Strengthening Maine Woods tourism resilience
In a previous OpEd, I described three “shocks” challenging Maine tourism’s resilience: changing climate, changing general economic conditions and changing global markets. Some disturbances are unavoidable, like warming winters, while others are uncertain, like another severe economic recession. Some shocks will have negative impacts for Maine, like less reliable snow cover, while others may be advantageous, like climate disruptions at competing destinations.
Smart stakeholders and policy makers anticipate shocks and act to strengthen “shock absorbers.” Two Maine Woods initiatives are adapting to — and taking advantage of — major changes: Northern Outdoors, a premier outfitter, is responding to changing tourist markets with innovative new products; the Moosehead Lake Branding Initiative is re-inventing a venerable destination to match 21st century preferences.
Northern Outdoors: Product innovation for resilience
Northern Outdoors (NO), based at The Forks on the Kennebec, has been a leader in white water rafting and snowmobiling for four decades. Russell Walters, NO’s president since 2000, noted that the business’s two main drivers began to stagnate starting around 1998.
“We came to realize we weren’t just an outdoor business, but rather part of the larger hospitality sector,” Walters said.
Northern Outdoors’ resilience strategy centers on three connected innovations: upgrading rafting and snowmobiling experiences with improved amenities, branching out into ventures targeting niche markets and increased marketing sophistication. The clear trend is toward guests seeking authentic outdoor experiences without having to rough it. From millennials to boomers, NO caters to such preferences with its own craft brewery, extensive dining options, a big outdoor hot tub, live music and — of course — Wi-Fi. New activities include ATV rentals and expert advising on local hiking options, with mountain biking trails on the planning board.
NO’s less weather-dependent and more recession-proof product mix features programs tailored to Wounded Warriors, university recreation and hospitality students, and corporations’ employee reward and incentive programs. Collaborating with clients to customize activities helps NO smooth seasonal fluctuations and use facilities, staff and equipment more fully.
Moosehead Branding Initiative: Destination re-development for resilience
By the late 1800s, Moosehead Lake was a prime destination for “rusticaters,” who typically arrived by train and often stayed for the summer. In recent decades, the loss of anchor industries and an alpine ski area, coupled with tourism’s evolution away from hunting and fishing, have eroded the “critical mass” of residents, school kids, commerce and taxes.
In response, Moosehead stakeholders are getting organized, getting professional help and getting going.
In 2014, stakeholders revived the Moosehead Lake Regional Economic Development Corporation (REDC) and hired a consultant to re-imagine Moosehead as a destination for both leisure travelers and in-migrants. Armed with a Rebranding and Marketing Plan — and the aspirational banner “America’s Crown Jewel” — the REDC’s Brand Leadership Team and a second consultant developed a regional Tourism Master Plan. Greenville also engaged consultants to frame its Downtown Revitalization Plan.
In 2016, the Maine Woods Consortium, a public-private-non-profit partnership, identified nine “high potential rural destination areas” and successfully lobbied for a “Destination Development Specialist” position within the Maine Office of Tourism (MOT). Last year, Moosehead was chosen to pilot the MOT’s Community Destination Academy, which combines organization building, leadership development, skills training and hands-on projects.
Moosehead’s experience highlights the crucial role of tangible successes through projects combining monetary investment with sweat equity. Improved trail access and signage are a top priority. In downtown Greenville, an artisan village, refurbished business facades, a re-built lakefront boardwalk and summer evening events are geared to today’s “experiential tourists.” These amenities complement services offered by best practice businesses, like the Blair Hill Inn and SS Katahdin cruises. And they are supplemented by two larger investments: the Appalachian Mountain Club’s three Maine Wilderness Lodges and the Libra Foundation’s Monson artists’ colony.
In sum, Moosehead tourism has momentum and can boast numerous improvements. Yet, as MOT Destination Specialist Donna Moreland stresses, “destination development is a never-ending process and they are just getting started.”
Northern Outdoors, at the enterprise level, and Moosehead, on a regional level, are modeling the nimble adaptation needed for sustainable tourism in a world permeated by economic and environmental uncertainties.
David Vail is Adams Catlin Professor of Economics emeritus at Bowdoin College. He is a member of the Maine Woods Consortium steering committee and a consultant to the Appalachian Mountain Club.