Rural tourism can create quality careers in northern Maine

as seen in the Bangor Daily News on July 30, 2015

By: Keith Bisson, David Vail and Mike Wilson
Patricia Callahan’s July 7 essay, “Tourism jobs can’t replace high-wage manufacturing jobs,” on her BDN blog highlights an inescapable rural Maine reality. No one sector can offset the thousands of forest-industry jobs that have eroded away in recent decades, even as productivity has increased. That’s especially true for papermaking, whose highly paid jobs once meant prosperity for much of rural Maine.

Analysts point to several prospects for rural economic diversification and revitalization, including tourism and traditional forest products, but also composite materials, biomass and wind energy, health services, agriculture and food processing. Forest products, composites and renewable energy generate skilled, well-compensated jobs, but not a lot of them. Development centered only on such capital-intensive sectors cannot sustain the “critical mass” of population needed to support rural schools, hospitals, community programs and retail businesses.

Tourism, health care and agriculture have potential to create the jobs needed to sustain rural communities. But Callahan is right that many tourism jobs do not pay a livable wage or offer attractive career prospects.

What Callahan misses is tourism’s thousands of rewarding and well-compensated careers, from guides to artisans to chefs and entrepreneurs. A quality-centered, rural tourism strategy could generate many more excellent careers. The Maine Office of Tourism’s “market segmentation” research confirms that Maine’s greatest tourism growth opportunity lies with affluent travelers who demand authentic, high-quality experience.

How can rural Maine compete successfully for these high spenders? Three Maine Woods Consortium initiatives, developed in cooperation with the Office of Tourism and built on the premise that quality tourism services are the precondition for quality jobs, point the way.

The Maine Woods Consortium is a network of nonprofits, businesses and government agencies dedicated to a “triple bottom line” approach — economy, environment, community — to development and conservation in the Maine woods.

Maine Woods Tourism Training Initiative: Quality tourist experiences require highly skilled and motivated “frontline” employees and business operators who follow best industry practices. Since 2010, seven county training networks supported by the consortium have run 135 training sessions for 1,400 frontline employees and owner-operators at 400 businesses. Employee training covers topics, such as customer service and destination information, while managerial training focuses on product innovation marketing and financial planning.

Maine Woods Discovery: Ten premier outdoor recreation providers are partners in this standards-based cooperative marketing initiative. Endorsed partners meet best practice standards across six areas: guest experiences rooted in Maine Woods traditions, outstanding customer service, accredited professional staff, support for local communities, environmental responsibility and exemplary safety practices.

The initiative’s branding success is reflected in phenomenal “earned media” coverage, including a 2014 “CBS Sunday Morning” feature and a 2015 Yankee magazine cover story. Several additional businesses have applied, as Maine Woods Discovery’s brand and cooperative spirit encourage them to upgrade practices and come on board.

Maine Woods Discovery’s reputation for delivering outstanding experiences rests on partners’ dedicated and highly skilled employees. Pricing reflects this quality and enables them to offer solid compensation plus career development opportunities. For example, data provided by three partners indicate that their average compensation for year-round employees is more than twice Maine’s $21,000 average for full-time leisure and hospitality workers. Average wages of seasonal employees, reported by one member, are 13 percent above the statewide average, and most also receive subsidized room and board plus free enrollment in skill certification programs.

Rural Destination Areas: The affluent and sophisticated travelers whose spending can support quality jobs choose destinations offering the “whole package”: outdoor recreation plus high-quality culture, entertainment, shopping, dining and lodging. Rural Maine stakeholders, with Maine Woods Consortium participation, have launched destination development projects like the Moosehead Lake Branding Initiative and the Mahoosuc Initiative. Stakeholders recognize that amenity investments designed to attract tourists also enhance residents’ quality of life and appeal to critically needed in-migrants, such as entrepreneurs and well-educated young people.

Destination priorities vary by region, but most include downtown beautification, trails and signage, cultural events and training. State programs, available across several agencies, could support these grassroots initiatives more effectively. So the consortium is working with the Office of Tourism and the Department of Economic and Community Development to create a public-private partnership to coordinate and deliver inter-agency support to aspiring rural destination areas.

Callahan’s essay concludes with a plea: “The needed leadership and collective vision has to come from somewhere.” Our response is that, for rural tourism, it’s already happening on several levels. Leadership and vision are coming from the Maine Woods Consortium-Maine Office of Tourism partnership and many stakeholders who care passionately about the region’s future.

As seen in the Bangor Daily News