Warmer-than-usual weather and declining gas prices should add up to big crowds this holiday weekend, delighting business owners who cater to tourists and raising hopes for a busy summer season in Maine.

Graduations at Bowdoin College in Brunswick and Bates College in Lewiston will help fill hotel rooms in those areas, while targeted advertising campaigns aim to sway tourists from New England, the mid-Atlantic region and Canada to come to Maine on a last-minute whim.

“It’s all about the weather. We want it to get nice and warm in Boston, Philadelphia and D.C. so people think ‘I want to go to Maine,’” said Dick Grotton, president and chief executive of the Maine Restaurant Association.

“The economy is showing signs of improvement, gas is dropping. The weather — that’s the only questionable ingredient for the season,” Grotton said.

Tourism spending is crucial to Maine, creating $7.7 billion in economic impact and accounting for 108,000 jobs, according to the Maine Tourism Association.

The southern Maine coastline can provide an early boost to the tourist season if the weather warms early, as it did this spring. Businesses got an early start this year, local innkeepers said.

“Last weekend, we were double or triple the volume of a winter weekend. We were flat-out, seeing summer numbers,” said Mary Eskew, co-owner of Hoss and Mary’s restaurant in Old Orchard Beach. “Because of the mild weather, we did well all winter. But this past weekend, we were lined up out the door.”

In Ogunquit, it was already busy on Patriot’s Day weekend in April, said Karen Arel, president of the local chamber of commerce.

“We had hotels doing summer numbers with only winter staff,” Arel said. “The weather’s been on our side.”

That warmer-than-usual weather will continue this weekend. Saturday should have highs around 80 degrees in the Portland area, compared with the average high of 65 degrees, according to the National Weather Service forecast. The weekend weather overall will be mixed, with a chance of showers late Sunday and Monday, according to meteorologist Tom Hawley.

GAS PRICES/TRAVEL ISSUES

One drag on tourism appears to be lifting. Gas prices have dropped about 18 cents in the past month to about $3.68 a gallon.

Prices were about $3.86 a gallon a year ago, according to AAA. The price of gas has a major impact on Maine tourism since most visitors arrive by car.

“We’re a $50 tank of gas away from New York and Canada,” said Old Orchard’s Harmon.

Memorial Day weekend traffic volume through the Maine Turnpike’s York toll plaza will be up 3 percent over last year, predicts the Center for Tourism Research and Outreach, an initiative of the University of Maine System. The bulk of the out-of-state cars will be coming from Massachusetts and other New England locales within a two-hour radius of southern Maine, said Charles Colgan, professor of public policy and management at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.

“Memorial Day weekend is when people traditionally open their camp or summer house. That accounts for the jump in weekend traffic,” Colgan said.

To ease traffic congestion, road crews around the state will stop work at noon Friday, said Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation.

BOOKINGS

Although Memorial Day kicks off the tourism season, it’s July and August that make or break hotels and other tourism-dependent businesses. Half of lodging sales for the year usually come during those months, with August being the busiest, said Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association.

Occupancy rates of about 50 percent to 60 percent are normal for Memorial Day weekend, he said. Then it’s mostly weekend business until schools let out in mid-to-late June, and midweek occupancy starts to pick up.

“The last really great year we had was 2007. But we’re seeing good, solid advanced reservations for this year. July and August are already looking really good,” Dugal said.

Last year, the peak month of August was hurt by Hurricane Irene, which washed away the last weekend of the month.

Hotel occupancy in Maine has been roughly flat over the past two years, with a 55 percent annual average in 2010 and 56 percent in 2011, Dugal said. Before the recession, occupancy rates exceeded 60 percent annually.

But advanced bookings in Old Orchard Beach are up 10 percent to 20 percent over last year, said Bud Harmon, president of the Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce. Statewide numbers also look good, according to the innkeepeers association.

Still, advanced bookings are less crucial in Maine. Most visitors arrive by car and many decide at the last minute to make the trip, experts said.

“People continue to book closer and closer to their travel times,” said Carolann Ouellette, director of the Maine Office of Tourism. “People tend to be busier and busier and unsure of their schedules until the last minute. There’s also the backdrop of the economy and jobs.”

“It’s different from 10 to 15 years ago. Now everything is planned at the last minute,” said Grotton of the restaurant association. “We only have so much capacity in Maine. People arriving at 5 o’clock on a Friday may find themselves sleeping in their car. People need to do some advance planning.”

 

ENTERTAINMENT

Summer in Maine is short, which means cultural organizations pack everything into a tiny window. The hard part for visitors is deciding what to do and how to fit everything into the summer calendar.

Many towns have a parade on Memorial Day, and other activities include Gardiner’s Ride Into Summer, a motorcycle rally and family festival on May 25; the Downeast Spring Birding Festival starting May 25 in Trescott; Poland Spring Heritage Day on May 26; and the annual Fish Ladder Restoration Festival to celebrate the alewives’ return in Damariscotta.

Here are a few ideas to enrich your mind for the rest of the season:

The Stonington Opera House celebrates its 100th anniversary with a series of events that harken back to the early 1900s. The historic performance hall on the Downeast coast hosts classical music, pop, jazz, movies, Shakespeare, and in celebration of its centennial, a program called “10 Star Acts,” a 1912 vaudeville show.

There are few better places to experience chamber music than Maine. This summer, the Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival marks its 40th season with a program that includes many musicians who have performed there over the years. The festival, at the historic Deertrees Theater at the head of Long Lake in Harrison, hosts performances every Tuesday from July 17 to Aug. 14.

In southern Maine, the Ogunquit Playhouse marks its 80th anniversary this summer with a lineup that includes classics (“South Pacific”) and fun newer shows, like “Always … Patsy Cline” starring TV star Sally Struthers, on stage already. But the big event is a reworked version of “Damn Yankees” starring Carson Kressley. The Ogunquit version of the musical will be set in Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox.

In Portland, the hot folk-rock band Mumford & Sons plays a major outdoor show Aug. 4 on Portland’s Eastern Promenade.

The Portland Museum of Art will host an exhibition of European classics, “The Draw of the Normandy Coast,” beginning June 14.

In Rockland, the Farnsworth Art Museum’s Wyeth Center has a new show featuring the works of Rockwell Kent and Jamie Wyeth and their unique interpretations of Monhegan Island.

 

NEW AD CAMPAIGN

The state is building on its “There’s More to Maine” advertising campaign, targeting spots in New England and the mid-Atlantic states, as well as Ottawa and New Brunswick, Canada — areas within driving distance of Maine. The campaign has a two-prong approach — trying to lure newcomers to the state and entice previous visitors to return.

More than 80 percent of the tourists to Maine are repeat visitors, according to the tourism board, so initial visits tend to result in loyal fans.

“We’re trying to build on the ‘There’s More to Maine’ concept — tying into a little more emotion. People are looking for happiness, contentment and enjoyability. We want to connect with them on an emotional level,” Ouellette said.

One new initiative was to advertise on Red Sox Radio Network, a group of radio stations in New England, to entice repeat visitors to return. The campaign allowed the tourism office to begin running ads earlier in the spring, when the baseball season began, and to tailor the ads to promote different festivals or activities.

The ad campaign also focuses on niche publications, such as outdoor magazines devoted to paddling, biking and hiking.

The town of Ogunquit does its own advertising campaign, promoting “Ogunquit — Beautiful Place by the Sea” to lure more travelers from New York City, already the source of many of its tourists.

“We hear again and again how people are coming back to Maine because they vacationed here as a child. They want to make new memories and recapture old ones,” Arel said.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

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