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May 27, 2013

Motor coach tours seek out Maine's hidden gems

PHOTo / Tim Greenway
PHOTo / Tim Greenway
Tour operators wearing lobster claw antennae exit a motor coach in Portland on their way to a lighthouse cruise in Casco Bay. The operators, on a tour organized by the Maine Motorcoach Network, were checking out some Maine attractions they might want to include in bus tours for their clients.

Earlier this month, 13 tour operators stepped off a bus at the Bates Mill in Lewiston and wandered into the historical textile mill that, until the 1960s, was the state's largest employer.

Touring the mill's Museum L-A, the group wound through two floors of cavernous industrial spaces, their well-worn floors stained with years of fragrant oil and grease.

"When I walked in here with my dad, he smelled that and said 'Oh, c'est moulin! ... it's the mill'," says Rachel Desgrosseilliers, daughter of a former mill worker and executive director of the museum.

The tour was the first leg of a familiarization tour offered by the Maine Motorcoach Network, a three-year-old grassroots effort to attract more motor coach tours to the state. The network, a volunteer collaborative of Maine-based charter bus companies and local and state tourism organizations, offers annual familiarization tours — called FAM trips — to showcase the state's less visible cultural gems. The intent is to draw more motor coach tours to Maine and spread some of the $10 billion in tourist-generated revenues to places beyond the coast, sports camps and shopping outlets.

While the sprawling former mill building might not be on the top of many people's list of must-see Maine attractions, it holds a special significance for Norwood, Mass.-based tour operator Dolores Sheehan.

"I waited 50 years to get a Bates bedspread," says Sheehan of the luxurious purchase that was a gift from her children. She is the founder of the Wacky Women Wanderers, which offers motor coach tours to offbeat locations for women.

For Sheehan, the trip was a chance to scout potential tour destinations and work on her pitch to customers.

"If I say [to customers] 'We are going to Lewiston, Maine,' they might say, 'What in the heck do I want to go there for?' But if I tell them I waited 50 years for this bedspread and you have someone like [Desgrosseilliers] who is so enthusiastic, it really helps you to bring it alive for your people," she says.

Maine on tour

While familiarization trips are not unusual in the motor coach industry, they are often limited to specific geographic regions and organized by convention and visitors bureaus, according to American Bus Association President and CEO Peter Pantuso.

"There are places where the travel industry comes together at different times to promote a region, but this is more unique than what we've typically seen," he says of the Maine network. "It's got everybody included in the process and is filling a void."

The range of destinations and attractions is another thing that makes the MMN trips unique, says Pantuso. While many motor coach tours to the state focus on Maine's coastal sights and retail hot spots like Freeport and Bangor, MMN makes an effort to bring tour operators to some of the less-than-expected locales, including summertime Bethel, Rangeley and Lewiston-Auburn.

"I was blown away by the diversity in terms of representing different products throughout the state," says Pantuso, who met with MMN members in January during the annual American Bus Association conference in Charlotte, N.C.

MMN has a good model that could easily be exported to other states, he says, and he has approached MMN members about presenting in a panel discussion at a future ABA event.

"Tourism brings a lot of dollars into an economy, and that trickle-through impact affects everyone," he says. "So to the extent that a group like this is successful, it can stand to impact the economy of the whole state."

Getting rolling

The network started four years ago when a group of Maine-based motor coach operators and tourism professionals convened prior to that year's American Bus Association conference.

"We got together and said, 'How do we bring more motor coach business to Maine?' People are coming but they are not staying as long as they should and they are not seeing everything there is to see," says Scott Riccio, president and owner of Lewiston's Northeast Charter and Tour Co., and incoming president of the MMN. "We're constantly looking at what else we can sell them while they are here, and what's new in the state that might be a good opportunity for them."

After the initial conversation, the group decided to meet once a month to drum up ideas on how to better promote the state's motor coach industry. Now four years and three FAMs later, the group has grown to include nearly 100 members, and has drawn more than 50 tour operators to the state.

The FAMs have been particularly effective, says Riccio. Participants are shuttled around Maine over four days, soaking up the different attractions from museums and wineries to lighthouses and even prisons (or rather, the Maine State Prison Gift Shop). The trips cost between $135 and $175 for the visiting tour operators.

They stay in a different hotel each night, giving them the chance to check out amenities and figure out what sort of lodging might work for their specific tour groups. They also receive a profile book with information on the state's motor coach operators, hotels, attractions and visitor centers.

"After year one, I saw an immediate return on investment where one of the tour operators from the FAM booked my buses to do four New England-based tours and one Maine-based tour," says Riccio.

Sheehan with the Wacky Women Wanderers says the diversity of destinations in MMN's trips is well suited to her own off-beat style of touring.

"People have been to O.O.B., they've been to lighthouses, but I like to go places like tea houses, museums and mansions," says Sheehan.

Likewise Cindi Brodhecker, president of Lancaster, Pa.-based Priscilla Woman's Tours, caters to a niche crowd. Offering primarily faith-based tours, Brodhecker says the scenic value and serenity of Maine has put the state on her radar. Her company is now planning tours for Amish people.

"We saw two great museums at BIW and the [Seashore] Trolley Museum, and the visit to Peaks [Island was] also a highlight," she says.

A lift for Sunday River

Troy Munford has no trouble attracting visitors to Sunday River during the winter. Eight interconnected peaks and 16 lifts bring skiers from all over northern New England, but the warmer months are a different story.

"Sunday River is known as a ski resort, but we're trying to get the word out that this is a year-round resort," says Munford, tour and travel sales manager at Sunday River Resort and the chair of MMN's sales mission committee.

Having been featured on MMN's first FAM trip, Munford says he has seen a 400% increase in summer business over the last couple years, and booked seven new tours he credits to the FAM.

"If I had gotten one I would have been happy," he says. "It's a great opportunity to showcase what you have to offer in a short period of time for short money. The first time I hosted, I had 18 operators in my area for a total of 18 hours."

Since then, those connections have led to more tours.

"It's increased as they get to know me and how we operate and what the western Maine mountain area has to offer," he says.

Outbound sales missions organized under MMN have also helped increase awareness of the state's motor coach merits. A mission to the Canadian Maritimes in December connected eight MMN members with Canadian tour operators, some of whom were visiting Maine already.

"But they didn't realize they could stay in Bangor and take day trips to the coast," says Riccio. "We explained to them how they could create their itineraries a little differently."

The outbound sales missions have also been a boon to Munford, who received the Governor's Award for Tourism Excellence this year. The Maritimes mission piqued the interest of a few tour operators, who followed up by participating in the most recent FAM trip.

"We saw them in December, now here they are in May checking it out," he says.

Although Sunday River wasn't on the FAM itinerary this year, Munford met with tour operators in Portland.

"I wasn't included on this FAM, but that doesn't mean I was excluded from participating. I met with 13 people — that's 13 sales calls in two hours — and I'm 99% sure I generated some business from that," he says.

Matt Dodge, a writer based in Portland, can be reached at editorial@mainebiz.biz.

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