Tomorrow morning on NHPR, we’ll introduce you to Ed Butler, an innkeeper in the White Mountains. Ed’s story is Part One of our series “Getting By, Getting Ahead,” examining how people across New Hampshire’s seven regions are navigating a recovering economy.
As you follow the winding highway through Franconia and Crawford Notches, weaving in and out of the White Mountains National Forest, you’ll encounter short bursts of economic activity. Mom-and-pop motels, country inns, diners, and small shops selling souvenirs, snowshoes and fishing poles all dot the Mount Washington Valley. Some of these outposts look as if they were frozen in the 1950s, built and marketed during the golden age of the road trip.
These heaping helpings of Americana are the traditional economic driver of the tourism-dependent White Mountains. In the late 1980s, a new element arrived. Major corporations began building up the North Conway area with outlet stores, restaurant franchises, and chain hotels. At first, this influx helped the older businesses. Rather than simply catering to the outdoorsy set, innkeepers could cast their nets to a wider crowd, bringing in people who wanted the ambience of a rural mountain retreat while indulging in some tax-free shopping.
Over the past seven or eight years, though, that dynamic has been changing. National chains have begun moving deeper into the Mount Washington Valley. This trend has been particularly upsetting to small innkeepers. “I think whenever you introduce another number of rooms to your mix, you are making everyone have to rethink their business model,” says Janice Crawford, Executive Director of the Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce.
“I know that when a Residence Inn or a Hampton Inn or a Holiday Inn come into town you’re looking at anywhere from 75 to 150, 200 new rooms coming into the valley,” Crawford says. “And I can understand why that would send a bit of a chill down the backs of our entrepreneurs who have hotels, who have country inns, who have B&Bs.”National hotels have a couple of big edges over independents. The first, of course, is familiarity. Whether you’re in New Hampshire or New Mexico, you know what you’re getting with a Hampton Inn. But what makes it extra difficult for small innkeepers to compete is the points system offered by a lot of these chains. Business travelers rack up points staying at numerous chains over the course of a year. Then, when the family vacation rolls around, they’ve earned a free stay.
But it’s not all bad for the local innkeepers, Crawford says.
“The positive aspect of what these properties bring to us is nine times out of ten, their guests have never been here. They’re bringing new people into the valley to discover what we have to offer.” And when they come back, she says, these visitors will often decide to go for the full-on White Mountains experience, and book at a local, independent motel or B&B. And while a cookie-cutter chain hotel may lack the ambience of an historic inn, the chains do bring jobs, too.
Tourism data from Plymouth State University‘s Institute for New Hampshire Studies show that the region has been on reasonably solid footing lately. Rooms and meals tax revenues in the White Mountains were up by 9.7 percent in fiscal year 2011, adding $323 million to state coffers. Only the more populous Merrimack Valley and Seacoast regions raked in more revenue.