cream were not going cut it with the over 60 crowd coming off the tour buses across the street from her Dock Square shop.
“We established ourselves on having creative unique and inspired flavors during the summer. In the fall the demographic changes significantly, and we learned quickly that those flavors weren’t going to sell,” Guptill said.
She started making a traditional maple walnut for the tour bus crowds, with Maine maple syrup and big chunks of walnuts. In the just six to eight weeks it’s on the menu in the fall, it outpaces all other flavors except for two in seasonal sales. She said it’s literally all they buy.
“It’s our third highest grossing flavor. It outsells others we make for six months out of the year,” Guptill said. “A little part of my creative soul dies every time I make it, but I know that’s what they want, and if they can’t get it here, they’ll go elsewhere, so we’ve adapted.”
The topic of tour buses is an opinionated one in Kennebunkport, Guptill said, but for her business “it’s been phenomenal.”
“If there’s a cruise ship in Portland, we can do numbers like a weekend in the summer. It’s that significant. The tour buses really make it a three season town,” she said.
She staffs the ice cream shop with University of New England students in the fall, and encourages them to bring their homework with them. She is also there every day when buses are in town, scooping herself.
Not every business sees a benefit from the tour bus industry though. Jackson Yordan, chef/owner of Salt & Honey on the other side of Dock Square, said the bus tourists will stop into his restaurant, but it’s often not beneficial.
“People will come in, and they’ll split a lobster roll and get three waters and leave almost nothing for a tip. Your business goes through all the stress without getting any of the business,” Yordan said.
“They use the public bathrooms and they just meander through town. I know in a lot of cases they wander into the shops, but the shop owners say they don’t buy anything,” he said. “I’m sure there are businesses that love them. I definitely don’t see a benefit, I don’t see an uptick at all. A lot of times they sit for an hour to kill time, at a table that I could be seating, and I honestly think I’m losing in this case.”
At H.B. Provisions General Store in Kennebunk’s Lower Village, tour bus groups arrive in waves, like a herd, as store employees describe it, and have just a few minutes to shop and get back to their buses in time for departure. Owner Bonnie Clement said it makes it hard on her staff, and she wonders if the people on the bus tours are really having a good experience.
“They come into the store, and they are all anxious because they have a time limit so it’s hard to wait on them all, and I wonder, is it really fun for them?” Clement said.
Clement said while the added business is welcome, the strain on the small businesses throughout the area on a day heavy with tour buses is real.
“We want to be great ambassadors not only to our community but to the state of Maine. It is frustrating for our workers. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think there needs to be some sort of tweaking,” she said.
No limit on tour buses
Kennebunk-Kennebunkport-Arundel Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Laura Dolce said, contrary to what many think, she is not marketing to cruise ship and motor coach companies.
“We can’t control how many buses come and when they arrive,” Dolce said. “There’s this misconception that the chamber is about more, more, more, but we understand the need for balance, and we don’t want to ruin that way of life that makes this place so special. We work on the ‘shoulder seasons’ in our marketing.”
Kennebunkport Town Manager Laurie Smith hears the same complaints, and has the same answer.
“We can’t control what buses come to our town any more than we can say to people they can’t drive their own private car down here for a visit,” Smith said. “I don’t think people realize that.”
Smith also noted that from an environmental and logistical point of view, she’d rather have one bus with 50 people, than 50 individual vehicles.
Smith said there have been a handful of days in recent weeks with too many buses on a given day, which presented challenges. She too wonders what it’s like for the tourists who wait in long lines at the public restrooms, and find long waits for restaurants in town.
According to Lynn Tillotson, president and CEO of Visit Portland, cruise ship companies choose their destinations based on excursions, and one of the most popular excursions from ships docked in Portland is Kennebunkport.
The Cruise Consortium Passenger Survey showed that in 2014, 45,000 cruise ship passengers came ashore for excursions in Portland, spending more than $4.8 million. Eight percent of those who took excursions, headed to Kennebunkport, and the average visitor spent $105.
“Kennebunkport is so iconic, it’s New England and Maine, and it’s one of those must-see towns. The fact that we have Kennebunkport as the home of the Bushes, two former presidents, that’s such a draw for these cruise ship passengers,” Tillotson said.
Dolce said chamber volunteers greet the tour buses all season on Cross Street, behind Bandaloop and at Performance Marine where the tour buses from cruise ships park. Cross Street is the designated drop off for motor coach tours, which are often senior trips from places in the midwest, or Pennsylvania and even Boston.
Kylie Raymond and her father Dwight, owners of The Spirit of Massachusetts, The Pilot House and Performance Marine have done a lot for the town and the local businesses by making parking available for the cruise ship tour buses, said Dolce.
Chamber volunteers give every passenger a welcome brochure that lists important information, like the location of public restrooms, and offers a long list of shops and local eateries. Dolce said some tour bus guides may tell passengers their own personal recommendations, which might make certain locations more crowded.
On three occasions recently buses “went rogue” and stopped on Lanigan Bridge to drop off passengers, bringing traffic to a virtual standstill and frustrating many locals. Dolce called each of the bus companies and gave them the license plate of the vehicles, and explained the proper protocol.
“These were new bus companies to our area, and they didn’t check in with the chamber or the police department to find out where to go,” she said.
Tour buses strain town services
Sanford said the impact of tour buses to his department is significant. He receives regular complaints about excessive foot traffic and vehicle traffic in Dock Square.
“The Dock Square area is small, and with that many people walking through there from these buses, the sidewalks aren’t big enough. I get complaints of people jaywalking, but I can’t keep five or six cops down there all the time, it’s just not feasible,” Sanford said.
His officers often deal with tour buses driving much too slowly — 10 to 15 miles per hour below the 25 mile per hour posted speed limit — around Ocean Avenue past the Bush family compound, causing huge lines of traffic.
“We’ve actually had to stop the buses and warn the drivers,” Sanford said.
Yordan said he thinks there are more buses than ever here this year, but Dolce said that just isn’t the case. While the cruise ship tour buses have remained constant, the motor coach tours are down sharply, she said.
“We saw during the spring and summer months a 50 to 75 percent drop. I know people are shocked about that, but the drop was enormous,” Dolce said.
Motor coach tours are cyclical, and she thinks that marketing in other areas of the country may be to blame.
Yordan said he understands the draw to the Kennebunks, but he’s not sure about the benefit of the buses.
“They want that picture, I get it. They want to see the Bush compound and get the photo on the bridge. Is it good for the town? I just don’t know. I just don’t see it,” he said.
Both Padget and Dolce said if locals want to return to their favorite restaurants and shops, weeknights and weekends are generally tour-bus free. The tour buses typically only arrive during the week, and are gone by 4 p.m. or earlier, Dolce said.
Guptill acknowledges that tension that exists among local residents and even business owners around the tour buses.
“I’ve gotten stuck behind a bus unloading in the middle of Dock Square, I get the frustration,” she said. “But I think we need to take a step back and look at the value it brings to this community.”
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.