Welcome to Boothbay Harbor
Anyone strolling into Sweet Bay this past summer looking for a chat with owner Ken Rayle may have been surprised to find him missing. Likewise, anyone heading to the town dock to people watch or to get out to their boat bumped into him from time to time donning his Boothbay Harbor Region Chamber of Commerce nametag and holding a plethora of Boothbay Harbor guidebooks.
From May to September, Rayle was on a mission as an ambassador of sorts to greet passengers of American Cruise Line ships American Constitution and Independence. The boats wusually anchored outside the harbor two or three times per week and offloaded about 100 people a day by passenger boats. Rayle said most were usually pre-registered for admission to Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and were only landing at the town dock to catch a bus moments later, but a foot forward to give the brief visitors a good impression goes a long way.
“I think it does need to be done. It has value to me and how people leave feeling about their experience here. It makes it a very much more personal and accommodating experience … These cruise ships go to other ports along the Maine coast (and) … many of these other towns are really quite organized. They meet people and have information for them. To my knowledge, we have never done anything here. They come up on the tender boat, they get off – see ya later, you're on your own, right?”
When the idea of exploring this ambassador role came up, it was clear it would fall to the Chamber, so Rayle said he would do it just to see what was involved.
“It was just a matter of being curious and wanting to find out a little more about … how it looked and felt, how the people were. Not surprisingly, everyone comes off and they're very friendly, they're glad to be here. They may have questions which ranged all over the place … none of them really surprising, but we probably take it all for granted.”
Coastal Maine Popcorn owner Julie Roberts said she was not aware anyone was greeting the ships, but she likes the idea and agrees with Rayle’s sentiment that a good ambassadorship can only help .
“I'm all for it – making them feel welcome and … I always feel like 'Hey man, if that's where the money is coming from, if they're coming into town and spending money, bring it on.'"
Several times during the summer, Rayle helped seniors with walkers or motorized chairs up the ramp at low tide. The visitors, tender boat crews and cruise directors appreciated the gesture.
Once, a young woman all geared up for a run approached Rayle.
“Where can I run to," she asked.
“I sent her down Townsend Avenue to go on Atlantic Avenue and go out to Spruce Point and come back. And she did, she liked it.”
Having a person greet people as they come off the boats, and bid visitors farewell, is proactive and shows that the region is thankful for their visit, Rayle said.
“And I’d say ‘Come back in January.’ I would always get a laugh every single time.”
He said it is also a hook, though, because it would give long enough pause to invite people back for Gardens Aglow in November and December and let people know the region stays alive longer than most probably think.
In her conversations with business owners in Bar Harbor, Roberts learned that even though cruise ships often bring people in the thousands on a single say, it is still important to welcome the passengers.
“They feel like if they're greeted, made to feel welcome and they like the area, maybe they'll come back for an extended stay,” Roberts said of her Bar Harbor friends. “Some people will say 'Well, they're getting their meals on the ship so they're not going to eat here.' The folks from Bar Harbor felt that people really did – they came in to the cafes and did eat and were taking fliers and pamphlets to hopefully come back again.”
Rayle sees the long game in welcoming: "If you present a good experience, if we're all good ambassadors about the town, people will come back on their own … and they will tell their friends or their children or other people about their experience in Maine, in Boothbay Harbor in particular. That does, over time, matter.”
Roberts said is an important message to give people as they leave Boothbay Harbor, since the region is trying to extend the shoulder seasons and encourage businesses to stay open longer.