Serving Up Maine
Summer tourist season is about to begin, and Carolann Ouellette, Greg Dugal, and Connie Russell know visitor demographics and behavior patterns. One thing they don’t know is how the weather will behave.
Tourist jokes have been a Maine comedy staple since before Bert & I coined the phrase “you can’t get there from here.” Yet everyone in Maine also knows that visitors are the human fuel that stokes our economic engine. Carolann Ouellette, Greg Dugal, and Connie Russell all make it their business to lure people to Maine.
As the new director of the Maine Office of Tourism, Carolann Ouellette’s mandate is to get visitors here. Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association, works to help his members convince visitors to stay overnight. Connie Russell, general manager of the Samoset Resort, has a specific spot in Rockport where he’d like tourists to stay.
All three have hospitality in their blood. Carolann Ouellette first came to Maine at age 7, when her parents took her to Attean Lake Lodge in Jackman. After graduating from college, Ouellette headed back to Jackman and has been part of Maine’s tourism infrastructure ever since. Greg Dugal cut his tourism teeth at Fisherman’s Wharf in Boothbay Harbor, under the tutelage of “an amazing woman” named Laura Honey. Connie Russell, a third-generation hotelier, remembers tagging along with his Uncle Connie as he did room inspections from a wheelchair. Permanently injured from a football accident, his uncle was wheeled from room to room by the manager, whom he ended up marrying.
Maine’s tourism industry, in many ways, is public service at its best, and the 108,000 souls who cater to our visitors are serving us all. This summer, as you snake around the cruise ship crowds or wait in a longer line at the toll booth, tip your hat to Ouellette, Dugal, Russell, and the rest of Maine’s tourism task force. And while you’re at it, pray for sunshine.
Carolann Ouellette • Maine Office of Tourism - Director
Carolann Ouellette was named director of the Maine Office of Tourism in February 2011 after serving with the office since 2007. She provides the strategic direction and planning for the major elements of the Maine Tourism and Film Office’s integrated marketing programs. A graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, Ouellette has been chef/owner of an award-winning Maine restaurant and manager of several lodging facilities. An avid outdoors person, she is a white-water rafting Registered Maine Guide and former manager for an outdoor recreation outfitter.
What is the Maine Office of Tourism’s mission? What is your budget and how are you funded?
The Maine Office of Tourism was created by the legislature in 1983, and is responsible for marketing the state as a whole as a tourist destination. We implement advertising and promotional programs to help market the state and attract tourists to Maine. Our total special revenue fund is just over $9 million. We’re funded with 5% of the 7% meals and lodging taxes collected.
Can you quantify the importance of the tourism industry in Maine?
Tourism dollars in Maine have a $7.7 billion economic impact and generate $414 million in tax revenues. It employs, directly and indirectly, about 108,000 workers.
Have you measured the return on investment from the Maine Office of Tourism’s marketing budget?
Last time it was calculated, it was about eight to one.
What is the basic demographic of a Maine visitor?
The average age is mid-40s; average household income, $102,000 to $105,000. About 70% have college degrees; 55% to 58% are married. But we target more geographically. Our primary focus is the greater Boston metro area and a bit farther west, and down into New York.
The economy took a nose dive in 2008, and people curtailed their travel. Some things have recovered, but stays are still short. Is that the new normal?
We do believe that trend is here to stay, and not necessarily completely based on the economy. What we’ve seen in research is that it also comes down to time deficiency. People just have less and less time as work pressures and other pressures continue to build. So people are tending to stay closer to home, and gas prices may motivate people to stay closer to home as well. But Maine is well situated. We’re a drive-to destination within a reasonable distance of two of the major population centers in the Northeast, New York and Boston. That gives us a real advantage in the marketplace.
How significant is the Canadian market?
Canadian influence is strong. We don’t measure it regularly, but we do know that our markets are Ottawa, Quebec, and New Brunswick, with a small slice coming from Nova Scotia. We have seen increases, certainly, as the Canadian dollar has become par with the United States. New Brunswick is very strong in the Bangor region for the shopping and for the other things it has to offer. And Quebecers just love beaches, and Maine has the closest beaches to Quebec.
The office’s website, www.visitmaine.com, is a huge part of your marketing efforts. What other strategies have you used recently?
We know that 70% of our visitors use the Internet for travel planning, so they’re obviously very Internet savvy and very dependent on what they see there. As far as other parts and pieces, our PR outreach has been very good. We’ve taken a jump into the social media realm, which has been quite good as well. We market directly to the consumer via email blasts, and we’ve done online campaigns. So the mix continues to broaden, that’s for sure. We still maintain a presence at our core market travel consumer travel shows.
Do you have any new web-based initiatives?
We recently launched our first mobile app, the Maine Lobster Guide, working with the Maine Lobster Promotion Council. Our website is or will soon be optimized for mobile platforms and iPads. We’re also working very actively on the Google Maps part of the website, with highlights and layers from our database, everything from lodging and restaurants to cultural institutions. Our database includes all kinds of things; it’s a free listing.
Are you able to do exit polls with people who’ve come here and ask them about their experience?
That’s actually how our research is gathered. Davidson Peterson Association, through e-surveys, gathers data on national trends and connects with visitors who’ve been to Maine.
How important is food to a visitor’s experience? What has your office done to help market Maine as a culinary destination?
Food is a big player. Everyone who goes on vacation eats, and people like to find new experiences. So on www.visitmaine.com there’s a full-blown feature that has everything from different types of food that are available, to cookbooks, to recipes, to farms, to interviews with some of the award-winning chefs in Maine. We’ve put a much more intensified content piece on the website because we know it’s very important. We also incorporate food into alot of our imagery, whether it’s a print ad or an email blast. And we’ve supported food specialty events, like Harvest on the Harbor and Maine
Do packages help people to decide to come to Maine?
We encourage packaging. In our promotions, we mention the getaways that are available and direct people to the getaways page. We have an opportunity for businesses to post packages online on www.visitmaine.com.
One way we use the packaging concept is in the Shop, Dine, and Stay Campaign. We designed the getaways to be two nights’ lodging plus two elements that would not be part of a normal stay at a property. Working previously on the Shop, Dine, and Stay campaign, I forget the numbers, but I think we were well below 100 packages online and now we’re close to 300. So people are being very creative.
What role do events play in getting tourists here, as opposed to the desire to simply get away?
About 9% of our overnight visitors say that the primary purpose of their trip was to come to an event. We hear anecdotally that destination weddings continue to grow. And we do know that the industry has expressed interest in growing sporting events, things like the world cup biathlon.
Does the Maine Office of Tourism get involved in developing new events or attractions to the state?
We help with some product development, but most of the ideas are coming from someone else and they ask us for assistance. Our tourism marketing grant program allocates 10% of our budget to the eight tourism regions and special events, so a large-scale special event can apply for marketing grant money through a competitive process.
You’re more in touch with visitors who love Maine than most of us. Any stories come to mind?
On www.visitmaine.com, we have a vacation memories section with over 20 pages of visitor stories and photos. They range from people from far away saying, “It was my lifelong dream to visit Maine,” to “I came here for summer camp and, as an adult, couldn’t wait to come back with my kids.” People tend to have very near and dear spots in Maine that they return to; I believe our rate of repeat visitors is around the 80% mark. Once you’ve been here, it’s the must-go-to vacation place.
Greg Dugal • Maine Innkeepers Association - Executive Director
Greg Dugal has been the executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association since 2003. His experience includes 16 years at the Samoset Resort, where his positions included food and beverage director and director of sales and marketing. A former executive director of the Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce, Dugal was named Executive of the Year by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce in 2002, and Restaurateur of the Year by the Maine Restaurant Association in 2000. He serves on several tourism-related boards.
Please give us a brief overview of your organization.
The Maine Innkeepers Association was founded in 1921, so we’ll be celebrating our 90th anniversary this year. We have approximately 500 lodging members, 125 allied or industry supplier-type members, and 30 associate members. Our main reason for existing is legislative advocacy; we also have a fairly sizable marketing element. We publish the Maine Lodging Guide, which has been produced for the last 50 years, and we have a website, www.maineinns.com. We also have an educational foundation that conveys about $10,000–$12,000 a year in scholarships.
Can you quantify the importance of tourism in Maine?
It’s a $2.6 billion industry, strictly on meals and lodging revenues alone. If you throw in recreation and the indirect impacts of transportation and those kinds of things, it’s about $7.7 billion.
What do you know about the demographic characteristics of your members’ core customers?
We’re in a drive-to market; there are 70 million people between Washington, D.C., and Montreal. The primary state of entry is Massachusetts, and that’s about 20%, followed by New York at 18% and New Jersey at 9% . There are a lot of places in the 6% and 5% range, including Maine residents themselves, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.
Canada, if you combine all of the provinces—most of them, obviously, would be eastern provinces—comes in at about 17% to 19%, depending on the year. Thankfully, in 2009 it was closer to 20%, because if not, a lot of communities would have had a much worse year. As far as seasons, it’s summer, fall, spring, and winter, in that order. For the lodging industry, August and July are almost 50% of the industry’s take for the year.
Finding an able, affordable workforce is critical to your members’ success. Is that easy to do in Maine?
When times are really good, there are very few people to work in our industry. The H2B work visa program [allowing adults to work in the U.S. for 12–18 months] and J1 workers [on 120-day student visas] used to be a good strategy, but they have been all but shut down at the federal level. We recently introduced state legislation to modify child labor laws that got all blown up in the media. We were only looking for four extra hours a week, two extra hours in a shift and one hour at the end of the shift, but they bunched us in with the mural controversy. I think, as time goes on, more older people will need to work, and they’re going to be a valuable resource for us.
Short booking windows and shorter stays seem to be the new normal. Is it because of the economy?
It’s interesting, because technology has had as much of an impact on our industry as the economy. Third-party travel sites, the advent of booking online, and weather online 24/7 really gave people the ability to make decisions at the last minute. In 2009, when Davidson Peterson first came on for the Maine Office of Tourism, [the benchmark] was August of 2000, with an average four-month lead time for booking. In 2009, it was two days.
So that last-minute, shorter vacation is really prevalent, and it’s here to stay. That’s unfortunate, because it gives my people heartburn. It started more in the hinterlands, places that aren’t necessarily an Ogunquit or a Bar Harbor. Then, all of a sudden, you’re seeing it in those areas, too, with everything happening at the last minute.
Packaged promos like Shop, Dine, and Stay have been successful. Why don’t more of your members do it?
It takes them out of their comfort zone. Small-business people are really busy. There’s the liability of putting somebody else in a package, the question of who collects the money and how it gets dispensed later on, so it really is kind of a hard sell. I’ve been involved in trying to sell packaging with the Maine Office of Tourism for the last 10 years. We’ve put on hundreds of seminars around the state, but with small-business people, you’ve got to get them one at a time. But it’s catching on. The ultimate goal would be to have a menu concept that people would buy into, and the packages could be built by the consumer to fit their needs and goals.
What are the things your members’ customers are most interested in doing when they get here?
The reasons why people come here, not what they do when they get here, but the reasons why people come here, are outdoor recreation, shopping—more specifically, outlet shopping and L.L. Bean—sightseeing, scenic drives, the beaches, and hiking. Those are the top ones.
When people actually come here, shopping always seems to jump ahead of outdoor recreation. It’s probably like me getting a little older: My thought processes are a little bit better than my anatomy allows me to be, so sometimes having a good meal and a bottle of wine and walking around and looking at the stores is where I end up. I think the aging of the baby boomer generation is why skiing has dropped off a bit, golf has dropped off. It’s also the time-poverty thing. People are working so much, they just don’t have time to be out there enough to be good at [a sport or hobby]. Hunting is another example; it’s such an investment in time that the hard-core people continue to do it, but you don’t see a bunch of new people getting involved. So I think it’s going to be incumbent upon us to challenge these folks with fairs and festivals, great restaurants and great inns, things that pique their interests.
How important are events in getting tourists to come to your members’ properties?
What we’ve lost is the person who’s going to go for two weeks instead of one week. What we haven’t lost are people traveling for a reason: a hobby, whether it be birding or a festival, be it bluegrass or the blues festival in Rockland. People still follow their likes, and they will act on those impulses. Without something to draw some people, we would be dead in the water. So, in my opinion, events are king; even the smaller local events that draw local people out and bring some people in from outside are really important.
The difficult thing, however, is there is such a thing as too many of them. I do sometimes get concerned that they’re going to actually start competing to the point where they’re going to have a minimizing effect on each other.
Destination weddings are huge; some of my members would tell you if it wasn’t for weddings, they would never have survived 2009. Business conferences are also huge and we have some world-class conference facilities. But business travel is not going to ever be where we would like it to be, because usually people don’t want to be more than 45 minutes from an airport.
How about those daily acts of God called the weather? How much does that affect your industry?
In 2009, we had the worst economy ever and the worst weather ever. In 2010, we didn’t have that much better of an economy, but we had much better weather and we basically made up for the deficit from the year before. To me, that proves how important weather is. It’s critical.
Cornelius “Connie” Russell • Samoset Resort - General Manager
Connie Russell, manager of the Samoset Resort in Rockport, was named Maine’s 2010 Innkeeper of the Year. Russell was born in Bangor and attended Orono High School and the University of Maine. He began his career with Ocean Properties in 1987, and has held management positions at hotels in Maine, New Hampshire, Colorado, Arizona, and Florida. He has managed the Samoset since 1999. Russell is a member of the board of directors of Maine Rural Development Authority, Maine State Chamber of Commerce, and Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce, and he serves as chair of the Maine Innkeepers Association.
Please tell us about the property you manage.
The Samoset was originally built in 1889. It burned down in 1972, was rebuilt in ’74, and Ocean Properties purchased it in 1999. Since then we’ve done nothing but reinvest, capital-wise. Ocean Properties, of course, was started right here in Maine by Tom Walsh. I think we’re now the largest independent hotel operator in the country and have over 30 hotels in Florida alone.
The Samoset is a seasonal resort. This year, we opened April 29th and we’re closing November 13th. We employ about 300 people in season.
How did you get into this business?
I actually started in the sixth grade. My father and my Uncle Connie and Tom Walsh and Larry Mahaney built the University Motor Inn in Orono in 1964; I used to take care of the grounds.
Tom Walsh is my mentor. I learned more working with Tom Walsh one-on-one during my first three months as a manager trainee at the Regency Hotel in Bar Harbor than in my entire college career. This is the 13th hotel that I’ve had a management role in since 1987 with Ocean Properties.
What are the demographics of Samoset’s core customers? Has that mix changed in recent years?
Our core target is between the ages of 30 and 50. We draw from all over the United States, but primarily from the Mid-Atlantic states north; New York, New Jersey in the month of August. But our number one state, market-wise, is Maine, because of the business we do with the state associations during the shoulder months.
And, yes, our demographic mix has changed. The people who used to stay at the Samoset were the older crowd who looked forward to coming to the former restaurant Marcel’s for that particular experience and not the whole package. Technology has certainly changed our demographic and has changed the way society behaves and travels.
In what way?
People are on a much faster pace now than they used to be. They stay shorter periods of time. They make their travel plans much more short-term, weather-dependent. They don’t plan their vacations, say, the spring or the winter before the summer; it could be in the week before the weekend.
Everyone seems to be working on a tighter budget and attached to their jobs via technology with BlackBerries and iPads. People arrive a little more tightly wound. It’s hard for them to relax because they’re still working.
Are you primarily marketing to people through the Internet? Do most guests book online now?
With our business being a resort, we find that 75% of our customers still like to talk to reservations agents via phone. They like to ask a lot of questions about their potential stay, and typically book their final reservation on the phone. But it’s evident that most of them did quite a bit of research on the Internet and our website. We feel that 75% of our bookings are influenced by the Internet. We certainly have benefitted from organic search engine optimization and email marketing above and beyond our website. But we still maintain a balance of strategic print ads, kiosks, brochures, and direct mail. People still want print; they still need something physical, with pictures, to look at.
High season for you is mostly guests from out of state, and it’s often sold-out. Where do you see the most new opportunities for potential growth?
With groups, between associations and all of the other corporate groups we host. That was the first to leave when the recession hit and the last to come back. It’s just starting to come back now. I think we’re going to have a good year with the launch of our new spa, our new restaurant and lounge, and our ratings from last year. We were rated the No. 1 resort in Maine by Down East magazine; Conde Nast Traveler rated us; and we’re now in the top tier of Preferred Hotels and Resorts.
You know about TripAdvisor. Do you ever get any negative comments online?
I think everyone does. One of the things the industry struggles with is that a lot of the postings are never brought to management’s attention to correct before the people leave. It’s unfortunate, because it’s our goal to make sure our customers are happy before they leave, whatever it takes. But you have to respond politely and respectfully to people’s concerns and opinions. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but you want to thank them for bringing it to your attention—and some of the things maybe did occur and you want to be able to correct them. So it’s a valuable tool.
Weather is a huge factor in the success of Maine’s tourism season. What percentage of customers cancel their reservations if it rains?
We have a 72-hour cancellation policy and are pretty strict with that because it’s not fair to us if people cancel their plans and we’ve turned people away. So I don’t know the percentage of customers who cancel. We have some renowned museums in the area; that’s who benefits when it does rain.
Sustainability is an industry buzzword in tourism. Are there ways your company has become more sustainable over the past several years?
The public’s expectation is that you’re going to become more environmentally friendly, and they only want to support establishments that are more conscientious. We became a Maine Environmental Leader a few years ago and each year we just continue to add to our respect for the environment. We compost our food, recycle paper and plastic, changed our lightbulbs out to compact fluorescent, all the right things.
Something we did most recently, and I believe we’re the first in the country, is to recycle beds, through a new company called Sleep Inc. We just purchased all new beds, and they’re taking the old beds back and recycling every piece of the bedding, the box spring, and the mattress.
Finding good, affordable labor is critical to the tourism business. Is that hard or easy to do in Maine?
It depends on your location. We’re fortunate to have a pretty strong labor force here in the area. We draw a lot of younger staff, high school and college students, from this local area. We do have a foreign national base of 12 people we use every year in our housekeeping department; other than that, we try to hire athletes from the local high school sports teams. We find that if we hire them at a younger age, by the time they’ve graduated from high school, they continue to work here and only get better, more polished, and more mature. We’ve had a lot of brothers and sisters come up through the ranks.
How important is food to a tourist’s experience?
Food is huge. The new market segment, the younger crowd called foodies, are looking for the local food experience. So you have to incorporate local ingredients into your menu and the local farms and artisans. People don’t want to come up here just to eat a hamburger. They want to get a Maine-bred piece of beef, know the name of the farm, and be able to taste the difference. Of course, the first question our guests ask is, “Where can I get a good lobster?”