By Mark Okrant,
NH Travel Guru
In the last NH Travel Guru column, we looked at the challenges New England faces as a host of visitors relative to the other eight US Census regions. Despite this region’s low ranking, we posited that New Hampshire’s tourism economy is healthy, and cited a number of reasons why. There remains one interesting tale to tell.
During the mid-1990s, Judi Window, a Manchester native then in her mid-thirties, developed an idea that evolved into New Hampshire’s tourism advantage. Working with Peter Morgan, a longtime hotelier, and Bill Petersen, former dean of the hospitality school at New Hampshire College, Window developed a new concept in statewide travel information services.
The takeoff for this amazing organization was not a smooth one. At first, potential funders from state government and the private sector exhibited the ages-old attitude, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” However, Window and her colleagues persisted and, in 1996, an exciting innovation appeared on the tourism landscape—the Granite State Ambassadors (NHGSA).
A non-profit, charitable, 501 (C)(3) organization, NHGSA was founded on a simple idea—when visitors arrived at the airport in Manchester, or stopped at a state rest area, they should be greeted by a friendly, well-informed “information specialist.”
The hard work was just beginning; the NHGSAs needed operating funds; these were derived from donations, memberships, contracts, special events, training sessions and education sessions, and other sources. Every last penny of these funds was needed for the organization to function effectively.
I remember a conversation with Window back in the mid 90s. At that time, I asked her two questions: How in the world are you going to be able to attract a work force of volunteers sufficient in size to meet the likely demand for a group of tourism information specialists? And, who is going to train them? Window looked at me with an all-knowing smile—after all, she had a clear view of the future.
Leap ahead two decades. Last week, during the organization’s 21st year, the 75th class of Granite State Ambassadors (GSAs) was graduated, and NHGSA now has certified 1640 volunteer ambassadors. During the past year alone, 300 GSAs served 18,000 hours, and assisted 90,000 visitors to the state of New Hampshire. In addition, GSAs served 2,920 hours at events, plus nearly a million attendees at the annual Big E in Springfield.
After 18 years at the helm of NHGSA, Judi Window took her incredible foresight into the private sector. For the next 18 months, until the end of 2015, Alice Pearce—longtime Ski NH executive director—applied her marketer’s touch to the organization. Since December of 2015, the executive director of NHGSA has been Kelly Bryer. Bryer has a very special set of people skills, not to mention an energy level that puts the Energizer Bunny to shame. During the last 18 months, she’s built an even stronger sense of camaraderie among the 300-plus active members of NHGSA. Volunteers remain enthusiastic because their leader is so passionate about the organization.
The monetary value of this service to the state of New Hampshire may surprise you. By utilizing the figures for average party size (2.5) and average spending ($89), those 90,000 visitors served by NHGSA are responsible for injecting an estimated $20 million dollars into the state’s economy.
Columnist’s note: in preparation for this column, I attended the final training session of 2017. Being a curious sort, I wanted an answer to the question
I’d posed to Window all of those years ago: how can NHGSA attract and maintain a work force of volunteers? The answers came from a special session of proud GSAs:
* “I always liked telling people what to do and where to go . . . “
* I’ve never been (associated with) a more impressive organization and management”
* “I’d just come out of a bad time in my life, and GSAs helped”
* “ . . . love the people you meet and the friends you make”
* “ . . . get to know the state and see place I wouldn’t otherwise”
* “ . . . job flexibility”
Oh, yes, and one announcement: Your NH Travel Guru is now a very proud member of the New Hampshire Granite State Ambassadors’ NHTI Class of 2017.
After forty years as an educator, researcher, and consultant, Mark Okrant joins IndepthNH.org to offer concise, informative insight into New Hampshire’s travel and tourism industry as a business, while showcasing the people and places you want to know. This guy’s really been around. And, he’s funny, too.
For more about Mark’s compelling tourism-based murder mystery series, visit www.markokrant.com.
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