Changing of guard at state travel division

As she was about to leave the job, Lauri Ostrander Klefos, the state’s director of the Division of Travel and Tourism Development, felt free to share a secret of her personal life that, had it been known earlier, might have brought scandal to the office and undermined its efforts to promote travel and tourism in New Hampshire.

The director’s dark secret is that for years she has been vacationing outside New Hampshire. Really.

“I’d come back and people would say, ‘You got a nice tan, where did you go?’” said Klefos, who annually vacations with in-laws on the North Carolina coast. Her response would come with a disarming shrug. “The Seacoast,” she would reply. In fact, Klefos was preparing to take another one of those North Carolina vacations when she sat down to talk earlier this month with New Hampshire Business Review. She will return in time to begin packing up and getting ready to move out of the office and job she has had for eight of the past 17 years she has been with the Department of Resources and Economic Development.

“If ten years ago, you would have told me that I was going to be the state’s travel and tourism director, I would have laughed in your face,” said Klefos, who became director of what was then called the Office of Vacation Travel in 1996, when Steve Merrill was governor. By 2000, the “office” had become a “division” of state government, and Gov. Jeanne Shaheen chose Klefos for a four-year term as director.

DRED Commissioner George Bald recommended her for another four-year term in March, just before Bald himself announced that he would be leaving the DRED post to take the directorship of the Pease Development Authority. The governor and Executive Council then decided to hold off on the Klefos appointment until hearing from Bald’s successor at DRED.

“I knew I had three votes on the council, which is all you need,” said Klefos. But she concedes it made sense to await the recommendation of the new commissioner, who turned out to be Sean O’Kane, former manager of the Center of New Hampshire hotel complex in Manchester. O’Kane wanted a different director to try a different approach with the division.

His choice, since nominated by the governor and confirmed by the council, is Bedford business and marketing consultant Alice DeSouza, who will take on her new assignment on Sept. 10. “I think he wanted to have his own people here, and that’s understandable,” said Klefos of O’Kane. “He wants to put more of the focus on cultural tourism,” she said, and on promoting something called the “creative economy,” which has been a “buzzword in the industry for the past few years,” she said.

But O’Kane, in a separate interview, said it is not a change of emphasis, but an added perspective to what the division is already doing.

“Lauri has done a great job,” said O’Kane. “She’s taken (the division) from nothing to where it is now.” But the broadened perspective the new commissioner hopes to create will include activities not traditionally associated with tourism — bird watching, for example.

“I was talking with someone from New Hampshire recently whose wife had them go all the way to Scotland to see some rare bird,” the commissioner observed. O’Kane, whose favorite pastimes include sailing on Lake Winnipesaukee, notes that people are apt to come to New Hampshire for more than skiing, hiking, boating or leaf-peeping. Some even like to visit bogs, he said, making the preservation of the wetlands important for economic as well as environmental reasons. In fact, the recently discovered field of “eco-tourism” offers opportunities for New Hampshire to promote itself as a tourist destination during slowest of the four seasons for tourism in the Granite State.

“Mud season,” he said, could be a great time for followers of bird migration to visit northern New England or to survey the swamps that flourish in the spring thaw or see the fields and forests bloom with new life.

Looking for ‘the hook’

How much of a change, or broadening of focus, there will be remains to be seen. Klefos said New Hampshire cultural attractions have been part of the division’s advertising efforts for some time, with institutions like the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth and the Canterbury Shaker Village well represented in the state’s promotional materials.

But the primary emphasis has been elsewhere. “We have always sold New Hampshire on its outdoor recreation and scenic beauty,” said Klefos. “We certainly don’t ignore art and culture. In fact, we have it all over our Web site and in our books. But we don’t use it as the lead when we’re advertising in, say, New York. We use winter skiing — that’s the hook. I think we can deliver a fine cultural experience here,” she said, but she has found it to be good marketing to make the most of the state’s natural assets.

“All the surveys we do of the reasons people come here show it’s outdoor recreation and scenic beauty. Those are the top two reasons,” she said, adding: “That doesn’t mean that can’t change.”

The state’s budget for travel and tourism promotion has grown from $2 million to $5 million in the eight years Klefos has been in charge, but that doesn’t mean that the division, with its nine employees, is turning into a big-spending bureaucracy, she said.

The Institute for New Hampshire Studies determined a few years ago that the state receives $8 in additional revenue for every additional dollar spent on travel and tourism promotions.

“That’s not just the rooms and meals tax, it’s the gasoline tax, lottery money, fish and game receipts” and more, said Klefos. There is, of course, a point of diminishing returns, so when Klefos asked the Legislature for an additional $2 million in 2001, she promised a 4-1 return of $8 million.

For a while, the guarantee looked good.

“Three months later, September 11th happened,” said Klefos. Then came the anthrax scare, a national awakening to the threat of terrorism and the Iraq war. “While states all over the country decreased (in tourism revenue) we held steady,” Klefos said. In part that was because so many of New Hampshire’s visitors come from nearby states and come here by automobile, rather than plane.

Still, the overseas market had been a growing segment of New Hampshire’s tourism industry and that, too, took a post 9/11 hit, as fewer people came from the United Kingdom and Europe to visit the Granite State.

Unique attractions

But Klefos had the additional $2 million set aside and was able to track the results. She got more “bang for the buck” by encouraging New Hampshire destinations to become partners with the division in advertising campaigns, promoting locations like The Balsams, the Mount Washington Hotel, Wentworth by the Sea, The Inns at Mill Falls and Manchester Airport, among others.

Her successor hopes to build on that exposure, while promoting other, less visible New Hampshire attractions. The division’s director-designate does not go downhill skiing (she prefers cross-country) and looks for other things to do when her husband, an avid skier, is speeding down a mountain.

“For example, when at Loon or Cannon Mountain, I can go to the Flume or over to Sugar Hill to Polly’s Pancake Parlor. There are things like that that are unique to the state of New Hampshire.”

She recalled watching a quilter at work while the artisan’s husband was out back operating a sugar shack. New Hampshire’s attractions include the breathtaking beauty of a lupine-covered hillside in the spring and early summer and the fun of tubing down a river or splashing about in a waterfall in the heat of July and August.

And the state’s fascinating history can be explored at the mill in Lincoln as well as at the New Hampshire Political Library, DeSouza said.

“New Hampshire is about more than the Currier Museum or Shaker Village,” she said.

For instance, she said, New Hampshire has 17 communities in the national Main Street program aimed at revitalizing downtown areas. “To create an authentic downtown experience where you don’t see chain stores, but unique shops and have opportunities to visit museums, it’s bringing life back to downtown and people are looking for that. You drive down some streets and you don’t know if you’re in New Hampshire, California or Idaho.”

Though not considered a major tourist attraction, the historic district of Amherst Village offers an attractive view of New Hampshire life both past and present, DeSouza said. “People from Missouri or wherever expect to see that and hope to see the context around which they can have a great vacation.”

But with the state facing an estimated $300 million deficit and budget reductions the order of the day, chances are the Division of Tourism and Travel Development will not be getting additional dollars to promote “cultural tourism” or the “creative economy.” How the division will manage to showcase the kind of overlooked attractions O’Kane and DeSouza describe, while continuing to promote the mountains, lakes and Seacoast may not be clear for some time. But tourism, like charity, can begin at home, and one market for New Hampshire attractions, said the new director, is New Hampshire itself.

“I think there’s a great opportunity to get New Hampshire people excited about New Hampshire again, getting them to reappreciate what a great place this is.”

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