Thursday, June 20, 2013
The couple from Calgary, Alberta, crossed the border in Montana on their way to a birding adventure in Brownsville, Texas. The U.S. border guard told them they were foolish to go to Brownsville, calling it the "arm pit" of the United States.
Luckily, they didn't turn back, arriving to find Brownsville a great city with a thriving economy and exceptional bird-watching opportunities.
On our own Texas birding adventure during April's school vacation week, we encountered the Calgary couple at a state park in the Rio Grande Valley, and told them our own less-than-welcoming experience. At a federal wildlife reserve, our very first stop to see birds, the ranger at the counter told us, "You're too late. The birds left last week."
She elaborated, noting that there were no ducks, their pond had dried up, and smaller birds were staying hidden because a lot of hawks flew around.
We're glad we paid no attention to her, because we saw a lot of birds in the park that day, including a species of duck we'd never seen before.
All of us can learn a lesson from these two incidents. When greeting tourists, we should focus on the positive.
It would have been so easy for that ranger to tell us what birds were still in the refuge. Having just arrived, we didn't want to hear, "You should have been here yesterday."
Just before leaving for Texas, I participated in a Maine Woods Consortium conference focused on "Profiting from Quality."
This group is hoping to expand the number of visitors to the Maine woods by creating, certifying and marketing quality experiences. The consortium includes a diverse group of participants from sporting camp owners to downtown associations to nonprofits to government agencies, and covers Franklin, Oxford, Somerset, Piscataquis, Penobscot, Aroostook and Washington counties.
I learned a lot at the conference and thought about what quality means to a tourist throughout my visit to Texas. We enjoyed excellent lodging and meals, and were impressed with the infrastructure built around birding, from brochures and websites to 10 "world birding centers."
At the Maine Woods Consortium's conference, I was surprised to find that only 3 percent of visitors to Maine came to the woods to hunt and 5 percent to fish. Clearly, our traditional outdoor activities and economy are in trouble.
Other problems also are apparent. At focus groups in New York, researchers found that potential Maine woods visitors are concerned about bears eating their children.
I immediately conjured up a TV ad, listing the number of people killed by alligators in Florida, coyotes in Texas, mountain lions in California and bears in Alaska, summed up with this fact: the number of people killed by wild bears in Maine last year: ZERO!
Hey, negative ads work for the politicians, so why not for Maine's tourism industry? Slam the competition!
David Vail, a retired Bowdoin economics professor who continues to research and write about tourism issues, reported at the conference that less than 40 percent of visitors to the Maine woods would recommend the destination to others. This certainly suggests that the quality is not there, and it definitely indicates that a strong campaign is needed to direct visitors to the best places.
I would focus more marketing on summer residents, as distinguished from summer visitors.
Summer residents spend a lot of money in Maine and do a lot of traveling here. And they obviously already like us and our state.
We also should remember that many visitors to the Maine woods are Maine residents, and work to increase their visits to the woods. They're smart enough not to worry about bears.
Social media is also vital today. Today, the recommendations from your Facebook friends are more important than TV advertising.
Many tourists plan their trips using their computer. No photos on your website? Then you probably have no customers.
Before we got to Texas, we'd seen our hotel rooms, the menus of the restaurants we planned to visit, other travelers' reviews of those hotels and restaurants, the trails we'd walk, and the birds we'd see.
After a year-and-a-half of traveling our state with Linda and writing about it in our Travelin Maine(rs) column in this newspaper, I can tell you we have a lot of great inns, restaurants and experiences, from the coast to the North Woods.
One of the consortium's organizers, the Appalachian Mountain Club, provided us with a high quality backwoods experience in February at its Gorman-Chairback Camps east of Greenville.
Wonderful experiences are out there in the Maine woods. And you won't get eaten by a bear!
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmith firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.