The head of the state office responsible for marketing Maine’s $5 billion tourism industry is stepping down to take a position with a nonprofit that operates a system of backcountry trails and lodges.

Carolann Ouellette has served as director of the Maine Office of Tourism since 2011, helping to market what has become Maine’s largest economic engine. A former restaurant owner and inn manager in the Jackman and Sugarloaf areas, Ouellette plans to return to western Maine to take over as executive director of Maine Huts & Trails on Jan. 1, the nonprofit announced on Tuesday.

Ouellette was credited Tuesday with helping lead efforts to target new demographics while better utilizing research and analytics to craft the state’s marketing pitch.

“It’s a sad day for Maine tourism,” said Lynn Tillotson, president and CEO of the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau, a nonprofit that works closely with the Maine Office of Tourism to promote the Portland area. “She was an amazing director: very forward-thinking, very collaborative and she has done a lot of good for the Office of Tourism.”

Tourism is Maine’s top industry, pumping an estimated $5.6 billion into the state’s economy last year. That figure is up 14.3 percent over the estimated $4.9 billion that tourism contributed to Maine’s economy in 2012, according to visitor tracking research prepared annually for the Maine Office of Tourism by an outside contractor.

Total visitation to the state – both in terms of overnight stays and day-trippers – also increased during that period from 32.6 million to 39.6 million people, according to the analytics supplied to the Maine Office of Tourism.

“Carolann Ouellette has been an innovative leader of our tourism marketing efforts since the beginning of Governor LePage’s administration,” George Gervais, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic & Community Development, said in a statement. “Her passion and dedication to promoting Maine’s tourism industry has been both effective and impressive. Tens of millions of people have put Maine at the top of their list of places to visit. She has set the bar very high.”

Gervais, who is Ouellette’s boss, added that she has “put in a place a very stable and impactful strategy and vision for Maine tourism attraction and development that will seamlessly continue” as the department searches for her successor.

While an improving economy likely played a role in the increased tourist visits and spending in recent years, some working in the industry said improved marketing helped.

Greg Dugal, government affairs director for the Maine Innkeepers Association, credited Ouellette for bringing on the firm BVK and creating a different marketing strategy of traditional and new media to target new cohorts of potential visitors. Dugal said Ouellette’s professional history managing restaurants and inns, as well as her personal experience and interests, helped her achieve results in a position that has in the past sometimes been more of a political appointment.

“There is no one that will listen longer or more intently to what you have to say than Carolann,” said Dugal, who has known Ouellette for years. “The good thing about her is she was always looking for new ideas and willing to listen because times have changed.”

Part of the Maine Office of Tourism’s focus has been to draw not only new visitors but also younger visitors because research shows many tourists who visit Maine return again. Tillotson with the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau said marketing is key in the industry today.

“I think a lot of residents tend to take tourism for granted. They think it will just come,” Tillotson said. “But when you think of the number of cities, states and countries you can go to, there is so much competition. And if you’re not out there marketing, they will go somewhere else.”

Ouellette did not return a phone call seeking comment on Tuesday, but in a statement said it had been a privilege to work with the staff in the Maine Office of Tourism and other tourism industry professionals around the state.

“The opportunity to join Maine Huts & Trails was especially appealing to me on both personal and professional levels,” Ouellette said. “I am looking forward to building upon the start of a nationally significant outdoor recreation resource in the state I love, and stimulating economic development in western Maine.”

Based in Kingfield, Maine Huts & Trails is a nonprofit that operates four sizable “eco-lodges” – with eight more huts planned – that are stretched out along 80 miles of trails from West Forks to Stratton. Visitors ski, mountain-bike, snowshoe or hike between the huts.

The chairman of the board of directors of Maine Huts & Trails, Bob Peixotto, said in a statement that “I cannot imagine any person on earth as uniquely well qualified for this role, at this moment.”

“In her, we found a seasoned leader with a lifetime of experience in all aspects of nature-based tourism,” Peixotto said of Ouellette. “With a passion for western Maine, she has long been committed to contributing to the economy of the region by drawing visitors and providing them with high-quality experiences. Her deep experience marketing Maine to the rest of the country and the world will be invaluable as we move forward and work with like-minded organizations to promote inland Maine.”

Staff Writer J. Craig Anderson contributed to this report.

 


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