Ice sculptures and other art, light shows and igloos will sprout on Portland’s Eastern Prom in late January at the inaugural Carnaval Maine.

The three-day event, modeled after Quebec City’s annual Carnaval is intended to boost tourism during the state’s slowest season. Weekend events include professional ice sculptors, illumination, local beer and food. Sled dogs will be on hand and organizers plan ski jumping and other activities, including “special igloo soiree events.”

Event organizer Brian Corcoran, Shamrock Sports & Entertainment CEO and founder, said plans for Carnaval have been in the works for two years. The marketing agency is partnering with the Maine Office of Tourism and Norway Savings Bank.

The event is “100 percent” a way to stimulate tourism in the lowest point of the year for visitors and hospitality spending, Corcoran said in an interview. Just 15 percent of Maine’s 37 million visitors come in the winter.

Organizers have modest goals for this year’s festival, Corcoran said. They plan to attract 10,000 people over three days with a mix of free attendance and premium ticketed events.

“The initial barometer of success is that people think ‘this is an awesome event and I want it to continue,’ ” Corcoran said.

Depending on success this year, he’d like to expand the festival to 10 days and cement it as a tourist destination.

“I think we can get to the point where this is a highly coveted, planned event for people across the world,” he said.

Shamrock Sports & Entertainment staged this year’s Portland Pops event on the Eastern Prom and is behind next year’s Live + Work in Maine professional golf event at the Falmouth Country Club.

TOURISM DOLDRUMS

Deep winter is the slowest time of the year for the state’s $6 billion tourism industry, a critical part of Maine’s economy. Cumberland County hotel occupancy plummets to less than 40 percent in January from a high of almost 90 percent in August, according to STR, a hospitality research firm.

Spending, especially outside ski resorts, drops, too. Combined state spending on lodging and restaurants in January and February was $413 million, according to Maine Revenue Services, just 13 percent of total spending in the first eight months of the year.

“It’s always been a need to have to come up with something in the wintertime,” said Lynn Tillotson, director of tourism promotion agency Visit Portland.

Her agency has worked to get more visitors in tourism’s slower shoulder season by hosting tours for travel writers and touting the region’s food, beverage and culture scene. An event like Carnaval Maine is another way to bring people to Portland when the city is less crowded and expensive.

“It doesn’t shut down, it is such a great place to be year round,” Tillotson said. “We’re a huge destination in the summer and fall, but we want to make sure our businesses, hotels and restaurants are vibrant across the entire year as much as possible.”

COLLABORATION KEY

Interest in a major winter event has percolated for years, but there wasn’t the necessary support to pull off, said Corcoran. That’s changed.

For the centerpiece “Bites and Brews” event, Shamrock lined up prominent food partners, including Luke’s Lobster, Central Provisions, Highroller Lobster Co. and breweries, including Allagash, Bissel Bros., Maine Beer Co., Shipyard and Rising Tide.

The Press Hotel, AAA, Townsquare Media, NewsCenter Maine and the Portland Press Herald round out its lineup of partners. Sunday River plans to host a sanctioned rail jam event for skiers and snowboarders.

The Maine Office of Tourism provided a $50,000 grant to support the event, said director Steve Lyons. The agency saw a way to connect the festival to Maine’s Bicentennial, as well as encourage winter tourism.

“There really wasn’t a major winter event in the Portland area,” Lyons said. “Portland being a large draw for the state and having gained a lot of recognition for its food scene recently, we thought probably it would be a good opportunity to show it off in a different season.”

Last year, Bon Appetit magazine named Portland its Restaurant City of the Year.

The event harkens back to similar winter festivals held in Portland in the 1920s. Those events attracted thousands of people.

Carnaval Maine weekend starts Jan. 30 and goes through Feb. 2, just ahead of the 10-day Carnaval de Quebec. Organizers intentionally set the dates so they wouldn’t conflict with Quebec’s event.

Unpredictable winter weather is a given, but even if the weekend turns out warm and rainy, or snowless and cold, Corcoran said organizers are ready with an inflatable igloo and snowmakers.

“We hope for the best, but we’re prepared for the worst,” he said.

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