May 11, 2017

Wendy Knight: Tourism, business development closely tied

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo Wendy Knight was recently appointed commissioner of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing.

MONTPELIER — Vermont’s $2.6 billion tourism industry is one of the cornerstones of the state’s economy, and Vermont’s new tourism and marketing commissioner hopes to take that a step or two further.

Coming from the private sector as head of her own marketing firm, one of Wendy Knight’s priorities will be to take a holistic approach when it comes to promoting the state.

“Basically, many of the attributes that attract visitors to Vermont are the same qualities that attract workers and entrepreneurs,” said Knight, who officially began her job May 1.

She ticked off a list of attributes that includes caring for the environment, outdoor recreation, world-class ski resorts, low crime and value-added food products.

“So, the Agency (of Commerce and Community Development) is being very focused on marketing Vermont as a place not just to visit but a place to live, work and set up a business,” Knight said.

The goal, she said, is to turn “today’s visitors into tomorrow’s residents.”

A number of businesses can trace their roots to travel and tourism, including the former IBM plant in Essex Junction. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were transplanted New Yorkers who started their ice cream business in an old Burlington gas station.

Given the state’s aging population and declining workforce, Knight said it made sense to leverage tourism to boost the state’s economy and population.

Historically, she said people think of Vermont as a bucolic place to visit, ski and enjoy the outdoors, drink exceptional craft beers, sample artisanal cheese and buy handcrafted items. But, she said, that doesn’t always translate as Vermont being a place to start a business.

That’s where the state’s new online portal, Think Vermont, comes in. The website features stories of entrepreneurs in their own words.

“It’s to really showcase Vermont as a place to live, work, plant a business, using the profile of Vermonters, many of whom were featured in Vermont Life,” Knight said.

For fiscal 2018, the department is expecting the Legislature to approve a level-funded budget of $3.1 million. The summer marketing budget of $348,500 will help launch the 251 Campaign, a multimedia advertising strategy to promote the state’s 251 towns. The summer campaign is being augmented with a $100,000 contribution from Cabot and with $50,000 from the Vermont Ski Areas Association.

Knight said the campaign has a two-pronged approach of marketing each town and region within the state and to out-of-state visitors. “I can tell you for example, my little town in Addison County (Panton) never had an advertising or marketing campaign to get anyone to come there,” she said.

The campaign will focus on the Boston and New York drive and fly markets, along with the Philadelphia and the Washington, D.C. markets.

Not to be overlooked is the Canadian market, which is also a significant export market for Vermont businesses.

In 2015, there were 648,000 Canadian visits to the state, with overnight stays accounting for 1.6 million visitor nights at the state’s hotels, inns and resorts, Knight said.

She said because Canada is so important to the Vermont tourism community, the state will be looking to promote the state north of the border.

The Trump administration’s attempts at a travel ban aimed at a number of Muslim-dominated countries, and in general tighter visa restrictions, have raised concerns within the U.S. travel industry.

The U.S. Travel Association said such actions are likely to discourage foreign visitors, who spent $246 billion in 2016. Total direct and indirect economic impact of both foreign and domestic travel in the U.S. is estimated at $2.3 trillion.

According to the state’s latest economic analysis, in 2015 international visitors to Vermont, not including Canada, represented 5 percent of day visits to the state.

The state’s tourism industry is also dependent on foreign workers. A move by the federal government to curtail seasonal foreign worker visas, known as H-2B, would hurt travel-related businesses. Currently, the visa program is capped at 66,000 workers nationwide, with no exemption for returning workers. In the past, returning workers were exempt from the cap.

A provision in the current spending bill to keep the government running through September would more than double the number of H-2B visas that could be issued to 129,547.

Knight said ski resorts, inns and restaurants rely on those foreign workers because businesses have had little success in attracting enough U.S. workers.

“From the (state) Department of Labor, we can see the fluctuation for tourism workers can be up to 10,000 depending on the season, and so that means these tourism businesses need to find those seasonal workers to come in and run their operation,” she said.

Because outdoor recreation is an important segment of the travel and tourism industry and the state’s economy, she said the department and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development are placing more emphasis on bringing outdoor recreation-related events to the state.

For example, Knight said the state next year will host the annual meeting of the Society of Outdoor Recreation Professionals.

Culinary tourism is another area the department, along with the state Agency of Agriculture, is working to promote. She said such events include the Farm-to-Plate Initiative and Open Farm Week. Related to that are the growing number of craft breweries, wineries and distilleries that draw increasing numbers of tourists to the state.

Knight has a lengthy résumé in the area of tourism and marketing.

As the head of Knight and Day Communications, she worked with international and Vermont clients. She is a former freelance travel writer for The New York Times, the author of two travel books, and produced online travel videos for ABC News Now.

Knight also worked as a senior managing director for a marketing agency in New York, served as director of public relations for an international culinary school, and acting executive director for CIGNA HealthCare of Northern New England.

In making the appointment, Gov. Phil Scott noted the experience Knight brings to the job,

“Her wealth of marketing and communications expertise will be valuable as we work to market Vermont as a place to visit, live and do business,” Scott said in a statement. “Wendy’s broad business background and appreciation of Vermont will be a tremendous asset in promoting the state to strengthen our economy.”

For her part, Knight said it was a “complete honor” to be asked to serve as commissioner of the Department of Tourism and Marketing. She said it’s a job she is “completely committed (to) personally and professionally.”

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