Gardens cultivate local, tourist interest

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens marks official opening with efforts that aim to broaden its appeal

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens marks official opening with efforts that aim to broaden its appeal

Unlike some US coastal resort towns where busloads or cruise ships full of tourists disembark daily, clogging the streets and filling thousands of hotel rooms, the Boothbay Harbor, ME, region remains a relatively slow-paced, quiet place for summer visitors.

Tourists in Boothbay, located about three hours north of Boston, can be seen on any average summer day strolling the harbor streets, browsing at gift shops, arranging tickets for whale watching, and tucking into boiled lobster dinners.

Such is the level of entertainment on hand for visitors. But the 148-acre Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, which is the largest in New England and opens officially in June, provides the area with a whole new level of recreational facility, both for tourists and year-round residents.

"Our region has long been a very popular tourist destination, but I think more based on the sum of its parts, rather than one centerpiece," says Jaimie Logan, executive director of the Boothbay Chamber of Commerce. "I'm going to be very curious what the gardens' impact on tourism will be."

Given the limited advertising budget for the gardens, about $37,000 this year, its communications director, Barbara Freeman, says she and her colleagues plan to rely mainly on word of mouth and media outreach to draw paying visitors for what has been free since the "soft" opening of the gardens several years ago. The goal this year is to attract around 25,000 visitors.

"From the very beginning, the challenge has been to get people to know about the gardens because, even now, people come and say, 'Oh, we didn't know about this,' even though I've spent the past five years trying to get everyone in the world to know about them," Freeman says.

Along with a nature trail running through woodland and along a tidal inlet, the gardens include a gift shop, facilities for holding meetings and exhibits, outdoor sculptures, and even a tennis court left over from the property's days as a real-estate development.

Freeman and other staff members make appearances at garden shows in Boston, and Portland and Bangor, ME, along with garden clubs throughout the state, but the high costs of attending trade shows means there's more emphasis on less expensive outreach.

A number of "affinity" events, such as lectures on art and cooking, have already produced coverage by Maine's three commercial TV channels, local radio stations, and local newspapers like the Boothbay Register and Portland Press-Herald, Freeman says.

The events help broaden the appeal of the gardens beyond just people interested in gardening or landscaping - though of those there are many, including members of the American Horticultural Society, which gives reciprocal admission rights to the gardens.

Helping the gardens maintain a connection with locals, meanwhile, are events like the "Frozen Turkey Hunt," a Thanksgiving version of an Easter egg hunt, with apples hidden instead of eggs and prizes of frozen turkeys and other Thanksgiving dinner fixings.

Now, Freeman says, greater interest in the gardens should be spurred generally with an effort involving the Chamber of Commerce and state tourism groups to improve cross promotion by other businesses and organizations. Marketing tools include new "rack" cards for display at lodging establishments, as well as distribution of an area map showing the location of different attractions.

Sharon Kitchens, founder of Sharon Kitchens Public Relations in Portland, which helps provide media outreach for the gardens and the MidCoast Chamber Council of Maine, says she is initially focusing on state media outlets, but will expand, as the summer progresses, to the New England region, New York, and elsewhere around the US.

"Certain stories will run in regional magazines around the time of the opening," says Kitchens, such as Down East, Edible Coastal Maine, and Lincoln County Magazine. "There will [possibly] be more stories in The Boston Globe later in the summer. You don't want everything at once, so some of it is geared specifically toward the opening. Others may focus on culinary or other events."

Asked if local residents have expressed any concern about the gardens attracting an excessive number of visitors, Freeman says the only complaint she'd heard was about not being able to hunt on the grounds.

"It was pointed out that... we actually do allow hunting [during hunting season] on the part of the grounds that hasn't been developed," she says.

At a glance

Organization:
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

Executive director:
Maureen Heffernan

Location:
Boothbay, ME

Operating budget:
Under $1 million

Ad budget:
$36,000

Key Trade Titles:
People Places & Plants, Down East, Maine Home & Design, Yankee Magazine

Communications team:
Barbara Freeman, director of comms
Margaret Hoffman, director of marketing and visitor services

Marketing services agencies:
PR firm: Sharon Kitchens Public Relations (media relations)

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