Vermont's New Tourism Commissioner Sees 'Huge Opportunity' Amid Challenges

Nov 22, 2019

Thirteen million visitors come to Vermont each year and spend $2.8 billion annually, according to the state's Department of Tourism. There's now a new leader of that department: Heather Pelham.

Pelham was officially named tourism and marketing commissioner by Gov. Phil Scott earlier this week. She has been the deputy commissioner of that department since March; prior to that, she was the state's top marketing officer.

Heather Pelham is the new commissioner of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing.
Credit Courtesy

Pelham spoke to VPR about some of the challenges facing the state's tourism sector. Find excerpts below, and listen to the conversation at the link above.

The Ski Industry

Consolidation is a major story in the ski industry right now. Several Vermont ski resorts have been bought by out-of-state conglomerates in recent years. Most recently, Sugarbush announced plans to sell to Alterra Mountain Company in January.

"We understand that individual properties and resorts will need to make business decisions that are the best fit for them," Pelham said.

Still, Pelham said, because 4 million people annually come to Vermont for its ski industry, there is a state interest in seeing that sector thrive.

"The resorts are working hard to continue to make investments so that they are creating year-round destinations for our travelers. And that's what's really most important to us," Pelham said. "The ski industry just has such a huge impact on the community, local communities, that anything that we can do to help support that industry is to the benefit of all of us."

Workforce Demands

Millions of visitors to the state each year means a lot of people to serve, but Vermont has both an aging workforce and low unemployment. To keep up with demand, ski resorts in particular have been bolstering benefit packages as a way to entice workers.

"We certainly hear from all areas of the state that workforce continues to be a big issue, not only in the ski industry but in other industries as well," Pelham said. "It's one of the reasons that the administration has really focused on any efforts that we can complete at the state level to increase those numbers."

Pelham said that she sees addressing such issues as "a huge opportunity."

"Stay to Stay" Program

The state's tourism department heads up a program called "Stay to Stay," which encourages tourists to consider moving to Vermont permanently.

"What we've noticed is that the same things that bring visitors to Vermont — you know, our incredible outdoor recreation, farm-to-table dining, our vibrant arts scene ... are the same things that attract new residents," Pelham said.

 

A group gathered at a Stay to Stay meet and greet event held at Rutland's Southside Steakhouse back in October 2018.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR File

Stay to Stay got its start as a pilot program in 2018, and Pelham noted that it connects those visitors "already here and enjoying our state" with networking opportunities and resources if they want to consider a permanent move.

"We really see it as a continuation of when people are able to experience Vermont that they might then consider making this their home," she said.

U.S.-Canada Relations

The dynamic between the U.S. and Canada has changed since President Donald Trump took office, and the border between the two countries has become somewhat more of a barrier than it once was.

Pelham said the state has observed "a slight decrease" in Canadians visiting Vermont, but she said the department aims to provide a positive experience for those who do visit.

"We're focusing on making sure that when visitors do come here that we can offer the most robust experiences," Pelham said, "so that they continue to come here despite any challenges that they might face."