Tourism resilience in COVID times: Two Maine woods stories
By David Vail
Rural Maine’s tourism businesses and host communities are struggling with massive, unexpected shocks: the COVID-19 pandemic and a deep economic recession in its wake. Starting with an early summer “staycation” pitch to Mainers, the industry has nimbly shifted toward the broader Northeast market in recent months.
As the summer season progressed, growing numbers of visitors found adventure and relaxation in the Maine woods, far from COVID hotspots. Even so, some leisure and hospitality businesses will not survive the crisis and many tourist-dependent communities face on-going economic hardship.
Recent BDN columns I authored have explored resilience strategies of Maine woods tourism businesses and destinations, highlighting innovative responses to “shocks, risks and uncertainties,” like changing climate, tourist demographics, and general economic conditions. The focus here is pandemic responses by Northern Outdoors, a leading outdoor adventure business, and the Maine Woods Consortium, a catalyst for tourist destination development.
Historically, Northern Outdoors’ ‘bread and butter’ was white water rafting and snowmobiling. Responding to changing tourist demographics and preferences, Northern has continuously adapted its recreation menu, emphasizing ATV-ing, river floating, hiking, wildlife watching, and fishing opportunities. Lodge and cabin upgrades and addition of the Kennebec River Pub and Brewery have made Northern a full-service adventure resort.
The pandemic challenges Northern’s business strategy in many ways. Most obvious is the narrower customer base, resulting from visitor restrictions and vacationers’ health concerns. Still, through innovative promotions and Maine’s gradual relaxation of travel restrictions, Northern’s stepwise re-opening yielded July visitor numbers at roughly half of their 2019 levels, August bookings at 75 percent, and September, amazingly, over 100 percent, president Russell Walters told me.
Pandemic initiatives include price discounts for “heroes” — armed forces, health and other essential workers — discounted staycations for Mainers, spacious outdoor deck and dining arrangements for safe distancing, lower whitewater raft occupancy and more flatwater floating options.
Walters is proud of Northern’s employees, who completed Maine’s COVID Readiness program, mastered rigorous hygiene protocols, and handled complicated reservation procedures for non-Mainers. Through July, the Federal Payroll Protection Program helped maintain staffing at roughly half of last year’s level. With the usual core of international visa students unavailable, Northern has recruited and trained more employees from nearby towns, Walters said.
Does Northern face a survival challenge? In Walters’ assessment, “I might have had a different answer back in April. But the feds’ swift action with PPP, the Maine CDC’s actions to limit virus spread, people’s urge to get out into nature and our staff’s flexibility and resiliency give me optimism. We’ve weathered this challenge well. Now we have to reset and think ahead to our winter operations.”
The mission of the Maine Woods Consortium, a private-public-non-profit partnership, is revitalizing rural tourism destinations. Its Community Destination Academy has provided technical and financial assistance to three regions with great potential and effective stakeholder organization: Moosehead Lake, Rangeley Lakes, and Bethel-Mahoosucs. The Rangeley Lakes’ destination strategy is taking shape in “COVID times.”
Through consortium-facilitated visioning, 75 Rangeley stakeholders have framed a 10-year strategy. Core goals are moving “up-market” by offering more “high touch-high service” experiences; attracting “emerging generations” of first time visitors from beyond New England; and creating four season attractions, offering year round jobs and with strong links to local farmers, artists, and crafters.
Despite the pandemic, work continues on downtown improvements and Main Street beautification, “wayfinding” signage for the federally designated Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway, and a pathbreaking workforce recruitment and housing initiative, building on the revitalized Saddleback ski area to shape year-round leisure and hospitality employment.
The pandemic has delayed some plans, especially an ambitious branding and marketing campaign. But Rangeley stakeholders, with consortium backing, have created a long term vision, a robust organization, and practical successes to see them through troubled times. As Travis Ferland, owner of the historic Rangeley Inn, told me, “We will benefit from the lessons learned during these efforts and apply them when we can resume full scale efforts after the pandemic.”
With leaf peeping season behind us, the next resilience challenge for Maine woods tourism, as Walters notes, is gearing up for a safe and successful winter sports season.
Vail is an emeritus professor of economics emeritus and former director of environmental studies at Bowdoin College.