Down East 2013 ©
Photograph by Jeff Scher
Grace Adams says her expectations weren’t high for the first Christmas Prelude celebration in Kennebunkport in 1982. In those days many local shops and restaurants opened only on weekends after Labor Day and closed for good when the last of the leaf peepers left around Columbus Day.
“That first year, though, it was just huge,” recalls Adams, owner of Alano, a ladies clothing store in Dock Square. “All these people flocked to town. That weekend turned into one of the best [business] weekends I had all year.”
Maine has a tourism problem, and it’s called winter. Other than ski areas and snowmobile hotspots, winter is a struggle for businesses that increasingly need to stay open and be producing income beyond the traditional summer tourist season. Only 3 percent of the information requests to the Maine Office of Tourism ask about winter visits. In a state where tourism is the largest industry, employing 140,000 people and generating $10.06 billion in sales and $429 million in taxes in 2006, that’s an enormous problem. So what’s the solution? State tourism officials and their ad agencies focus their money and effort on the seasons with the biggest payoff — summer and the shoulder months. But in small communities like the Kennebunks, some interesting experiments are under way.
Such as Prelude, which began as an exercise in civic thanksgiving. “Henry Pasco started it,” Adams says, referring to a longtime local businessman. “We didn’t even have a business association then, much less a chamber of commerce. He called a meeting of local businesspeople and suggested that we do something to thank the community for all its support. You have to remember, back then the town didn’t have a Christmas tree or any decorations. So we got a tree, put up lights, and had Santa arrive in a lobsterboat.”
Pasco’s group became the Kennebunkport Business Association (it now also includes businesses in the Lower Village of Kennebunk, just across the river), and it has sponsored Prelude every year since. Pasco, now deceased, reportedly was inspired by Christmas festivals in Marblehead and Nantucket, although he wanted something uniquely Maine for the Kennebunkport celebration. The first Prelude included a tree lighting ceremony, chowder luncheon, and candlelight caroling.
In the years since, what started as a small local celebration for townspeople has evolved into the major winter event in the Kennebunks, involving hundreds of volunteers and drawing thousands of people from throughout Maine and New England. Many visitors come back year after year with their families, filling local hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, and thronging local stores, craft fairs, and fund-raising events.
“That one event extended the season by almost two months,” explains Karen Arel, formerly the longtime executive director of the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport Chamber of Commerce and now head of the Ogunquit chamber. “It was huge.”
Such innovative thinking has become key to transforming what was once a two-month tourist season into a year-round celebration of the Maine image and lifestyle. “We draw a lot of people from Boston and the metro west region,” Arel offers, “and for them Maine is someplace safe and maybe a little old-fashioned. When they drive through a community and it’s all lit up for Christmas and there’s some fresh snow on the ground, it gives them that Norman Rockwell, wrap-my-arms-around-you feeling. There’s something magical about being on the coast of Maine, even though we’re only an hour or an hour and a half away from Boston. For them, we’re a different world, and they like it here.”
Prelude’s success has led to a whole calendar of events that stretches well beyond the traditional tourist season, ranging from kitchen tours in October to the popular February Is for Lovers. That began as promotion for Valentine’s Day and has since turned into a month-long series of special bed-and-breakfast packages, chocolate brunches, and art gallery showings that draw people from all over Maine as well as the rest of the Northeast.
This year’s Prelude features three tree lightings — Dock Square, the Lower Village of Kennebunk, and Cape Porpoise — a dozen craft fairs, twelve music programs, and another dozen public breakfasts, suppers, lunches, and teas. The original one-day event now stretches across the first two weekends in December. “Oh you don’t want to know all the work that goes into it,” declares Jackie Kellett, owner of Jackie’s clothing shop. “We put up fifty-five trees in all, plus the big one in Dock Square. We use 1,800 feet of Christmas garlands. We’ll have three thousand people at the living crèche, another fifteen hundred for the tree lighting in Dock Square.”
This year, the association will invest $18,000 in Prelude, a worthwhile investment considering the crowds of customers it draws. “It really has taken on a life of its own,” Adams explains. Prelude not only set a precedent for other local festivals, it has also become an example for other communities searching for ways to extend their local tourist seasons beyond mid-October.
All those people can’t help but have an effect on businesses’ bottom line. According to the Maine Revenue Service, sales tax receipts from restaurant and lodging transactions in York County from October through December rose from $69.3 million in 2002 to $88.2 million in 2007, a 27.3 percent increase, while many other Maine counties were flat or barely kept up with inflation during the same period.
“Many of the hotels and inns and bed-and-breakfast’s fill right up,” notes Sheila Matthews-Bull, owner of the Rhumb Line Resort in Kennebunkport and a former chair of the Kennebunkport Business Association. “It’s the only time of year when we take money in advance for reservations. Prelude weekend is so popular that we have people prepay, rather than just take a credit card number.”
Matthews-Bull wishes she had more exact information about Prelude’s economic impact, “but we really don’t have any firm numbers on visitors or sales. It’s just so hard to tell. A lot, I guess. A lot.”
She isn’t alone in her frustration. “There are no good reporting numbers” for Christmas and winter tourism, says Patricia Eltman, director of the Maine Office of Tourism. “Gathering information on what people do and when they come here is a tough one.”
Sixty-three percent of the information requests that the Maine Office of Tourism fields each year ask about summer, while winter scarcely registers as a season of interest, according to Phil Savignano, the office’s senior tour specialist. Twelve percent ask about spring, and 23 percent about fall. The Kennebunks generally make up about 16 percent of all information requests, he adds, but even here “winter is pretty low on the list.”
Ski areas and snowmobiling create pockets of prosperity in winter in inland Maine. “In some places, winter is the biggest season,” Savignano notes. “But when you get to the coast, it’s a tough season to sell.”
“What has happened in Maine is an effort to push the season on either end with fairs, festivals, and events,” explains Vaughn Stinson, the longtime head of the Maine Tourism Association. “The key is to push them into the softer months of the year.” He sees room for improvement, noting that the Maine off-season schedule isn’t nearly as busy as it is in other states.
Karen Arel notes that Ogunquit now has its own Christmas by the Sea celebration, as well as a Mardi Gras festival in February and a Patriots’ Day event. “What you have to have is a catch, something that will catch the eye,” she explains. “Our Patriots’ Day event, we do a huge arts and crafts show, there’s a Minuteman Madness sale, we read Longfellow’s ‘Paul Revere’s Ride,’ and then we have Paul Revere ride through town warning that the British are coming.”
“Instead of everything ending Columbus Day, you can keep your help working through Christmas now,” Adams explains. “It’s great to have local people who are able to come back year after year because they know the job isn’t just for the summer anymore.”
Arel and others say that winter programs like Christmas Prelude seem to grow organically rather than out of some planned strategy. “My guess would be that [Camden’s off-season activities] just evolved over the years,” says Frank Morong, interim executive director of the Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce.
But off-season promotions don’t have to be tied to holidays. Camden, for example, has built up a respectable winter visitor flow with events ranging from foreign-policy conferences to toboggan races. The Camden Conference has become a staple of the February calendar, drawing foreign policy experts and others from around the world to discuss topics both esoteric and practical. Yet it grew from a retired Foreign Service diplomat’s desire for an event to break up a winter bout of cabin fever. The conference in turn inspired Pop!Tech, an October symposium that each year explores cutting-edge ideas in technology, science, and human development.
“There was no long-range plan, no formal committee,” Morong explains. “Each of those events just happened, and as each grew it reinforced and inspired others.” The various events also tend to bring in people who often have never visited the Camden area before. “The national toboggan races in February bring people from nineteen or twenty states,” Morong points out. “Once people come for the races or the Camden Conference or Pop!Tech, a lot of them book rooms for future visits.”
Both Morong and Kellett say they’ve fielded inquiries from other communities asking for advice on creating their own events. “You have to put up a Christmas tree,” Kellett declares. “That’s a must. We had the first lobster trap Christmas tree in Maine in Cape Porpoise. That was a real crowd pleaser.”
A little wackiness doesn’t hurt. “Three years ago during Prelude we had a hat parade,” Kellett recalls. “It just sort of happened. I noticed that people kept coming in and showing off the hats they’d bought or made. So you and I sponsored a hat parade — that’s right, Down East magazine was a sponsor. I thought we’d get maybe thirty people. We got two hundred. Almost ran out of cookies for all the participants.”
“Before we started Christmas Prelude, I’d have the boards up on my building by noon on Columbus Day,” Grace Adams recalls with a laugh. “Now I’m open almost year-round.”
“When you have fun somewhere, you go home and tell other people about it,” Arel says, “and they say, ‘Let’s go there, too.’ And Maine is a lot of fun any time of year.”