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    Saturday, July 13, 2024

    What’s Going On: Pushing the borders of tourism beyond Mystic

    Bruce Flax, president of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, stands April 24, 2023, on the Mystic River Bascule Bridge not far from the chamber’s tourist visitors center on East Main Street. (Lee Howard/The Day)
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    Bruce Flax, president of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, stands April 24, 2023, on the Mystic River Bascule Bridge not far from the chamber’s tourist visitors center on East Main Street. (Lee Howard/The Day)
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    Bruce Flax was looking relaxed and fit the day I met him for coffee last month at the Lamplighter Trading Company in downtown Mystic, where the Green Marble Coffee House got its groove on for many years.

    Flax, president of the 625-member Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, had wanted to show me the Mystic Chamber Bascule Bridge Visitors Center at 4 E. Main St., where Mystical Toys once held sway. It’s a bright place with gleaming wood floors where visitors can peruse brochures, buy Mystic-related books, check out videos and gaze at (or buy) works by local artists.

    The center greets thousands of visitors every year looking for information about things to do in the Mystic area, and it’s been made available to the Chamber through the end of this season by the Whalers Inn, which bought the building nearly two years ago. But the Chamber will likely have to find a new spot for the visitors center next year as the inn is exploring new uses for the building.

    “It’s been a great space,” Flax said.

    Flax also wanted to brag on the Chamber’s GoMystic app that had over 5,000 downloads in its debut last year. Visitors can access the app by scanning a QR code with their smartphones at places like the Mystic Marriott and Hilton Mystic.

    It’s an impressive app with lots of ways to explore local dining destinations and accommodations, as well as downtown shopping venues.

    “We wanted to push the borders of Mystic out because Mystic is such a top tourism destination,” Flax said.

    The idea, he said, is to promote all of the region’s highlights in an effort to turn the usual three-day stay in Mystic into a weeklong foray into southeastern Connecticut. This means promoting places like the Garde Arts Center, museums, hiking trails, golf courses and local beaches.

    Flax’s expertise is in marketing, having spent 26 years helping promote Foxwoods Resort Casino. He was furloughed during COVID three years ago, and quickly found himself as head of the Mystic Chamber after a brief interim stint that ended with him getting the official title a little over two years ago. Flax has also been a Groton town councilor and mayor.

    While some folks in Mystic may worry about the increased density of crowds, Flax doesn’t see it that way, contrasting the village of today with “tough times” right after the financial crisis of 2008.

    Of course, the crowds seen in past summers may pale in comparison to this year’s numbers if Mystic’s recent listing in USA Today as the No. 4 tourism destination in the country turns out to be true. The Mystic Chamber held a successful campaign to get local folks to name the village as one of the top tourism spots, a place, as Gov. Ned Lamont said last month, where “something special (is) happening.”

    It’s estimated that Connecticut tourism added $15.5 billion to the state’s economy a few years ago, and Mystic is a big part of the equation, thanks to attractions such as Mystic Seaport, Mystic Aquarium and even Olde Mistick Village shopping center. But increasingly it’s been places like Sift bake shop and the villages’ many fine restaurants that are bringing people in.

    “I think Connecticut is shedding its reputation as a drive through New England state,” said Anthony Anthony, chief marketing officer for the state Department of Economic and Community Development, in a release. “We’re a drive to state, and Mystic is a best-in-class destination.”

    Still, as Flax will attest, getting the word out with his small staff of three full-timers isn’t easy.

    “It’s super challenging,” he said. “How you connect, how you get your message out is so splintered.”

    But Flax is excited about a 1983 mail truck the Mystic Chamber bought with the help of funding from the towns of Stonington and Groton, which will be used to spread the message of Mystic tourism far and wide at “Big E-ish events.” The Chamber will soon put out a call to artists to come up with a competitive design for the truck, which Flax hopes to use at a couple dozen events around the state and the Northeast throughout the year. He hopes to have it ready in time for next year’s Mystic Irish Parade.

    He admits parking is always a problem in downtown, but points out that the Mystic Seaport’s south lot usually has plenty of space at only $10 a car.

    “The walk is great. It’s not far at all,” he said.

    Besides marketing Mystic, the Chamber spends a significant amount of time on events, including the annual Mystic Arts Festival that draws tens of thousands to downtown in August. Flax changed up the location of the event, as it now is solely on the Stonington side, following the Mystic River starting from Cottrell Street and running into the Shipyard at Mystic Seaport Museum.

    The idea was to to take the burden off Route 1 and downtown, which he said has been a big improvement.

    “The police are happy,” he said.

    Flax also added three new events: Yogapalooza in June at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point; the Groton City Brew Run in September at Eastern Point Beach, and a Black History Month celebration held in February at Mystic River Park.

    The Chamber also has been doing well adding new members, including Electric Boat for the first time last year, according to Flax, though Pfizer Inc. so far has demurred.

    “We provide a lot,” Flax said. “My biggest concern going in was ... to make sure we were really providing benefits to our members.”

    And members no doubt have enjoyed the fact that Mystic seems busier than ever, attracting an increasingly diverse crowd. But where Flax and local businesses are noticing it the most is in the so-called shoulder season before and after the summer with the success of restaurants, both old and new.

    “It’s a great time,” Flax said, reflecting on the Mystic of today. “If it’s a nice day in May, the streets are full. ... We’re really fortunate.”

    Lee Howard is The Day’s business editor. Reach him at l.howard@theday.com.

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