DIANE LEVIN of the Chamber Economic Development Committee and TD Bank presented the findings of the seven focus groups held last fall at the Wolfeboro Inn ballroom last Thursday, April 5. (Photo courtesty of Wolfeboro Community TV) (click for larger version)
April 12, 2012WOLFEBORO — The much-awaited presentation on the results of business focus groups held last fall was presented by the joint Economic Development Committees of both the town and Chamber of Commerce last Thursday, April5, at the Wolfeboro Inn.
The committees held seven focus groups last September and October that brought together by invitation a cross-section of members of Wolfeboro's business community to discuss the business climate in town and to elicit ideas on how to improve business conditions, attract new businesses and stimulate economic growth. The sessions were guided by independent facilitators who led the group discussions. A total of 51 different businesses participated and participants included both Chamber of Commerce members and non-members.
According to Diane Levin from TD Bank, who made the summary presentation on April 5, the comments from the seven sessions were collated and organized into five common themes. Within each theme comments were organized into Findings/Perceptions and Initiatives – suggestions to address the Findings, voiced at the focus groups or developed subsequently following a review and analysis by the committees.
Levin led the audience through each of the five themes in a PowerPoint presentation. At the end of each theme she asked for feedback.
The five themes were: Marketing the Town; Expand and promote a four season economy; Increase visitors/foot traffic in town; Need for a better relationship between town and businesses; and Need for business growth and diversity of businesses.
Marketing the Town
Focus group participants agreed there was a need to promote the town, that a strong image ad for Wolfeboro was needed and that the promotion effort itself needed to be continuous and not limited to a focus on summer tourism. The branding of the town as the "Oldest Summer Resort in America" was felt to be limiting.
Instead, participants felt marketing should capitalize on the year-round recreational activities in the area: the trails system, public beaches, Abenaki ski area, Wentworth State Park, and The Nick, among others.
At the same time marketing should capitalize on Wolfeboro as a retirement community and encourage retirees to relocate here.
Marketing efforts should include online marketing and be coordinated so that promotion of one activity supports others.
To address these perceptions, recommended Initiatives included developing a joint marketing campaign that individual businesses can participate in and link to as part of their individual marketing efforts. Last December the Chamber Marketing Committee announced a new campaign for Wolfeboro with the brand, "The Jewel of Lake WinnipesaukeeTM" – which aims to market Wolfeboro as a four season destination. The initial focus of the effort is on visitors who are already in the Lakes Region. The first two-page full color ad is now running in the inhouse magazine of The Inn at Mills Falls in Meredith. It features nine four-season photos of activities in town, a panoramic waterfront view of town across the bottom of the pages, and a selection of 29 activities drawn from a master list of "101 Things to Do in Wolfeboro." The 101 list is also available at the Chamber office. The town just added a link to the Chamber Web site on its own Web site home page. The Chamber home page now features the "Jewel" theme and deals with the earlier catchphrase about the town by stating: "Distinguished as 'The Oldest Summer Resort in America,' Wolfeboro has grown to become a four-season vacation destination as well as a cherished home for full-time residents. A visit to Wolfeboro can be whatever you want it to be: a romantic getaway, a fun-filled family weekend or a quiet respite from hectic city life."
Both Kathy Eaton of Molly the Trolley and Charlie Wibel of Wolfeboro Promotions described their marketing programs, which involve getting businesses in town to advertise together. Eaton cited a cooperative campaign to attract out of state visitors ("Spend a day or two in Wolfeboro, not a fortune") and Wibel cited a Wolfeboro coupon book he is working on that will be sent all over the state in June. The Chamber itself does a 50,000-copy brochure that is distributed both in and out of state., and maintains a community events calendar on its Web site.
A number of people in the audience pointed out Wolfeboro's marketing advantages. Peter Pijoan of Wolfeboro Community Television noted that the U.S. presidential campaign is bound to put Wolfeboro in the spotlight due to Mitt Romney's summer home being here. Wibel pointed out that there are only two towns on the lake with shopping that have a town center on the lake and Wolfeboro is the better one. This reporter reminded the group that there is only one Wolfeboro in the world, a fact discovered during the 250th Anniversary process.
Four season economy
A number of focus group participants felt that the town needs to develop a four season economy so that businesses do not have to rely on a fabulous summer to survive. It was pointed out that the tourist season could be extended by highlighting hockey, ice fishing, cross-country skiing and ice skating in the winter and the new Pathways trails in the fall and spring. Another thread was promoting Wolfeboro's many cultural offerings and explore the potential of the new Kingswood Arts Center to attract more events year round. An effort should be made to strengthen current events like First Night Wolfeboro, one of only two in the state, and perhaps add similar events like an Octoberfest or a folk festival.
Group participants also questioned whether parking should be allowed at the docks, which is prime space. It was suggests hours should be extended for shopping (evening hours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights in the season and having a sidewalk sale when events like the regatta are in town) and hours added to the Moonlight Madness shopping event. There should be different music and bands at Cate Park more nights, and perhaps a Tastes of Wolfeboro restaurant event.
Initiatives proposed to extend the season and develop a four season economy include expanding access to the lake. The Chamber and town worked with the snowmobile club to provide access to downtown from the lake this winter, but the effort was foiled by the warm winter. With winter access established a new winter event could be developed, such as a revival of "Fisherville."
The Jewel promotion mentioned earlier highlights events from all four seasons and the list of "101 Things to Do in Wolfeboro" includes every season.
During the discussion of this topic, Wibel, who is on the First Night Committee, noted that more businesses stayed open, and that the committee plans to start the evening events later, to end at 11:30 p.m., and add entertainment aimed at those in their 30s to 50s. A Lakes Region Dog Show was suggested.
Increase visitors/foot traffic
Focus group participants felt that there needs to be more to do a night during the season to increase foot traffic: with nothing to do they go elsewhere. It was noted that there are no public bathrooms north of the bridge, so visitors turn back ot use facilities and do not return to shops on North Main. Also an effort should be made to increase bus tours and to greet arriving buses with coupon books, guide and directions, perhaps using Kingswood students. A Buy Local initiative was also suggested so that residents will know what they can buy in town and what services are available. It was also felt that local businesses should have an orientation to know what other businesses in town have to offer so they can refer business. More attention to how the town looks to those entering should be given, from plantings to upgrading lights and streets. Directional signage was considered inadequate: there should information kiosks at the docks and railroad station, either electronic or manned by volunteers.
Initiatives to address these comments included the fact that the town is developing a directory/kiosk to be placed behind the Dockside Restaurant and at the Chamber office. The town is also upgrading faded signs and adding new wayfinding signs downtown. It was suggested that temporary restrooms be provide north of the bridge until permanent facilities could be planned and built.
The Chamber has an ongoing campaign to persuade downtown businesses to have employees park outside of downtown, in order to free up parking spaces: the expanded Glendon Street lot will help once it's finished. It has also held business-to-business familiarization tours in the past and is considering doing them again. It does such tours for other organizations interested in making Wolfeboro a destination.
Eaton commented that Molly the Trolley does such tours every year.
Another initiative suggested was a Business to Community Expo where businesses promote their services. Wibel said his company was planning to do one at the end of September.
The Chamber does greet buses it knows are coming and hands out brochures and could hand out coupons. It was suggested that the Mount Washington be greeted as well, since it is docking more frequently again.
Focus group participants said the perception is that the town does not provide "the right kind of atmosphere for new businesses." Issues cited included getting signage approvals and inconsistent code enforcement. The town approval process was considered burdensome, with no positive help in facilitating the process, though things are better than they were five years ago. Opening a business in town was considered "very difficult." Another complaint was that local contractors found it hard to get work on large projects, including the workforce housing project.
Initiative recommended included making the Town Planner available outside of town offices and developing a specific Code/Fire Enforcement checklist for each project submitted and reviewing the list with the applicant. There should also be clearer explanations of deficiencies cited. A one hour class for contractors on Code/Fire requirements was also recommended, along with urging town officials like the Town Manager to visit local businesses. It was also felt that there should be a preference in procurement by the town, however limited, for local suppliers and contractors. Contractors who bid should also be told the results of the bidding.
Finally it was suggested more business people should run for town offices.
Selectmen Linda Murray and Chuck Storm were present in the audience and listened carefully to the comments.
Business growth and diversity
Focus group members felt the need to explore and increase entrepreneurship in town, seeking out employers that bring benefits, good wages, and training and will help create the four season economy. Training should be offered to increase skills in software like Quickbooks, in providing good customer service and using social media like Constant Contact. More diversity in types of businesses were needed, focus group members felt: the focus should not be only on retail businesses. Also needed were businesses that attracted young people and kept them in the area. Finally it was difficult to buy everything needed locally.
Initiatives in this area included upgrading the Economic Development page on the town Web site to attract compatible businesses and adding business relocation information to the Chamber Web site. Also recommended were developing closer ties with the N.H. Department of Resources and Economic Development and the Mount Washington Valley Economic Council, adding more business-oriented classes to the Adult Education curriculum, and continuing to offer training classes in customer service and social media. An upcoming seminar will focus on wait staff training, including how to increase tip income by 10 to 20 percent.
Several suggestions were made during the discussion that followed of who would be ideal candidates to seek out to relocate in Wolfeboro. Wibel felt that a higher education facility would be ideal as well as white collar businesses like Liberty Mutual. Paul O'Brien felt that the best prospects for attracting businesses to Wolfeboro would be those that strengthened or built upon the town's largest employers (Huggins, Wolfeboro Bay Care in healthcare and Brewster and the Governor Wentworth Regional School District in education). Developing closer ties with UNH was also recommended.
Levin closed the session by thanking the facilitators who made the focus groups work, including Lakes Region SCORE Chapter 172, Paul O'Brien, Randy Walker and Tina Petrash. She also thanked Huggins, the Kingswood Youth Center and Wolfeboro Inn for making their facilities available for the sessions.