Vermont’s tourism industry focuses on nearby travelers

Vermont’s tourism industry focuses on nearby travelers

Edelstein, Art

Sometimes unexciting is good. Vermont, which can seem too quiet and too rural, a place far off the beaten track, with too much mom’s apple pie and not enough spice, is profiting from its homespun image in a tough time for America. Travel to the state, and tourism here in general is benefitting from the quiet, safe, peaceful image we project to the rest of the country. This is the observation of travel experts around the state.

In the wake of September 11, 2001, with the economy currently shredding, with urban dwellers wrapping their homes in duct tape for fear of terrorism, and a looming war with Iraq, Vermont’s image as a quiet, safe haven from the mania is drawing tourists and keeping the state’s hospitality industry strong.

Yet, the same industry still needs to do more to keep the numbers up. Room occupancy rates are too low, at around 40 percent, and other states are also selling fall foliage, maple sugaring, and peace and quiet, often with a larger marketing budget. Vermont will have to spend more to market itself, say the experts.

“After 9/11, when everybody suffered a downturn (in tourism) and people didn’t want to go anywhere, they chose Vermont because it’s an easy, safe, fun place to go,” said Dave Kaufman at the Vermont Tourism Network in Burlington. “Even with the downturn in the economy, people choose to come here because it’s a good value, its easy, its safe and cost less than getting on an airplane or driving cross country,” he explained.

Kaufman has had a long career in tourism in Vermont. He’s worked in the ski industry, and now runs a marketing company representing the tour marketplace selling to the packaged tour segment (motor coaches) of the industry. He said this slice of the business represents about 9 percent of the total tourism business in the state.

Kaufman said Vermont is a state that will benefit from the negatives that hurt many other tourism reliant states.

“Vermont has proven its resiliency to major impacts on the industry felt elsewhere. Primarily it’s our location. Even in a poor economy, and in a time when airport security is putting off many travelers, 75 million people can get here, “on a tank of gas,” he said. “When they don’t to fly they come to New England and Vermont instead of overseas.”

“We’re positioned really good as a state,” agrees Joe Carton at the Radisson Hotel in Burlington. He counts 40 to 50 million people within an eight-hour drive of Vermont’s border.

Vermont is a good vacation choice for families, Carton noted. Proximity to water, he said, is a number one attraction and Lake Champlain is an important destination for summer travel. The state will also attract travelers from the Midwest who are “on the way to other attractions like the ocean.”

“Our traditional visitor is apprehensive because of the economy, impending war, and continued terrorist activities. People are skittish,” acknowledged Chris Barbieri at the Vermont State Chamber of Commerce.

“On the flip side, because of our prox to major markets, the anxiety is a soft plus,” he added. “We are accessible and perceived as a safe vacation experience.”

“It’s challenging for everybody,” said Lynn Barrett with the Southern Vermont Regional Marketing Organization in Dummerston. “We are so close to New York City, and those people who have a love affair with southern Vermont.”

Her experience points to the state as a safe travel haven.

“After 9/11 cancellations came from Europe but were picked up by people more locally who came from the metropolitan areas.”

Vermont’s strength, she said, lies with the negatives of other travel modes.

“We have a terrific drive market, more and more people are driving,” she said. “Airlines and travel agents are hurting, people are reluctant to get on a plane. “We haven’t seen an effect from the economy or war,” said Reggie Cooper at Topnotch Resort in Stowe.

“Vermont and our resort give people a sense of warmth and safety, and a wholesomeness, which was important after 9/11.”

Vermont’s brand “the safe haven for an anxious population,” can go only so far in bringing tourists to the state, said the experts. The state also needs to develop and market its other strengths. Without a major theme park or other high profile attraction, Vermont needs to emphasize its other attractions if it is going to continue to be a solid travel destination.

Agritourism is one of these lures. Kaufman said the state’s dairy farm community, hurting from low milk prices, is now catching on to how it can sell itself to the tourist trade.

“As many farmers look to make some money, they can build a new barn or upgrade buildings or add to their sugaring to attract tourists who pay. Or they get income from a gift shop.”

Carton agrees.

“Agritourism has a great appeal to families. Many children have never seen cows, or where cheese comes from,” he said.

Barrett has seen the agritourism appeal first hand. Last June her RMO helped sponsor the “Strolling of -the Heifers” in Brattleboro along Main Street. The event coincided with Dairy Month. That event attracted 10,000 people and more than 50 percent were tourists from surrounding states. So popular was it that the heifers are getting ready for another stroll this year.

Yet, Barrett is worried about Agritourism’s future, tied as it is to the state’s farm economy.

“Vermont is losing its farms,” she noted. “The picture of Vermont is of green rolling hills arid cows on the pasture which the farmers have done a great job of preserving. If we lose our small farms we will lose our tourism.”

History is another lure for tourists to the state.

“Tourists are interested,” said Kaufman. “Vermont is different from other places, we don’t have gambling, theme parks, country music-we have things people can connect with their roots, people love that, and we have beautiful scenery.”

He sees farm tours given by a number of farms around the state as providing an historic perspective on how food is produced and how products like maple syrup have been developed.

There is also a growing interest in the history of the Civil War, and the state has several monuments and re-enactments during the summer months, which bring Civil War buffs here.

Our Revolutionary War history is strong and the Champlain Valley, he said, “is a hot bed of that war’s history.”

Barrett said her RMO was preparing to help local towns in southern Vermont who are celebrating their 250-year anniversaries.

“Historic tourism is big,” she noted. “We get statistics from the travel industry that tells us people are looking at visiting historic sites.”

Coinciding with this is a resurgence of interest in people tracing their family genealogies. Vermont, an older state, has retained many family records from the 1700s. Also coinciding with the history and genealogy draw to Vermont is a resurgence of interest in family reunions.

“They are bigger than ever,” said Barrett. “It’s all about looking back and gathering and remembering those things that made us who we are. It’s the whole idea of comforting us.”

Andrea Derby at the Basin Harbor Club in Vergennes confirmed that she is seeing an increase in the number of family reunions being held at her establishment.

Burlington is an important tourist attraction with its proximity to Lake Champlain, mountain resorts at Stowe and Smugglers Notch, and its urban amenities. Kaufman said there is now another attraction that will bring the tourists in, the new ECHO at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain.

“That’s a world class science center and our newest attraction. It’s a big, big magnet.”

The ECHO center will be a wonderful attraction,” agreed Carton. He also sees the state’s many summer camps as a small but important tourism lure. “Parents drop off their children and stay a few days. Then the kids come back as adults.”

For Carton, Burlington is an excellent tourist town. “The lake is accessible, people rent bikes, go swimming, take a boat out, they can go to the mountains in a day and come back. There are golf courses. Burlington has a lot of positive things going on and cost wise there is very good value with a wide range of offerings and lodging.”

Vermont’s new Commissioner of Tourism and Marketing, Bruce Hyde, expects to bolster the advertising budget of his department. He has said the state’s brand is strong and he. wants to get the word out as far south as Virginia and as far west as Buffalo. Others in the tourism industry are buoyed by his early comments.

“I think Hyde’s focus is to get as much visibility as possible,” said Kaufman. “Are we doing enough? We’re not doing badly. Everybody can always do more, the trick is to spend wisely.”

Kaufman said the state should do as much public relations as possible, have a .quality website, well placed exciting media advertising, and get as much free public relations as possible.”

“We need to put more money into direct marketing, advertising and public relations focused on our target markets,” said Barbieri. “It’s a function of both the administration proposing and the Legislature disposing.”

Barbieri likes the early emphasis by the new governor on tourism marketing. “Governor Douglas has proposed an increase in the marketing budget. I think that’s the right decision on his part. For every dollar invested in direct marketing you get $2 to $7 in tax receipts.”

“I am optimistic about Bruce Hyde. He has been in the business and understands the challenges of operating a business in the state,” said Linda Seville at the Inn at Essex. She sees the statewide occupancy rate at 40 percent as something ‘we can’t continue like that’.”

She said below that number “businesses start to fail.”

“I’m somewhat anxious about tourism,” said Seville. “We’ve had severe cuts in the state tourism budget the past few years. We are the second largest industry in the state, it produces revenues. You can’t ignore it, you have to market the state.”

She is willing to take a wait and see approach to the new administration in Montpelier.

“Lets see it happen with the ‘governor putting more money into the budget. Governor Douglas does seem to be quite adamant about working with tourism. Our lunch is being eaten up by states around us. We’ve got to get with the program. We do have to maintain our identity and be in front of people and that takes money. I don’t see how we can cut any more of our state funded travel and tourism marketing budget.”

In summing up the tourism industry, these industry experts say they are mostly hopeful for the future. They also realize that they need to regain lost opportunities and a major thrust will be toward bringing back the budding international tourism that has been lost in the wake of September 11.

“The industry is cautiously optimistic, nationwide,” said Kaufman. “People aren’t traveling overseas as much, in general people won’t stay home and not have a vacation. Vacation is considered a necessity. The price of gas keeps going up and destinations will suffer. People may decide to go to Vermont instead of the Smokies. If there is war -with Iraq all bets are off, the impact won’t be good but Vermont may see the same effect of close-to-home. We may prove to see ourselves as being battle proof.”

“The economy will impact the tourism industry. With the market and interest rates down and people not earning income, Vermont remains close by and affordable,” he said.

Barbieri said the state can regain its international visitors, a. segment of the tourist population that has lagged since 2001.

“We can bring in more International visitors, we are part of a six-state group marketing New England as a regional market and that has been a positive effort.”

According to Barbieri, “We are unique with our history, rural nature and fall foliage that appeal to the international visitor. Also, we are close to Quebec and New York and that makes for a powerful marketing message.”

Derby said Basin Harbor is also trying to perk up its international. travel business by joining a consortium, “Only Inn New England,” which is focusing on overseas markets in Europe and Japan. She said this consortium is for “properties that have a cultural aspect, a heritage that makes them stand out, or are representative of the New England experience.”

She hopes the focus on travelers interested in experiential vacations will be interested in Basin Harbor, which is also the site of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.

The Inn at Essex is currently trying to woo Scandinavian tourists by attending sales missions. Seville recently visited Iceland for a trade show aimed at that market.

“The result is, like the Japanese market, you have to work it a bit,” she said.

Barrett summed up the thoughts of many in the industry about the. future.

“I’m optimistic-but if war comes are you going to be traveling?”

Copyright Boutin-McQuiston, Inc. Mar 01, 2003

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