PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Aroostook County promotes its outdoor assets well, but tourism experts say it needs a brighter spotlight on youth to entice more families to visit.
Around 70 people from The St. John Valley to southern Aroostook and other parts of Maine attended the Aroostook County Tourism Summit in Presque Isle to talk about how The County markets itself and ways to make the region more inviting.
Tourism brings $200 million annually to Aroostook’s economy, said Jon Gulliver, director of investor and community relations at Northern Maine Development Commission in Caribou. Though promoting outdoor sports like snowmobiling and hunting has been successful, statistics show these draw mostly young male visitors. The County needs to attract whole families, participants said.
Aroostook County Tourism, a standing committee of the development commission, organized Wednesday’s event, which included presentations and a panel discussion with industry leaders.
Focus on families can be folded into the next phase of promotions, said Jacob Pelkey, tourism developer for the committee. Those efforts will spotlight Aroostook’s night sky, the 2024 solar eclipse, the Pinetree Trail, Wabanaki Cultural Tourism Initiative with ties to Aroostook Band of Micmacs and Houlton Band of Maliseets, and the St. John Valley/Fish River and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Scenic Byways.
The federal government approved the byways last summer. Since then, ACT has mapped both to create digital and printed maps for visitors, and is working on road signs, Pelkey said. Mapping and signage are also underway for U.S. Bike Route 501, which connects Bangor to Allagash.
Interest is growing in “dark sky” adventures, he said, and the tourism group is developing programming that will tie in with Easton’s Francis Malcolm Science Center, the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s Solar System Model and the Frenchville Dark Sky Observatory.
“People are more interested in the skies than they have ever been. By the time the eclipse comes in 2024, we’ll be better prepared because of the dark sky work that’s being done,” Pelkey said.
The group beefed up its digital marketing when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. A February video streaming campaign netted 32,000 viewers that month, and 463,000 people have used Aroostook County Tourism’s content on Facebook during the period of July 1, 2021, to the present, an increase of 268 percent over the previous year, Pelkey said.
The organization markets primarily to the northeastern United States and some Canadian locations, especially New Brunswick, Pelkey said.
New campaigns have put the region on more visitors’ maps, including a January television spot airing on WLBZ in Bangor and Portland and an internet ad that urged viewers to head north for fun.
Aroostook County Tourism maintains VisitAroostook.com and the newer comenorth.org, a shorter name that links to the same site.
Several participants said more activities are needed for kids, because a good experience for the whole family will make them want to come back.
Contract workers are part of the equation, said Dana Delano of Maine Procurement Technical Assistance Center, part of NMDC.
Crews are in The County now working on one of the largest projects, Madawaska’s land port of entry and International Bridge, but that number will grow as more construction projects unfold. Some workers will bring their families here and will want to know where to eat and what there is to do, Delano said.
After working 60- or 70-hour weeks, they’ll want quality down time, so giving them a list of options will motivate them to do more and spend more, Delano said. He suggested creating a newsletter to give to workers that includes restaurants, shopping and recreational opportunities for both adults and kids.
Left to right, Tourism and business representatives from throughout The County and beyond gather at the Presque Isle Snowmobile Club for the Aroostook County Tourism Summit. Cathy Hogan (left), manager of the Houlton Visitors Information Center, Denise Duperre (center), administrative specialist and CEO for the town of Madawaska, and Michelle Shores, marketing director for the Maine Tourism Association, listen to presenters. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald
The Crown of Maine Balloon Fest has added children’s activities to its afternoon offerings for several years, said longtime festival volunteer Steve Dobson, and has seen favorable attendance growth because of that.
Similarly, more visitors have come to Galifreyan Farm in Linneus because they offer things for kids to do, owner Tessa Flannery said.
Flannery joined Mike Chasse of Presque Isle, representing BigRock Mountain in Mars Hill, and Mike Grass, president of the Maine Snowmobile Association, for the panel discussion on Aroostook County’s biggest draws and how to improve visitors’ experiences.
“There’s often a divide between human power and motor power,” Chasse said. “At BigRock Mountain, we focus on families as well. They love the snow, they love the people and they love the way of life we have here.”
The region’s rural character and hospitality are its top attractions, panelists agreed.
“There can be a lot of people on the trails and you can still feel like you’re by yourself,” Grass said. “The grooming is top notch, the hospitality is outstanding and the food is to die for.”
Businesses should coordinate with each other to create an experience for visitors, Flannery said. For example, they could join Maine Open Farm Day — where farms invite the public to view their operations — so people can pick blueberries at one farm and vegetables at another.
“There’s not much participation in Aroostook County, which is sad,” she said. “We are an agricultural area.”
Though screen content is important, people still want printed maps, guides and brochures to take with them, said Michelle Shores, marketing director for the Maine Tourism Association, whose tourist guide site is mainetourism.com.
The association offers several brochures and guidebooks, along with a Maine highway map and a statewide guide, Shores said.
Aroostook County Tourism develops a new guidebook each year and a snowmobile trail map, among other visitor aids.