State Representative Cory Atkins and State Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives, co-chairmen of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development, joined State Representative Timothy Madden for a public hearing and forum on tourism at The Martha’s Vineyard Film Center Tuesday morning.
The hearing was one of several stops on a “listening tour” across Massachusetts to gather information on the needs of the tourism industry in various regions. The state lawmakers were joined by Betsy Wall, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, and Anita Walker, Executive Director of Massachusetts Cultural Council.
Ms. Wall led off the forum with a discussion of her agency’s strategies for attracting tourism to the state, which includes promoting travel through the website massachusettsvacation.com. She stressed the importance of accommodating a growing international population of tourists, especially from China. Ms. Wall stressed the importance of taking advantage of social media and other technology-driven campaigns which focus on the tendency of travelers to make “last-minute, digitally driven” decisions.
Ms. Walker had a message for Vineyard employers and employees. “The people are coming,” she said. “You are responsible for creating a product they want.”
Ms. Walker pointed out that Massachusetts was the only state with a Committee on Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development. She said public input is important for the lawmakers when they return to Beacon Hill.
During the public portion of the hearing, Christine Todd, Executive Director of the Oak Bluffs Association, and members of the Dukes County and Martha’s VineyardAirport Commissions asked how Island organizations could “respond to growth in the tech world, and better communicate with tourists” through mediums like the web.
Ms. Wall said that technology was “a very serious investment” on the part of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism. Last year, the office offered digital audits to tourism councils in Massachusetts, and responded with reports on how the councils could improve their web presence.
Several business owners highlighted what they described as the chicken and egg conundrum of seasonality on the Vineyard. Businesses cannot afford to stay open due to lack of tourism, and tourism diminishes due to a lack of open businesses. “Getting into as many markets and demographics as possible is the best strategy,” Ms. Walker said.
Rep. Atkins added that while remaining open for business in the off-season is risky, businesses should consider “who can risk doing the stretch for a while” to boost tourism opportunities.
“You’re sitting in one of those places,” Rep. Madden, who represents the Vineyard, added, referring to the Film Center, which he said is a good example of a business thriving in the off-season.
Senator Ives recommended Vineyarders increase the tourism economy by “leveraging natural assets,” such as the fishing industry.
Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel and Kerry Scott, owner of Good Dog Goods, in Oak Bluffs said that the Vineyard should focus more on eco-tourism. One example might be to emphasize the Vineyard’s wealth of “farm to fork dining,” said Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.
Senator Ives mentioned that other ecotourism projects, including the recent fishing pier in Oak Bluffs, often require cooperation from other agencies. “We’re here to advocate for the Massachusetts Cultural Council, but we need to understand what other agencies need our advocacy as well,” she said.
The panel was treated to a long list of ideas and suggestions that included making the most of unused real-estate such as the two Oak Bluffs movie theaters, creative placemaking through establishing groups of artists, and how to receive small business grants. The lawmakers said these local anecdotes could help them make legislative decisions.
“We’re going to bring what we heard today to our colleagues in the Committee on Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development, and the larger legislature,” said Senator Ives. “And we ask you to bring it to your colleagues too.”