BANGOR — The theme of the two-day tourism conference that kicked off here Wednesday evening could be: Don’t go messing with a good thing.
At least that’s the approach the state is taking to a summer advertising campaign that it plans to sneak-preview at 8:30 this morning at the Bangor Civic Center.
Last summer, the Office of Tourism spent $600,000 on the print campaign and later determined that the ads resulted in $80 million in additional spending by summer travelers.
The tourism office plans to spend another $600,000 this summer and hopes for similar results. The style of the ads — featuring photos of bikers, hikers and kayakers — is not changing much nor are the target audiences, the upscale urbanites who read The New York Times or Sports Illustrated.
However, state tourism officials hope that by changing some of the images in the ads and including some different publications, they will catch the attention of even more Americans intrigued by the idea of an outdoor Maine experience or a cultural-historical sightseeing tour.
While the cost of the 1998 campaign is about the same, the total budget for the tourism office has expanded more than twofold in the last two years, from $1.8 million in 1996 to $4.2 million in 1998. This increase is giving the office more flexibility to focus on promoting other seasons as well.
This rapid growth in budgets and advertising efforts, industry watchers say, is a sign that state government is getting on the tourism promotion bandwagon after years of ambivalence and deference to private sector efforts.
The growth also follows what has been a decade of huge expansions in state tourism offices nationwide.
“It’s a significant industry in every state across the country,” said Michael Pina, a spokesman for the Travel Industry Association of America. “Some states take it more seriously than others.”
Over the years, Maine has depended on the private sector and nonprofit associations to remind people of what it has to offer to travelers. That job was made easier by the state’s natural beauty and its reputation as a playground to the wealthy and outdoor enthusiasts.
While that selling point has not changed much over the years, officials justify the state’s tourism initiative by pointing to the changes in the tourism industry — with more sophisticated travelers and heavier competition for their dollars, some entity needs to craft the general image for the state and support that image with national and international advertising.
The Office of Tourism’s effort also fits into the economic development strategy of Gov. Angus King, with his heavy emphasis on promoting the state’s quality of life.
“Marketing is a legitimate enterprise,” said Dann Lewis, director of the Office of Tourism. “You can quantify the return to the treasury.”
Lewis said it is his office’s overall goal to “make the pie bigger” by convincing more tourists to consider Maine. It is then up to the private sector to make they have good places to stay, eat and be entertained.
Beyond creating demand, Lewis said the tourism office also works directly with the private sector on promotions. That type of cooperation is critical because Maine’s industry is made up of so many small players as opposed to dominant theme parks or cities with their own major tourism budgets.
The only criticism that the state has seemed to confront is from other states in New England. That was the case when the Office of Tourism decided to invest in a leaf-peeping promotion last year, potentially stealing a part of the market that traditionally travels to Vermont and New Hampshire in the fall to witness the changing colors in the forests.
“If they are targeting Vermont’s market, it’s less than productive,” said Thomas Altemus, commissioner of tourism in Vermont. “It’s counterproductive if the ad dollars are not being spent to build the base for supporting tourism across the Northeast.”
Vermont is far and away the northern New England leader in state-supported tourism efforts. But by doubling its budget, Maine is catching up with Vermont, which is spending $5.5 million this year.
“Maine is definitely in the ballpark now,” Altemus said.
Leaf peeping aside, the state is not stressing competition with its New England neighbors but national and international campaigns to build “brand identity.”
“It’s about image building — we have to get Maine on the map of destinations,” said David Swardlick, whose firm designed the 1997 and 1998 summer ad campaigns. “They don’t have a sense of the richness of Maine,” he said of people living outside of the Northeast.