Can Maine position itself as a 2017 tourism destination?     

Here we are in the depths of winter. Maine residents are starting to get batty as they approach mud season. The weather in March is always maddening with semi warm days and bitter nights. Mainers yearn to hike and explore the outdoors, but ice and wind keep them inside. The Maine Governor’s Conference on Tourism is held each year in March to discuss tourism. The Maine Lodging and Restaurant Expo is also held in March. It is during the month of March that those in the tourism business wonder if anyone will ever return to Maine. The trees are bare and the harbors are empty. Thankfully, every year in the spring, the boats return, the crocuses come up and the visitors return. But, is 2017 different from other years? The Governor’s Conference will focus on important issues of workforce development and visitor experience. There are several issues that need to be considered for 2017. Here are some things I am watching and trying to plan for in the 2017 Maine tourism season.

  1. Has the political climate deterred guests from other countries?
  2. Will millennials choose Maine?
  3. Will collecting taxes on Airbnb lodgings drive away value driven guests?
  4. Can Maine latch onto Canadian tourism efforts?
  5. Are there any last chance tourism or Bleisure options in Maine?
  6. Will there be housing for the seasonal employees?

Political Climate

It will be important for warm welcomes to come from all over the USA in 2017. With talks of border restrictions and constructing walls, some might be tempted to say the USA is not open for guests. Our neighbors to the North, Canada, in January called for a ban on USA Travel. The ban is in protest to the enforcement of immigration regulations.  Apps such as ForwardKeys and Hopper are reporting that online searches of USA Travel destinations has dropped since January. There are dozens of articles forecasting the decline of tourism in the US in 2017. I acknowledge that there may be a problem, that is why the tourist industry must hit it head on. Messaging needs to get out that the USA and specifically Maine is welcoming. Travel benefits everyone. Travel decreases ignorance and fear.  I am optimistic and believe that if the USA can keep travel safe, international guests will come. If we, as a State, could make a commercial like Airbnb’s #WeAccept campaign, that would be a great start. An afternoon discussion will be had at the Governor’s Conference about the International Traveler.

Millennials and Maine

Maine has the potential to fare well with millennials in 2017. There are some obvious glitches that Maine will have to tackle in attracting the younger traveler but for the most part, Maine is ideal. Millennials like experiences and Maine has many outdoor opportunities. Sailing, hiking, kayaking, snowmobiling, skiing, the list can go on and on. Unfortunately, even though we have all the experiences, we do not have an easy infrastructure for the young to move around with. There is no public bus service up Rt 1., Uber service is very limited and train service stops in Rockland Maine. Millennials are tight on budgets and the easier we can make it for them to catch a uber or get on a bus or trolley, the better.  The night scene is also a concern. Since Maine is an older population, there are few night-time activities. As an Innkeeper, I tell the younger travelers that here in Maine we rise and set with the sun. Making the natural rising and setting part of the Maine experience is important. I always tell my (3) teenage millennials, nothing good happens after 10:00PM, but there is lots of fun at 6:00AM. Other millennial concerns: wicked fast internet (yes, it costs more) smart TVs, and interaction on social media. These factors can be overwhelming for the older residents of Maine, but they are important requirements of the younger guests.

Lodging Tax

Finally, someone in Maine spoke to Airbnb and convinced them to collect the 9%, soon to be 10% sales tax from their online properties. Although I am pleased that now everyone needs to pay the same lodging tax, I am curious if the lower end economy lodging market will be disrupted with the additional 9% they will need to pay. Without the tax, prices for Airbnb listings in Maine have naturally increased. It is my surmise that Maine Airbnb properties are starting to recognize that the lodging business has lots of expenses. This is good and bad. It is good because the bed and breakfasts that can legally serve breakfast seem like a true value, those Airbnb’s whose price will increase by 9% and there is no breakfast, does not seem like a good choice anymore. Many properties on Airbnb, in addition to the new tax, also have cleaning and service fees added. Many say the new collection of the Airbnb lodging tax helps level the playing field with regulated lodgings, I say there still needs a lot more work in that area. Death and taxes are inevitable, it is the other 20 hoops that legitimate lodgings have to leap through that make doing business difficult. Once insurance rates and regulation catch up to the tax laws in Airbnb, I will be happy to say the playing field is level.

Can Maine latch onto the Canadian tourism effort?

I just decided to throw this out there for fun. Working with Canada will be discussed at the Governor’s Conference -Session IV – Working with the Canadian Market. You have to give the Canadians a lot of credit for their ability to see opportunity in our chaos. First, Canada has a campaign to invite Americans to move to Cape Breton if Trump won, then they lifted visa rules for Mexicans, and now Toronto has a campaign about Canada having different views, an “everyone is welcome” campaign. Since Canada is our direct neighbor to the North, is there any way we can convince travelers to stop in Maine before they head to the great white North?

 

Travel trends 2017 – Last Chance Tourism and Bleisure

There is a trend in travel for 2017 that encourages travelers to find places or things that could go extinct in the next 10–20 years. Does Maine have any last chance areas that the tourism industry can responsibly exploit? There are several rare Maine plants at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. The Lady’s Slipper garden is a great attraction for those looking to get a glimpse of some beautiful rare plants. There are also many endangered birds in Maine, the piping plover and the least tern are 2 birds currently listed as endangered under the Maine Endangered Species Act. Encouraging tourists to seek out endangered birds and plants can raise problems, but if we direct the last chance tourists to our many Maine guides, I am sure the guides will proceed with caution and educate those involved.

The Bleisure trend, on the other hand, is for those that want to combine business with leisure. The message has to get out to all Maine conference organizers to promote adding additional days at the beginning or end of the conference to see Maine. Towns should be attentive to the bookends of all conferences and try to have extra activities to keep people in town.Travel Trends will be discussed at the Governor’s Conference – Session V – Travel Trends.

Will there be housing for employees?

This is my biggest concern. I wrote about this in a previous blog post, Bringing Airbnb to the Table for Discussions. The increase of residents renting on online platforms has created a shortage of housing for employees. I truly hope the Governor’s Conference address this in their discussions of workforce development. 2016 was a hard year for housing and I am sure 2017 will be worse. Communities need to address this. Regulation and a true economic plan need to be formulated and carried out. Workforce development and visitor experience go hand in hand. If there are no workers, there are only bad experiences.

I have to be careful how long I make this blog post. The cold weather of March plays games with an Innkeepers imagination.  Although I feel I am right to be concerned with these market conditions, I also realize that Maine is a great State and has a lot to offer. I am sure our beautiful coastline and peaceful landscape will attract millions of visitors in 2017. Maine is the perfect State to escape life’s madness.

 

Kristen Bifulco

About Kristen Bifulco

Kristen Bifulco owns the Camden Windward House Bed in downtown Camden Maine. Her Innkeeping style includes traditional and Airbnb methods. Kristen moved to Maine in 2005 originally to buy a farm, but by luck ended up owning a Bed and Breakfast.