The Coming Attraction

For a state so dependent on tourism in this economic climate, we’re doing pretty well

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Group photoOur experts, from left, Bruce Hyde, Dave Kaufman, Rick Milliken, Pennie Beach, and Brian Cain.

Forty percent of Vermont’s economy comes from visitors to our state, and over $200 million in tax revenue comes from the money they spend. Sixty thousand Vermonters work in the industry, and almost 40,000 of them are paid by visitor spending. There’s no getting around it; tourism is important here.

In light of today’s economy, we thought it might be a good time to take a close look at how things are going out there.

We put together a list of questions and separately interviewed five individuals whose livelihoods depend on a thriving Vermont tourism economy, whose hearts beat strong with affinity for the state, and whose roots go deep into the Green Mountains. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

Pennie BeachPennie Beach

Pennie Beach is the fourth-generation host, with her brother, Bob Beach Jr., of the Basin Harbor Club in Vergennes. Most of Basin Harbor’s traffic comes from the greater New York area, with 5 to 10 percent from instate, those mostly for meetings. Guests — often family groups — return year after year. All meals are included.

Brian CainBrian Cain

Brian Cain is one of the owners (and the manager) of Capitol Plaza Hotel & Conference Center in Montpelier. He chairs the Vermont Travel & Recreation Council, a governor-appointed advisory board for the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing. Before joining Capitol Plaza, he worked for several years at Bolton Valley and at Sugarbush.

Bruce HydeBruce Hyde

Bruce Hyde has been Vermont’s commissioner of tourism and marketing for six and a half years. He has owned The Hyde Away Inn in the Mad River Valley for 23 years, and in the 1990s, was in the Legislature for six years.

Dave KaufmanDave Kaufman

Dave Kaufman is the founder and longtime head of Vermont Tourism Network, a company that has sold Vermont to group tour operators for 25 years. He is a full-time faculty member at the University of Vermont Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, where he teaches resort marketing and management, ski area management, entrepreneurship in recreation and tourism, and tourism planning. His first job in tourism was working for his father, one of the original owners of Mount Snow. He also worked for the Vermont Department of Tourism and served in the Legislature.

Rick MillikenRick Milliken

Rick Milliken is general manager of the DoubleTree Hotel in South Burlington and the chairman of the board of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. He started his work in tourism promotion in Massachusetts, working in the hotel business with the Dunfey family, who owned the Sheraton Hotel in South Burlington. He transferred there in 1975 and eventually became general manager. In 2001, he moved to his current property.

Where do our visitors come from and who’s our competition?

All five said that the price of gas and the recession have benefited Vermont in that we have 80 million people or so within a day’s drive, and the brand of Vermont — that we’re beautiful, peaceful, natural, and have a working landscape — is what brings people here. They also agreed that our direct competitors are New Hampshire, Maine, and the Adirondacks, places that embody some of Vermont’s qualities.

Said Hyde, “For most purposes, we have our own definition in Vermont for what makes a visitor. If I go to Stowe overnight, then I’m a visitor to Stowe. About 40 percent of our visitors from outside Vermont come from New England, primarily Boston and vicinity, and another 40 percent from New York and the metro area. The remainder are distant domestic and Canadian, which is about 10 percent or so, and international.

“Our revenues for rooms and meals through July 1 for the past year were down less than 4 percent from the year before, and the year before was a record increase — up 7 percent. For a state that is so dependent on tourism in this economic climate, we’re doing pretty well. Look at Vegas, Florida, Hawaii — they’re down 30 to 40 percent, a lot of them.”

“I think that part of selling the Vermont brand is that we are not ‘anywhere USA,’” said Cain. “We’re not Disney, not the box stores; we are truly genuine towns.”

Milliken expanded a bit on the question of competition. “They say travel is one of the top reasons people use the Internet. Because of that, I think our competition now is any place that has the same kind of amenities you might find in Vermont.”

Beach expanded further. “The world. Seriously, it’s so easy for people to go anywhere today, but I would venture to say that most of the people who vacation in Vermont are drive-market people because we’re so close to millions and millions of people. That helped us after 9/11, and it’s certainly helping us now.

Kaufman echoed Beach. “Who’s our competition? It’s almost everybody. New York state — they’ve got great outdoors; big cities have reinvented themselves and are big competition; casinos are competition we could have done without; foreign travel is continuing competition; but with continuing issues with airlines, extra fees, smaller planes, people are opting to vacation closer to home.”

Culinary travel has risen in importance. How does it fit in the scheme of things?

Hyde noted that Vermont has the closest producer-to-consumer relationship of any state.

Cain called the culinary field “a perfect match, because it matches our reputation of quality and freshness.” He added that, in lean times, it’s a place where “no-budget” can still sell Vermont — where the Vermont brand starts so far above a lot of our competitors. “Everybody in the world is selling green right now, and we’ve been living that for quite a while. It’s not manufactured; it’s real.”

Echo with crowds of tourists out frontECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain is illustrative of changes in recent years to draw people to the Burlington waterfront.

“Baby boomers love culinary,” said Kaufman, “and because they make up the bulk of the travel market today, culinary is huge, partly because of NECI [New England Culinary Institute] and because so much terrific food is produced here.”

Is out-of-state corporate ownership of attractions a boon or a challenge?

There was generally consensus that corporate ownership brings big budgets and often more sophisticated marketing, which can be advantageous.

“Even when a large national comes in and buys us,” Cain said, “they don’t have complete free rein to do whatever they want in Vermont, because it is Vermont and we do have a good set of protections.”

Said Beach, “Big advertising budgets draw people here, and that helps Vermont, because the state has never done enough.”

Is it easier to find people to hire than it was in low-unemployment times?

Generally, all five agreed with Beach, who said, “That’s always the sweet spot of a terrible economy.”

Hyde noted that a lot of the resorts, such as Basin Harbor, that were dependent on the H-2B program that brings in foreign temporary workers for peak times are now much less dependent on those foreign workers. “But as soon as the economy turns around, things will change,” he added.

“We employ about 75 people, and my rate of longevity is amazing,” said Cain. The year-round quality places that pay well and treat well are able to find the people, but you have to advance them. Part of what the Travel & Recreation Council works on is hospitality training.”

“The work force in Vermont is one of the strengths of Vermont hospitality,” said Milliken. “I would say that throughout the state, you have a warm, caring, hard-working population, and that the younger people are extraordinary. When you’re checking in or waiting on table or seeing a bartender, you are face-to-face with somebody 30 and younger.”

Do you employ social media like Twitter and FaceBook? How’s that working?

At the state level, said Hyde, “it’s working great. Our marketing coordinator is a young person and very involved in that, with Twitter and FaceBook. We’re really getting good results. It’s still in its infancy, but social networking doesn’t cost anything, and you get out to a huge audience. That ‘802 Music Video’ that appeared on YouTube last summer got us some really good publicity.” (Find it at http://tinyurl.com/yuujo.)

As far as private properties, the other four have just begun to dip their toes into social media or use it “lightly, as Milliken said, adding, “I don’t think it is the medium that’s going to drive new levels of business to hospitality.”

What else would our readers like to know?

“An interesting statistic, said Hyde, “is that we have fewer than 100 properties in the state with 50 or more rooms, and they make up more than 60 percent of the bed base. Then you’ve got 1,000 independent operators that make up the rest, and that doesn’t even include all the campgrounds. There are a lot of small entrepreneurs out there.

“Probably the most important thing we’ve done over the few years I’ve been on the job is to raise the credibility of the hospitality industry,” he continued. “We should appreciate the visitors a lot more than most do. This is a sector that’s not just a bunch of part-time ski bums.”

Milliken summed things up when he said, “I think the readers need to know that during the down economy and down market for hospitality or the hotel business worldwide that Vermont is surviving this better than most markets and that people are coming to Vermont. I’m experiencing it here, in which my hotel during 2009 is selling more hotel rooms than it did in 2008.

“Al Moulton [commissioner of economic development in the 1960s] was right when he said, ‘We are the beckoning country.’ That resonates with today’s travel. With some new wrinkles of amenities, Vermont is still a place of great destination.” •