WHY IT STARTED
In 2009, a group of outdoor recreation businesses came together at a retreat at Saddleback Mountain sponsored by the Maine Woods Consortium to consider how best to grow nature-based tourism in the Maine woods, hoping to expand greater awareness of the north woods as a tourism destination. Originally, the network intended to focus on creating tourism packages that would highlight multiple partners working together in a particular region, e.g., partners would coordinate marketing efforts and create packages w/ other local businesses that could draw vacationers to a particular area. Over time, the partners have developed tourism destination packages and itineraries among themselves as well as with local partners that provide a total outdoor experience for the traveler.
WHO IS INVOLVED
Several businesses in the tourism sector in Maine are part of the network: the Appalachian Mountain Club, Maine Huts and trails, the New England Outdoor Center, Northern Outdoors, Sunday River Ski Resort, and the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Other partners in the network are also important: PlaceWorks Consulting and the Maine Woods Consortium. In addition, the Maine Office of Tourism has provided support and advice as the partners have developed ways to work together.
HOW THEY WORK TOGETHER
The members of the Network are self-selected; there is no formal process of entry into the Network. Although members are both collaborators and competitors, the glue that holds the Network together is trust. There is strong interest in expanding the membership and partners are working together to figure out how best to do this.
One year ago, Bryan Wentzell, Policy Director for the Appalachian Mountain Club, stepped in to coordinate the efforts of the Network. Up until that time PlaceWorks Consulting had been providing coordination and website maintenance through a small grant.
The members talk every few months, mostly through conference calls and emails. The meetings focus seasonally on developing tourist packages in a cooperative way. A prior package included a cooperative venture between the Northern Forest Canoe Trail and Maine Huts & Trails that allowed vacationers to hike through the woods, then go out on a pontoon boat on Flagstaff Lake where a tour guide would explain the history of the lake; the end of the trip included a stay in a hut close by the lake. Another package entitled “Chicks with Sticks” brought together vacationers for a knitting and skiing weekend.
Bryan and Sara Hunt from the New England Outdoor Center maintain the blog posts on the website, and partners continue to search for ways to maintain funding and momentum around the website, blog, and Facebook page.
The future of the Network is still undecided. Members conferred this past March and decided to try another season of working together. As of yet, there is still no good way of tracking how many packages can be attributed to MWD, so the tangible business benefit to members is unclear. The Network website, blog, and Facebook page are in place, but how much these sites are driving traffic to the websites of individual partners has not been determined. Members feel they are at a critical crossroads, trying to determine what is working, what is not, and what it would take to make the Network thrive.
PROGRESS TOWARDS GOAL
The Maine Woods Discovery Network is made up a group of core industry leaders who have developed trust among themselves and who are committed to expanding nature-based tourism. The Network sponsored cooperative vacation packages for 2010, 2011, and the winter of 2012 packages, with plans for summer 2012 in development. Over the next few months, the Maine Woods Consortium is again sponsoring a retreat focused on supporting nature-based tourism in the Maine woods. Participants will consider developing a certification process for high quality tourism businesses. Could the Maine Woods Discovery Network be the avenue for this certification? Would partners be interested in expanding their mission and totally rethinking the Network’s purpose?
The Maine Woods Discovery Network knows that Maine offers something to tourists that no other state in the east can: ten million acres of lakes, mountains, and forest that is still mostly wild. Many visitors coming to Maine see only lobsters and lighthouses; only a small percentage of the state’s visitors get to the north woods. The members of the Maine Woods Discovery Network are focused on adding the Maine woods to the list of natural resources that draw vacationers from all over the world to our state.