What brings the many thousands of visitors to Middlebury and Addison County this time of year? Of course Middlebury College is an important draw, but certainly less so in the summer compared with during the school year. Our iconic Vermont scenery; lakes, mountains, hiking trails, bikeways and farms are often the initial attraction, but when the visitor starts digging deeper in their planning they discover museums, orchards, shopping, theater, art, restaurants and inns, or perhaps a specific sporting event they want to attend or participate in. But how does this process work, and how has it changed over the years?
Often visitors’ initial search may involve local resources such as the Chamber of Commerce or Addison Independent’s website. Once the visitor has an idea of what they want to do, they may move on to a lodging or attraction website to further plan their itinerary.
Over the last five years, there has been an exponential increase in the number of visitors using what we in the industry call OTAs – online travel agencies. These sites take various forms whether it’s the traditional (Expedia, Booking, Orbitz), the less popular “opaque” sites (Priceline, Hotwire) and the increasingly influential “review” sites (Trip Advisor, Oyster). And these tools aren’t just for lodging, but increasingly give exposure to restaurants, attractions and museums.
And what about these review opportunities? How many times has that been the first thing you looked at when searching for a restaurant, hotel or attraction? All tourism businesses should go check their Google, Yelp and Trip Advisor reviews and start making this free exposure work for them. And why is this important in our small market that is Addison County? The travel world is increasingly global. No longer do visitors say “Let’s go to Middlebury, Vermont” but rather, “Where can we get a good deal within a half day’s drive for this weekend?”
As more of us in the local travel industry pay attention to this and work the system, the more visitors we will bring to our region to discover such gems as the Henry Sheldon Museum, Rokeby Museum, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum or UVM Morgan Horse Farm. They’ll try our great restaurants, stay in a quaint inn and then write a great review for each one of these. Every time a visitor goes through this process, they are inviting hundreds of visitors to Middlebury – the only catch is we want a great review. In my experience, the picture perfect town and the welcoming atmosphere of our community are just as important as the meal or quality of the mattress they slept on.