Tourism summit introduces international operators to New England attractions

Groton - It's speed dating for the tourism industry.

"Buyers" - international tourism operators, brokers and travel writers - and "sellers" - attractions, hotels and destinations from across New England - have eight minutes to get to know each other, strike a deal, or at least agree to meet again.

A digital clock on the ballroom wall counts down the time.

Such is the scene at Discover New England's 19th Annual Tourism Summit and Marketplace, which has drawn more than 400 people to the Mystic Marriott Hotel & Spa, where the three-day event concludes this morning. It's matched up scores of foreign operators and local tourism businesses eager to make connections with markets in Europe, Asia and Australia.

According to the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism, more than 1.7 million overseas travelers visit New England annually.

"We get a few foreign visitors from time to time," one of the sellers, Dan McMahon, director of marketing for the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, said Tuesday.

"We'd like to get them by the busload … from Italy, England, Germany."

More than a dozen foreign operators had asked for eight-minute meetings with the Goodspeed.

"We didn't turn anyone down," McMahon said.

The summit itself has been a boon for the Marriott, other lodging establishments in the area and some nearby attractions, according to Ed Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District, a summit sponsor.

After Monday's session, Dombroskas led bus tours to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, Mystic Seaport and the Essex Steam Train. On Tuesday, he was scrambling to accommodate a group of Italian operators who asked to investigate downtown Mystic and Stonington borough.

"There's a lot of interest in lodging and hotels," Dombroskas said.

Robert Bell, president of Essex Steam Train & Riverboat, said he welcomed the visit Monday by 35 tourism operators from Asia, England, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia. Soon after their visit to Essex, Bell was turning up on some of their Facebook pages.

"It's hard for us to reach out to places like England and China, so this summit is very helpful," he said. "Now I have 35 ambassadors."

Summit attendees could avail themselves of workshops focused on such subjects as mobile technology's role in tourism marketing and how to tap Chinese markets.

At one workshop, a spokesman for the travel website TripAdvisor addressed audience members from China, Germany, Nantucket and Boston.

Mark Preston, the website's Northeast sales manager, stressed the importance of online reputations. Evidence shows, he said, that hotels that garner high scores among reviewers can charge more without their occupancy rates suffering.

Still, only 1 in 4 hoteliers has registered with TripAdvisor, a free site that derives revenue from advertising, Preston said.

A spokesman for Attract China, a company that markets U.S. tourist destinations to Chinese tourists, urged New England operators to "lay out a welcome mat" by paying attention to Chinese customs and culture and, more importantly, by accepting China's most popular bank card.

"The single best thing you can do to increase business with Chinese travelers is to accept China UnionPay," Michael DiCarlo, Attract China's executive vice president for strategy and development, said.

Hotels should provide paper slippers, too.

DiCarlo said he was surprised to discover that although the Chinese have little interest in baseball, Chinese travelers who visit Boston are eager to see Fenway Park because they've heard of its "green monster."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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