by: Jessica O'Hare

Map of MicrogranteesThe Maine Woods Tourism Training Initiative is a project of the Northern Forest Center and the Maine Woods Consortium, in partnership with seven economic development organizations. Its focus is strengthening tourism businesses across 12 million acres of forestland and forest communities in seven counties of the Maine Woods.  

The recent conclusion of a USDA Rural Development grant that supported the project prompted us to reflect on the Initiative’s impact and what we’ve learned over the past three years:

  • 49 trainings
  • 717 Employees Trained
  • 295 Tourism Businesses
  • 454 Total Businesses

The project took it one step further than training alone. To help businesses act on the ideas the trainings offered, we provided small grants to help them take on strategic projects with the help of an outside consultant. See a map of all grantees. Together, we delivered:

  • 38 small grants to businesses, totaling $44,280
  • $66,480 in private investment leveraged
  • Assistance to 51 business owners
  • Strengthening jobs for 113 full time employees and 133 part-time or seasonal employees

Tourism businesses often chose to spruce up their internet presence. Black Mountain Ski Area of Maine in Rumford found great value in updating their website and training on social media marketing. 

Other attractions, like McLaughlin Gardens and Homestead in South Paris wanted to make it easier to reserve their barn for weddings and events. Mt. Chase Lodge in the Katahdin Region hired a photographer to properly capture their accommodations, farm to table dining experience, and creative events. 

We are taking stock of the project impact over seven counties in Maine. Here are a few of those lessons we took away from the project:

  1. Develop a destination for locals first, with visitors in mind: Visitors seek authenticity. When a community has imagined what they want for their own enjoyment, and take the expectations of the modern traveler into account, visitors are likely going to be happy with what they experience. Happy visitors means more spending, and the same amenities that they enjoy improve the quality of place for residents as well.
  2. It takes a village: There’s a rule that the farther a visitor travels, the more a destination must offer them when they arrive. Small tourism businesses can do a lot on their own, but must rely on other businesses and communities to provide the full suite of amenities—activities, food, and lodging—that visitors expect. Our next training efforts will intentionally support a community through a series of focused trainings and grow collaboratives of businesses working together to improve the quality of attractions and promote their region.
  3. Investing in destination development organizations is key! Consistent staff capacity at critical nonprofits is essential for shepherding a destination development strategy; they have knowledge of available resources and are critical advisors and connectors.
  4. Encourage one-touch-a-day digital marketing: In today’s tourism marketplace, digital marketing is key. It takes time, but if business owners break it down to doing one thing a day on social media, website, Trip Advisor, Google Ads, etc. they will see an increase in web traffic and bookings. It’s a start.
  5. Tailor catalytic investments/grants to business need. $1000 grants with a 50/50 match were great for upgrading a website, but not for larger projects. To encourage true innovation, we could offer larger grants with flexible match, allowing businesses to take calculated risk.   
The Pinnacle Pursuit Challenge at Moosehead Lake or the Second Nature Adventure Challenge in Bethel, Rumford and Oxford Hills are good examples of these lessons. In each case, a community-wide destination development group decided that the area needed to better promote hiking activities to extend the summer tourism season. They use social media marketing, have integrated the community and businesses into the campaign–a local eatery has Pinnacle Pursuit Challenge mugs for sale, and focus on getting local people out onto the trails, as well as visitors. 

You can learn more about our approach to tourism here.

Thank you to our partners of the Maine Woods Consortium and Maine Woods Tourism Training Initiative. You’ve done all the work to make this possible:

Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments
Community Concepts
Greater Franklin Development Council
Katahdin Tourism Partnership (and Upper Valley Economic Council)
Northern Maine Development Commission
Piscataquis County Economic Development Council
Somerset Economic Development Corporation
Sunrise County Economic Council

Thank you to USDA Rural Development, Elmina B. Sewall Foundation and the Betterment Fund for their generous support of this initiative.